Water, Water, Everywhere — What Can We do About It? — Part 3

Stephen DeAngelis

April 10, 2013

In the final segment of this three-part series, I want to discuss some of the technological breakthroughs that could help mitigate the predicted water crisis as well as some of strategies that have been recommended for dealing with the crisis. Before doing that, however, I thought a brief review of the problem would be in order. For Water Day 2013, the celebrated actor Matt Damon narrated a clever video on the subject. It takes less than three minutes to watch.

In Part 2 of a series of posts entitled “Let’s Talk Water,” I discussed a number of ideas that were being worked on including: obtaining drinking water from humidity in the air; managing drinking water systems by computer; finding and fixing leaks in existing water systems; cleaning sewage water with diamonds; more cost-effective ways of disposing of hazardous waste water; a bicycle-powered water pump; a low-cost safe water tester; and a student-designed Solarball that can be used to obtain safe drinking water. In Part 3 of that series, I discussed advances in desalination techniques. Desalination is particularly important because most of the world’s water is found in its oceans and a growing proportion of the world’s population lives along the coast.

“It’s been centuries since Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner lamented the undrinkable salty seas around him,” writes Alex Planes. “Today, it’s easier — but not necessarily easy — to get fresh water from the vast water reserves of the world’s oceans. Over 15,000 desalinization plants now operate throughout the world, but they produce less than 1% of the water the world consumes every day. Population growth and water scarcity often go hand in hand, so anything that could enhance the usefulness of desalinization efforts would be well-received everywhere.” [“This Tiny Innovation Is a Giant Leap Forward for Water Services,” The Motley Fool, 25 March 2013] The tiny device referred to in Plane’s headlines is a Lockheed Martin filter that “makes use of graphene, an atom-thin sheet of pure carbon that’s arranged in a hexagonal pattern.” The product is called Perforene. Planes continues:

“It’s 1,000 times stronger than steel but 100 times as permeable as competing membranes. However, that strength comes on a single-atom sheet, which is still going to be delicate when applied to industrial uses. Lockheed claims to be a year or two away from prototype testing, and by the time Perforene is ready for action there may be 107 million cubic meters of desalinization capacity already at work around the world. That’s a doubling of capacity from 2008, and an estimated $64 billion will be spent on this capacity growth. If Perforene can provide the same functionality at a fraction of the energy cost, it’s quite feasible to expect the next decade of desalinization build-out to be far more intense. If Perforene proves effective, it might lead to the development of smaller, more distributed desalinization machinery for the developing world.”

Professor Nidal Hilal, the director of the Centre for Water Advanced Technologies and Environmental Research (CWATER) at Swansea University, states, “Basically we are taking too much water from water resources, and tapping into the sea is the only option available to address such water shortages. Desalination of sea water increasingly proves to be the most practical – and in many cases the only – solution for many countries across the globe.” [“Nano-water technology could be key to relieving water shortages, claims Swansea University expert,” WalesOnline, 4 April 2013] Making sea water potable would go a long way towards mitigating potential coastal water shortages. Planes goes on to note that more effective filtration is not just important for desalination. Better filtration systems could also make wastewater treatment more effective and less costly.

Access to clean water, as mentioned in the first segment of this series and in the video above, is important if populations are going to remain healthy. To underscore this point, The Wall Street Journal awarded its top prize in the 2010 Asian Innovation Awards to “an inexpensive water purifier aimed at households that may not have electricity.” [“Tata Water Purifier Wins the Top Prize for Novel Product,” by Andrew Lavellee and Emily Veach, 25 October 2010] Another device designed for households without access to power is being developed in Morocco. “In the Sahara, nomads are among those suffering most from limited access to water, particularly during the hotter periods when rising salt levels in water drawn from wells make it undrinkable.” [“Desert nomads marvel at water purifying device,” MySinchew.com, 8 April 2013] The device, called the “waterpod,” is being developed by “Alain Thibault, an ex-sailor who had to confront the issue of fresh water shortages at sea.” The article continues:

“The device, which resembles a large letter box, currently costs around 500 euros ($650). But the inventors have already given courses at a college in Tiznit, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, to teach students how to produce them more cheaply. ‘ The waterpod is made of wood, cork, stainless steel and glass,’ said Thierry Mauboussin, who is helping to promote the water project in Morocco. … The waterpod … can produce six litres of pure water daily from 12 litres of brackish water, according to its creators. They give it an estimated lifespan of 20 to 40 years, with just a daily clean needed to keep it in good condition.”

If you want big breakthroughs in water usage, you have to look to the agricultural sector. Globally, 70 percent of all water consumption is involved with agriculture. The next largest sector is industry (20%). Domestic consumption accounts for only 10% of the total. One suggestion that has been made is to raise more food in so-called “vertical farms.” A vertical farm is one contained in a highrise building. There are technological challenges associated with urban farms, but one of the up-sides of such farms is that they can use water much more efficiently and effectively than traditional farms. In fact, much of the required water can be treated wastewater that is often dumped into rivers or directly into the ocean. That creates a real win-win situation. Like it or not, some form of recycling must be adopted if the water shortage crisis is to be mitigated. The following video provides a good overview of the vertical farming concept. You can also learn more on the website The Vertical Farm.

Even if vertical farms do flourish, traditional farms, gardens, and ranches won’t disappear. In fact, in developing parts of the world, traditional methods are likely to be used for foreseeable future. Fostering better water usage in these traditional settings is an area where research is continuing and some progress is being made. Techniques like “subsurface drip irrigation systems minimize the amount of water lost due to evaporation and runoff. … Rainfall harvesting, efficient irrigation water transport, and use of reclaimed water can also lead to more efficient agricultural water use.” [“4 Agricultural Practices and Technologies to Reduce Water Impacts,” Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States, Water Science and Technology Board, 2008]

A number of strategies have been recommended for dealing with the coming water shortage. Some of those strategies were discussed by a panel of experts assembled by Bloomberg Businessweek Chairman Norman Pearlstine. [“How the Experts Would Fix the Water Supply,” Bloomberg Businessweek, 21 March 2013] The experts included: Ahmet Bozer, President, Coca-Cola International (KO); Jae So, Manager, World Bank Water and Sanitation Program; Carlos Riva, CEO, Poseidon Water; Thomas Powers, Commissioner of Water Management, Chicago; and Jeff Sterba, President and CEO, American Water (AWK).

Jeff Sterba believes that the most important strategy to pursue is “increasing efficiency of [water] use.” Carlos Riva believes that more has to be done in the area of desalination. Ahmet Bozer discussed one the technologies mentioned above — harvesting rainwater. “India is a perfect example,” he stated. “When you have the monsoon season, so much water comes and gets wasted. So how do we fulfill our commitment of returning the amount of water we use back to nature? A rainwater harvesting system. Now these systems don’t cost too much. And we’ve actually placed somewhere around 500 of them. And that water is stewarded back underground, and you’re replenishing the sources. So maybe there are emerging-market solutions that can also be applied to developing markets.” Too many people still think in terms of large water distribution systems. I suspect that the developing world will leapfrog large grid systems (like it did when it leapfrogged landline telephone grids and adopted mobile phone systems) and rely on local water solutions. Such solutions will be cheaper to build, use, and maintain.

That doesn’t mean, however, that large water systems will disappear. Thomas Powers talked about the leakage problem associated with aging water systems. The United Nations estimates that between 66-132 billion gallons of drinking water leaks from the supply systems in many mega cities each year. Powers reported that Chicago is replacing old pipes. “With our new program, over the next decade, we’re going to replace nearly 1,000 miles of water main. And just in doing that,” he state, “we conservatively estimate that we’ll be able to provide enough water for an additional 400,000 residents.”

Jae So believes that putting more data in the hands of consumers could make a big difference. “We’ve been talking about how we’re going to manage the supply and the service of water,” she stated. “But there’s a huge amount that we can do in managing customer demand. Just having information, like how much water you use, can be a big signal. Customers will actually look at that. And then there are information campaigns teaching people the value of water.” Riva agrees that people need to start appreciating (and paying for) the value of water. “If you really want to have efficient use,” he stated, “you need to align the pricing to the value of the usage.” Sterba also agreed. “By and large, in the U.S. people don’t pay for water,” he stated. “They pay for a delivery of it and cleaning of it, but the molecule is generally provided at no cost. Because the federal government isn’t going to be giving money out as it used to and states are in financial hardship, the communities are going to have to find other ways to raise capital. So I think prices will continue to move up.”

The rising cost of water is likely to cause enormous angst around the world; but, “the obvious solution, at least to economists, is: if water has become a scarce good then it needs an appropriate price to properly allocate it.” [“Can the World Afford Cheap Water?” by David Biello, Scientific American, 29 March 2013] Obviously, it will be the implementation of a combination of all these strategies that eventually helps mitigate the water crisis. Peoples’ lives are going to change as a result. Some of the changes will be for the better and others will likely be unwelcomed. In the end, however, people understand that without water there is no life.