An acute shortage of water, combined with unrestrained sprawl and a stubborn refusal to consider water restrictions, has earned Phoenix, Arizona, now the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., the label of the world’s least sustainable city.
Behind the lush vegetation and ponds, the problem is already acute. It’s being aggravated by climate change. Social inequalities already abound, and The Guardian reports that major new expansions are in the works—including a proposed 80,000-home “smart city” development that recently received a US$80-million investment boost from tech entrepreneur Bill Gates.
“There are plans for substantial further growth and there just isn’t the water to support that,” said climate researcher Jonathan Overpeck, who co-authored a 2017 report connecting declining flows in the Colorado River to climate change. “The Phoenix metro area is on the cusp of being dangerously overextended. It’s the urban bull’s eye for global warming in North America.”
That’s because “Phoenix gets less than eight inches of rainfall each year,” The Guardian explains. “Most of the water supply for central and southern Arizona is pumped from Lake Mead, fed by the Colorado River over 300 miles away.” But “that river is drying up. This winter, snow in the Rocky Mountains, which feeds the Colorado, was 70% lower than average. Last month, the U.S. government calculated that two-thirds of Arizona is currently facing severe to extreme drought.”
And meanwhile, “last summer, 50 flights were grounded at Phoenix airport because the heat—which hit 47°C (116°F)—made the air too thin to take off safely. The ‘heat island’ effect keeps temperatures in Phoenix above 37°C (98°F) at night in summer.”
But even with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projecting that Phoenix will see droughts of at least five years every decade over the next 50 years, the city won’t consider water restrictions and Arizona has no official drought contingency plan. “There’s an enormous fight over all this,” said Jim Holway, vice president of the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. “Climate change is having an impact but that’s a controversial, unsettled issue in the western U.S.”
The title of world’s least sustainable city was bestowed on Phoenix in 2011 by New York University sociologist Andrew Ross, who said he stands by the description. He also sees the city settling into a form of “eco-apartheid”, The Guardian notes, “whereby low-income neighbourhoods on the more polluted south side of the Salt River (which once flowed vigorously through the city and is now a trickle) are less able to protect themselves from the heat and drought than wealthier citizens.”
“There’s a stark disparity,” Ross said. “The resource havens, with their hybrid cars, their solar panels, and other green gizmos; and the folks on the other side struggling to breathe clean air and drink uncontaminated water. It’s a prediction of where the world is headed.”
U.S. Sierra Club Arizona Director Sandy Bahr said Phoenix is an extreme example of U.S. cities that were designed to consume more resources than they need. “There is overconsumption and a disposable mentality,” she said. “Our waste is taken to remote landfill sites, the cities are designed for cars, and sprawl is the norm.”