Will 7 Billion People Make Us Smarten Up About Water? A Look at Technology, Supplies, and Politics


china population water photo

Photo by ernop via Flickr Creative Commons

This year, we're going to hit a human population of 7 billion. Yet already 1.1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, 2.6 billion people lack adequate sanitation, and 1.8 million people die every year from waterborne diarrhoeal diseases. Those are not encouraging numbers as the counter ticks up. Population is four times more important than climate change when it comes to water shortages. We are already seeing the effects of shortages around the world, particularly in India and China where populations soar alongside economic growth, as well as in Africa where technologies lag behind. But even in the US, one third of our counties are at high risk for water shortages, if they aren't experiencing them already -- some experts argue we already passed peak water in the US years ago. Where do we stand with our water supplies today, and what needs to change to ensure a future with clean water for everyone?

We're taking a look at the technology, infrastructure and cultural changes that influence our water supplies.

water pipes photo

Photo by striatic via Flickr Creative Commons

How Technology Helps Relieve Water Crunches

When it comes to managing water, technology proves itself supremely useful. From generating to purifying to managing supplies, there are several key areas where we need technology to help us greatly improve how much we have, and how we use it.

Desalination is a controversial technology and rightfully so -- it has some real problems, stemming primarily from large amounts of energy needed to make fresh water, the misuse of desalination technologies, and the environmental impacts of sucking in sea water and spitting out brine into the marine habitat. However, the technology is still getting major attention as human populations rise and water supplies tighten.

The US is one of the top five markets for desalination spending, especially on the west coast where California's agricultural industry is reliant on ever-diminishing sources like the strained Colorado River and Sierra Snow packs. Globally, spending on desalination technologies is on the rise, and more and more companies are working to solve problems like excess energy use.

For example, a desalination plant opened in Sand City, California uses energy recovery technology to offset their electricity use. Investments in technology like this and other improvements to make desalination a financially viable and environmentally responsible technology is going to get big -- in fact, the industry is set to see about ">$878 billion in investments over the next few years.

Smart Meters and Tech-y Management
The importance of smart meter technology for our water supplies can't be understated. Like the smart grid for electricity, a smart water grid includes the meters, infrastructure and software that provide real-time data on water use to consumers and utilities. It's a collection of tools that allow consumers and utilities to see and interpret information about water use.

Smart water technologies is set to be a $16 billion dollar market over the next few years as companies and government agencies realize the importance of monitoring and managing water footprints. Companies like IBM are already latching on to how smart technologies can help them reduce their water consumption as much as possible, and are helping to fuel new innovation among students. And a handful of cities are already installing smart water meters, though we need countless more to catch on.

3d map water arsenic image

Image via EWAG
Locating and Mapping Water Supplies
Where exactly are water supplies, and how much fresh water is on the planet, or left in aquifers? We really have no idea, but we're getting there. New technology to help locate and map water supplies help us on two levels. First, we'd be able to know how much we have and therefore ration better. Recently, scientists at University of British Columbia created a global map that provides one of the most thorough looks we have at how fluid flows through Earth's various surfaces. Mapping technologies like these go a long way in helping us understand where our fresh water supplies are, how they're replenished, and eventually, how much we have left.

Secondly, new water mapping technology helps us understand what kind of contaminates we're up against and what current practices are going to harm water supplies. A study was recently released about water wells in southeast Asia contaminated with arsenic. It detailed how drilling deeper wells was speeding up contamination of groundwater supplies, and it provided the first 3D groundwater map which can help researchers show where water supplies are safe for drinking, and where water purification is needed. Not only that, but the study also illustrated how overtaxing water supplies and drilling ever deeper into the groundwater table can spell disaster.

As more people rely on particular water sources, being acutely aware of the quality is vital. Which brings us to purification technologies.

Technologies to purify water are moving along at a steady pace. However, where it is most important is underdeveloped areas like sub-Saharan Africa where water infrastructure and sanitation is practically nonexistent and waterborne diseases run rampant. Yet it is here where the cost of purification technologies is one of the biggest inhibitors of wide distribution. With 7 billion people on the planet, and most of them in low-income areas, smart, cheap and convenient ways of purifying water is an absolute must.

Over the last few years, we've seen some clever ideas, including the Lifestraw, which is a personal-sized water filter system, and the Hippo Roller, which solves the problem of transporting water over long distances. An invention that sort of combines the two concepts is the Aquaduct, a bike that filters water while you pedal. While the Lifestraw and the Hippo Roller are both already being used in the field, there is a dearth of other concepts dreamed up on a nearly daily basis by designers for providing cheap, simple water filtration and purification. The ideas are great, but putting it into practice is the hard part, and we're lagging behind as the number of people who need such technology climbs higher. Figuring out solid solutions to water purification must get a high priority among researchers and governments if access to clean drinking water is really considered a basic human right.

Better Infrastructure for Water Treatment
The US wastes 1.7 trillion gallons of water every year just through leaks and issues with our aging water infrastructure. According to a report released last November by ITT Corp, we have 650 water main breaks every day, and the American Society of Civil Engineers states that leaky pipes alone result in 7 billion gallons of clean drinking water lost every single day. Clearly, our infrastructure is a huge problem.

Wastewater treatment is one of the main areas where we could use an upgrade, or in some cases, a downgrade. Wastewater treatment plants use a significant amount of energy to clean water, and they can also be a burden on the environment when effluent escapes during storms or through leaks. However, techy solutions are on the way. For example, researchers at Stanford University came up with a smart way to cut the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment by taking advantage of the nitrous oxide (aka, "laughing gas") and methane created during treatment for powering the facilities.

The Poo-Gloo on the other hand, is a low-tech improvement that can save tons of money for smaller scale wastewater treatment facilities. By providing a better environment for microbes and bacteria that eat away the pollutants in wastewater, the poo-gloos are a simple solution for many municipalities. For areas that need major improvements in wastewater treatment to reduce pollution in the water supplies, these smart advances are quite exciting.

no privatization photo

Image by Keith Bacongco via Flickr Creative Commons

The Culture and Politics of Water Conservation

Water as a Human Right and Privatization
Last year, the UN declared water a fundamental human right. Because no human can survive more than a few days without it, it is amazing to think that it wasn't universally considered one before a declaration made it so -- and that access to water is a weapon used by governments against peoples. Still, even though we all must recognize water as a basic right, it is up to individual governments to decide how they want to distribute water to their citizens. This means not a lot will necessarily change very rapidly, but it will change. And with that change, comes concerns about privatization.

Privatizing water means that corporations can participate in owning and providing water and sanitation services, and sometimes even water resources themselves. This is a big concern to water activists, who recognize the ability of a corporation to abuse its power over such a vital resource.

As we reported on Planet Green, "There is a widespread concern among activists like Vandana Shiva and Maude Barlow over increasing corporate control of water resources around the world, and it is not clear how the UN resolution will play out in local management of resources. [Ned Breslin from Water for People] is less concerned about corporations going overseas looking to buy control of water--he thinks water companies have realized not much money is to be made in doing that, and they are more interested in management contracts than outright ownership--but the bigger question might be allocation of water resources, which until now has been sort of a free-for-all."

Breslin states that the UN's declaration of water as a basic human right will "force countries to deal with the allocation of scarce resources. They will really have to make hard decisions between household supplies, industry, and tourism--and it's a really overdue debate."

Already, many areas across the US are dealing with water privatization issues as local governments struggle to juggle budgets and resources. For instance, last summer we heard that San Jose, California is considering privatizing its municipal water system, a system that provides drinking water to 124,000 people, in order to help balance it's budget. The city would make a profit, but citizens could end up paying as much as 29% more for water.

The cost of water is no small issue. On the one hand, water as a basic human right means it should be affordable for everyone, no matter their income level or location from water sources. But on the other hand, water is one of the most terribly under-priced commodities on earth, and true cost is part of ensuring sustainable use.

With 7 billion people all needing water, yet all at varying degrees of proximity to sustainable water sources, technologies, infrastructure systems and income levels for affording clean water, the issue of reasonable pricing will be ranked up there with installing appropriate technologies for distribution.

rainbarrel photo

Photo by gilintx via Flickr Creative Commons
Rainwater Catchment
Rainwater catchment is catching on, especially in the western united states, as a way to gather as much water as possible when it is available since groundwater supplies are already overtaxed. However, this is a contentious topic in areas like Colorado. Some groups feel that allowing people to catch and store rainwater depletes how much of that rain is going into the groundwater system, and is therefore an infringement on their water rights. Other groups argue that catching rainwater is a burden to the environment, since we need that water to return to the groundwater table as part of the natural cycle and health of local ecosystems.

While some areas are still hashing it out, other areas like California are trying to make it easier to use rainwater wherever we can. From proposals of LA having mandatory rainwater harvesting laws to the possibility of allowing residents to use rainwater for both outdoor and indoor use, the state is doing all it can to make what little rainfall it gets go the distance among residents.

Measuring Water Footprints
We're only just beginning to realize on a large scale the importance of water footprints. Just as with carbon footprints, measuring how much water we're using and where we're using it will help us conserve what little we have and make the most out of what we do use. For example, most of us would assume that the bulk of water running into California is used on the agriculture industry, but little do we realize that California's oil industry is also a massive water suck. Measuring water footprints on a personal, commercial, industrial, local, state, and national level is a must.

With 67% of the worlds fresh water supplies directed into agriculture, and with 7 billion mouths to feed, agriculture is under the gun. So this is a key place to start. Many engineers and entrepreneurs are working on smart ways to improve agricultural irrigation systems to minimize water use, from improved drip irrigation techniques to using cell phones and sensors to keep farmers alerted to areas of their crops that need water or are over watered. There is no denying that politics is the 800 pound gorilla in the room when it comes to agricultural water use, and that changes must happen in regulations and economics -- and there are brilliant people working to revise systems in this area as well. But technology most certainly has its place in helping farmers improve how far they make their water stretch.

Across the globe, we simply do not track carefully enough how and where our water is used, and where it goes -- and this is the basis of politics around water. Understanding and utilizing water footprints could go a long way in minimizing conflicts over water rights, as well as begin the path toward sustainable use.

Climate Change, Rising Sea Levels, Dealing with Refugees
As is the case with several of these topics, this is a whole other post all on its own. But the issue of refugees and rising sea levels must at least be touched on when talking about fresh water supplies.

First off, rising sea levels do indeed threaten water supplies of coastal residents, as we are seeing with the east coast. The fresh water supplies are contaminated with salt water as tides creep farther inland. Secondly, climate refugees include people along coastlines, whose homes are overtaken by the rising sea, as well as those who just flat out lose their water supplies through desertification, exhausting the existing supplies, or for numerous other reasons. But those refugees still need water wherever they move to, which means other local supplies are put under even more pressure.

How might we balance the distribution of people and the distribution of fresh water as the locations of whole populations of people change as we adapt to a shifting planet? Where can populations of climate refugees go where they can find both a safe, stable home and the resources they need to thrive, like water? These are huge questions that even experts attending World Water Forums have trouble addressing.

india water photo

Photo by makaysavage via Flickr Creative Commons

Will 7 Billion Make Us Smarten Up About Water?

When it comes to water, so far we haven't shown ourselves to be the most brilliant of creatures. We think we can ship it all over the world and somehow call that a solution to water issues. Or we think we can just import the goods we can't make or grow ourselves for lack of water, and not consider the footprint. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 2010, only about 0.3% of the fresh water on the planet is in lakes and rivers (our primary source of daily-use water) and checking in with any river advocate group will tell us that most of the world's rivers are in extremely bad shape, either being overused, or so polluted they're unfit for use.

But while we do some silly things, we're ultimately very smart beings. Only about 2.5% of the planet's water is fresh, and most of that is inaccessible. Hitting a population of seven billion should be a wake up call that we have a whole lot of people and not a lot of water, which means a massive shift in how we deal with this resource. We can. And we have to.

Check out this video from National Geographic that puts the concept of 7 billion people in perspective:

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
More on Fresh Water Supplies
Groundwater Overuse Hitting All-Time Highs, Future Supplies Hitting Lows
Study Shows Haves and Have-Nots in World Water Supply
What the Water Crisis Really Means for You and the Planet
WaterLife Documents the Incredible Story of the Last Big Fresh Water Supply, the Great Lakes

Will 7 Billion People Make Us Smarten Up About Water? A Look at Technology, Supplies, and Politics
Photo by ernop via Flickr Creative Commons

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