Let’s Talk Water, Part 1

Stephen DeAngelis

June 29, 2011

With all of the recent flooding in the United States, shortages of water may seem like a strange subject with which to be concerned. As we all know, however, like other resources, fresh water is not evenly distributed across the globe. At the same it may be flooding in mid-America, parts of Africa may be in a severe drought. Overall, however, water shortages are going to become more prevalent in the decades ahead. Those shortages will not only affect how we live our personal lives but they will also affect every industrial sector as well. Why do I think that there could be shortages? Despite the endless debates about the cause of climate change, we know that glacial ice, which many parts of the world depend on as a source of fresh water, is not being replenished. An equally important source of fresh water, water found under the ground, is also being depleted faster than it can be replenished. When water is scarce, crisis is always nearby. To avert these crises, good policies, competent science, and innovative technology are going to have work together.

Scientists are now able to use satellites to help “identify trouble spots around the globe where people are making unsustainable demands on groundwater.” [“Groundwater Depletion Is Detected From Space,” by Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, 30 May 2011] Barringer notes that “even as the data signals looming shortages,” policymakers are failing to act. Denial is always easier than making decisions. But this is one problem that is not going to go away. Water disputes have flared between a number of regions in the U.S., China, and India, and their resolution has not proven easy. Such disputes become infinitely more difficult when they are international. As Barringer reports, “In arid regions around the world where groundwater basins are often shared by unfriendly neighbors — India and Pakistan, Tunisia and Libya or Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories — [they] are prone to suspecting one another of excessive use of this shared resource.” The Economist describes the situation this way:

“Aquifers are falling, glaciers vanishing, reservoirs drying up and rivers no longer flowing to the sea. Climate change threatens to make the problems worse. Everyone must use less water if famine, pestilence and mass migration are not to sweep the globe. As it is, wars are about to break out between countries squabbling over dams and rivers. If the apocalypse is still a little way off, it is only because the four horsemen and their steeds have stopped to search for something to drink. The language is often overblown, and the remedies sometimes ill conceived, but the basic message is not wrong. Water is indeed scarce in many places, and will grow scarcer. Bringing supply and demand into equilibrium will be painful, and political disputes may increase in number and intensify in their capacity to cause trouble. To carry on with present practices would indeed be to invite disaster.” [“For want of a drink,” 20 May 2010]

I first started discussing this subject nearly four years ago in a post entitled: The Coming Water Wars? I concluded, “Like other global problems, dealing with water control, collection and distribution is going to take global leadership, global vision, and global solutions.” Unfortunately, that sounds more like a recipe for inaction than action. In another article from its special report on water, The Economist asks, “Can the world solve its water problems?” It answers: “There is no reason in logic, physics or hydrogeology why it should not be able to do so.” The real question is: “Will the world solve its water problems?” On that score, the magazine is not so certain. “Most of the obstacles are political,” it claims, “although some are cultural, and none is helped by water’s astonishing ability to repel or defy economic analysis.” [“A glass half empty,” 20 May 2010]

At the moment, I would also say that one of the problems is economics. With many countries around the world trying to control their deficits, the money for solving water problems is not likely to be forthcoming — and the price tag is staggering. “Analysts at Booz Allen Hamilton tried in 2007 to estimate how much investment would be needed in water infrastructure to modernise obsolescent systems and meet expanding demand between 2005 and 2030. Their figure for the United States and Canada was $6.5 trillion. For the world as a whole, they reckoned $22.6 trillion.” The Economist identifies just a few of projects that need to be undertaken:

“Flood protection demands embankments, or dams, or protected flood plains, or houses that rise and fall with the waters. Short rainy seasons demand water storage, ideally in places where evaporation is low. Human health demands clean water, and perhaps mosquito nets, and soap. Flourishing ecosystems require pollution control.”

The short of it is that humans require water to live and the economy requires water to thrive. If the cost of doing something is high, the cost of doing nothing is even higher. Without clean water people get sick, and, with the cost of healthcare rising, prevention in the form of clean water is clearly preferable to having to pay for the cure. Clean water is required for drinking, cooking, and hygiene. Water is also generally required for sanitation systems that can adequately deal with human waste. As more and more humans populate the earth, the demand for water will only grow making it a precious if not scarce commodity. When a scarcity occurs, there is normally money to be made. That is why savvy investors are looking for companies that build, support, or operate systems that deal with water-related issues. [“Thirst for ‘blue gold’ set to grow,” by Chris Newlands, Financial Times, 7 June 2010] Matt Dickerson, chief marketing officer at Summit Global Management, told Newlands, “Hydro commerce will undoubtedly remain one of the world’s most vital industries.”

Because water is required for agriculture and manufacturing, public/private enterprises are likely to spring up to meet some of the infrastructure challenges mentioned earlier. Besides the obvious profit motive, why should companies care about clean water? On the individual level, companies and agricultural groups have an interest in maintaining a healthy workforce. Healthy populations require clean water. On the company level, they need to ensure that they have access to water to meet their production requirements. This is a particularly critical issue for countries with strong agricultural sectors. The Economist reports:

“In Britain, … farming takes only 3% of all water withdrawals. In the United States, by contrast, 41% goes for agriculture, almost all of it for irrigation. In China farming takes nearly 70%, and in India nearer 90%. For the world as a whole, agriculture accounts for almost 70%.” [“For want of a drink,” 20 May 2010]

In another article, The Economist uses even stronger arguments:

“Of all the activities that need water, far and away the thirstiest is farming. Cut the use of irrigation water by 10%, it is said, and you would save more than is lost in evaporation by all other consumers. Yet farming is crucial. Not only does it provide the food that all mankind requires, but it is also a great engine of economic growth for the three-quarters of the world’s poor who live in the countryside. Without water they may return to pastoralism—as some people already have in parts of the Sahel in Africa—or migrate, or starve. With water, they may fight their way out of poverty.” [“Making farmers matter,” 20 May 2010]

There are solutions that can help reduce water use without crippling agriculture. Several years ago, Andrew Martin reported that technology could help the desert bloom profitably. [“Mideast Facing Choice Between Crops and Water,” New York Times, 21 July 2008]. He wrote:

“For example, Doron Ovits, … runs a 150-acre tomato and pepper empire in the Negev Desert of Israel. His plants, grown in greenhouses with elaborate trellises and then exported to Europe, are irrigated with treated sewer water that he says is so pure he has to add minerals back. The water is pumped through drip irrigation lines covered tightly with black plastic to prevent evaporation. A pumping station outside each greenhouse is equipped with a computer that tracks how much water and fertilizer is used; Mr. Ovits keeps tabs from his desktop computer. ‘With drip irrigation, you save money. It’s more precise,’ he said. ‘You can’t run it like a peasant, a farmer. You have to run it like a businessman.’ Israel is as obsessed with water as Mr. Ovits is. It was there, in the 1950s, that an engineer invented modern drip irrigation, which saves water and fertilizer by feeding it, drop by drop, to a plant’s roots. Since then, Israel has become the world’s leader in maximizing agricultural output per drop of water, and many believe that it serves as a viable model for other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Turning famine plagued countries into breadbasket countries would be a modern miracle. The experiences in Israel prove that it is possible — if expensive. The combination of drip irrigation and increased availability of water coming from desalination (discussed in Part 3 of this series) and treated waste water plants provides some hope. Some these sources of water can also help the industrial sector. As The Economist states, “Industry, too, needs water.” [“For want of a drink,” 20 May 2010] The article explains:

“[Industry] takes about 22% of the world’s withdrawals. Domestic activities take the other 8%. Together, the demands of these two categories quadrupled in the second half of the 20th century, growing twice as fast as those of farming, and forecasters see nothing but further increases in demand on all fronts.”

Handled incorrectly, industrial water use can become a nightmare for companies. Coca-Cola’s experience in India is just one example. The company was accused of depleting groundwater supplies across India. Although it denied the allegations, those denials couldn’t counter the bad publicity. [“Coca-Cola Charged with Groundwater Depletion and Pollution in India,” About.com] The last thing you want to hear from members of the public is, “Drinking Coke is like drinking farmer’s blood in India.” It’s also the last thing that investors in a company want to hear. To help investors be more informed on the subject of corporate water use, the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) recently launched a program on water use. [“Corporate use comes under the spotlight,” by Sarah Murray, Financial Times, 4 June 2010]. Murray writes:

“CDP … acts as an intermediary between investors and companies. … For investors that sign up to the water initiative, the motivation will be similar to that of wanting greater disclosure on carbon emissions – the need to understand how resource constraints will affect the companies in which they invest. … Companies are asked about management and governance of water. Does the business have a water strategy, for example, or management plan with targets for consumption? Companies can also report on risks and opportunities relating to water use. This might include any physical or regulatory constraints that would negatively affect operations. Constraints may be experienced not only in terms of quantity – quality of water is also critical, as pollution could prevent companies from using the local supply. Conversely, there might be opportunities for companies to save money by reducing consumption in their production processes or recycling. Indirect water use is covered, too, as some companies make products that may not be water-intensive in manufacture but become so in use – shampoos and detergents fall into this category.”

Marcus Norton, head of the water initiative at CDP, told Murray, “Water is a new subject to many companies.” Murray continues:

“The CDP is following a more targeted strategy in this initiative, only approaching businesses for whom water is a material risk to their operations and profitability. Companies being contacted therefore include those in sectors such as food and beverages, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, mining, paper and semiconductor manufacturing, while those in the financial sector are not being asked to participate.”

Murray notes that “measuring the impact of water use differs significantly from assessing carbon emissions.” The important word in that statement is “impact.” In places like Scotland, which is blessed with plenty of rainfall and deep freshwater lochs, using a gallon of water has nowhere near the impact as does consuming a gallon of water arid regions of the world. As a result, Norton told Murray that context is important when making impact statements. If Indian groundwater levels were not being depleted, Coca-Cola would never have been confronted about its water use. The other important issue related to water is quality. Murray explains:

“Assessments need to account for the quality of water when it is extracted, and the condition in which it is returned to the system. Accordingly, helping to accelerate standardisation of water reporting is part of CDP’s mission, as is raising awareness of the need for standardisation.”

The bottom line is that water is important for most human activities. Without an adequate supply it, people can die and economies can collapse. In the next segment in this series, I’ll discuss a number of innovations that have been developed to help meet the challenge of providing potable water for humans and/or useable water for agriculture and manufacturing. In the final segment, I’ll discuss recent advances in desalination.