What Do We Do About Water?

What Do We Do About Water?Water.
The old buzz: "Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink."
The new buzz: "Water is the next carbon." Meaning that as business and society are beginning to get into serious gear about carbon emissions and climate change (or at least beginning to make serious noise about doing so), there’s a growing realization that there may be a cascade of crises patiently waiting to mash themselves into our consciousness the moment we come up for air from the carbon crisis.

What’s the problem?

Rising populations, coupled with industrialization and urbanization, have driven up water demand through the world. Most of the world’s leading grain producing countries are already in water deficit — and demand is still rising.

Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water; only 0.3% of that is surface water. Thirty percent is in ground water, which is being treated like a fossil resource and being mined faster than it is replenished. In addition to quantity, there’s the matter of quality. We need clean water, and most people alive today don’t remember a time when it was safe to drink from rivers and streams. Industry needs clean water too.

And then there’s energy. It takes energy to move, heat, cool and treat water — about 19% of California’s electricity budget, for example. And it takes water to create energy — to cool power plants, etc. In fact, during the heat wave of 2006, France had to power down several nuclear reactors because river water was too warm to effectively cool the plants. And, of course, there’s the potential impact of climate change on both water supply and demand. Oh what a tangled web we weave…

But there’s a critical difference between energy and water. We can substitute our way out of the energy crisis. Petroleum may be dense and convenient, but we don’t have a committed relationship with it. As soon as another energy source does the job better and cheaper, its “sayonara Saudis.” The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, Sheikh Zaki Yamani wisely observed, and the petroleum age won’t end because we ran out of oil.

But we can’t substitute our way out of the water crisis. Water is the stuff of life, and there is an irreducible minimum below which life is not sustained. So we have to get smart about water.

What are the solutions?

The basic answer is “doing more with less,” as Bucky Fuller was fond of saying. Water efficiency — and even radical water efficiency — is in our futures, and we’ll achieve it in three ways. Let me summarize them: sexiest first, most profitable last.

Technology is the most exciting option, since we’re both dazzled by cool new things and organized around making money from them. The catalog here is diverse. It includes low flow fixtures like faucets (down from 2.2 gallons per minute just a few years ago to 1.2 gpm today) and toilets (down from 1.6 gallons per flush to 1.28) and waterless toilets (like the urinals you’re starting to see in office buildings that save 40,000 gallons per year each, at a return on investment (ROI) of 14% per year). (As always, your mileage may vary.) It includes hyper-efficient pumps and motors like the turbines and impellers from the Pax Group, inspired by nautilus shells and other biological solutions; and low energy filtration technology using carbon nanotubes, which will pass water molecules — but not viruses, bacteria, toxic metal ions, and large noxious organic molecules — through their smooth, water-repellent interiors.

But as with the reduce/reuse/recycle hierarchy in waste management, this is the third step in the process, since investment will be more productive if there’s a smaller flow for it to manage.

The second major lever: pricing. As with many key resources, prices are often distorted by policies, whether they be historic legacies or decisions to suppress prices to expand access (incorrectly priced resources incent people to overuse.) Conversely, lifeline rates can provide access to basic supplies at a modest price, while escalating rates for higher usage tiers provides incentive to efficiency. Watch for both variable water pricing and challenges to historic water subsidies.

Behavior change, the third lever, is both the easiest — because it requires no investment, no complex change in infrastructure, no lag time — and the hardest — because it depends on people changing habits. It’s also the least glamorous. It’s as simple as not running the water when you brush your teeth or wash the dishes; not over-watering your lawn; or (a bit harder) encouraging your employees to notice and change how they clean a production line.

Water utilities around the world are investing heavily in efficiency technology and education, because they find it a much more economically effective investment than building new supply infrastructures.

Finally, some of the most interesting technology doesn’t fit in the normal “clean tech” taxonomy, since it’s more about systems and processes than things. My favorites example is the TREES program in Los Angeles. LA’s rainfall would deliver half its water budget, but 75% of LA is paved, so most of that rain runs off to the sea — and at that, only after running through, and burdening, the city’s water treatment plans. The TREES uses technologies — from permeable paving that captures rainfall to forestation programs that provide massive water storage in the root zone of trees — that mimic the "sponge and filter" function of trees, and demonstrates the feasibility of retrofitting a city to function as an urban forest watershed. The program has already saved the city $200m — and according to projections, it will cut water imports by up to 50%, create up to 50,000 jobs, remove the 100 year flood threat on the L.A. River, and eliminate the need for a $4 billion treatment plant.

Now that’s cool refreshing technology!

Gil Friend, president & CEO of Natural Logic Inc, is a noted thought leader on sustainable business, with more than 37 years of experience and clients including Agilent Technologies, Dean Foods, Hewlett Packard and Levi Straus & Co, Nike and Sun MicroSystems. He blogs at http://blogs.natlogic.com/friend/, has written more than 100 articles, contributed chapters to several books, and is the author of the forthcoming books: The Truth About Green Business (FT Press) and Risk, Fiduciary Responsibility and the Laws of Nature. He holds an MS in Systems Ecology from Antioch University, a black belt in Aikido, and is a seasoned practitioner of "The Natural Step" sustainability management system.


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