Creating a Global Water Crisis

by | Oct 13, 2014

gutterman, sara, green mediaWater: it is a common agenda for all of us, for every walk of life. It’s our planet’s most valuable resource. Nations are powered by it. Life depends on it. And soon, we’ll be fighting over it.

We think of water as infinite and inexhaustible, but the hard truth is that we’re depleting, polluting, and wasting water from aquifers and other fresh water sources in such vast quantities that we’re not allowing these sources to renew themselves, resulting in drastic drought conditions across the globe.

We are creating our own global crisis—whether we realize it or not, water scarcity is here. If current usage and population trends continue, global demand for water in 2030 will outstrip supply by 40 percent.

Aquifers across the globe are drying up due to overuse, forcing municipalities and communities to make difficult decisions about whether to allocate the precious resource to industry, agriculture, or domestic use. In Australia, the government voted to prioritize domestic use, figuring they could import food and other essential goods. Countries in the Middle East will be obliged to scale down or completely phase out crop production due to water shortages (Saudi Arabia is planning to cease all industrial agriculture by next year, compelling the country to import all of its food in the future.)

In the US, our population has doubled since 1950 but our water use has tripled. Today, over 50% of the US is grappling with drought. The Ogallala aquifer, one of our nation’s most important water sources supplying irrigation for much of the large-scale farming in the Midwestern U.S., is rapidly desiccating as farmers exploit it to keep up with corn production for ethanol and to compensate for drought cycles. If they continue to draw water from the Ogallala at current rates, these farmers may face the same fate as their colleagues in California’s Central Valley, who have watched, helplessly, as their farmlands parch.

Climate change is accelerating drought conditions, leading to widespread desertification of arable land across the planet. When land becomes desertified, the top soil blows away, rendering it essentially unusable. The spread of desertification is rapidly intensifying on a worldwide scale, sparing no continent.

According to The World Bank, “every year, 24 billion tons of fertile soils are lost to us from erosion while 12 million hectares of land are degraded through drought and the steady encroachment of desert.   With every hectare of land we lose to drought, we also lose tons of potential grain which makes life even more of an ordeal for the 1.5 billion people worldwide who make their living off degraded land. Climate change is pushing our ecosystems to breaking point and the failure to act may result in food, water, income and security threats. The price to fix degraded land on a large scale and minimize these outcomes is only a fraction of the cost paid through social and political unrest, conflict, forced migration or internal displacement. Restoring a hectare of degraded and fragile soils costs as little as US $25.”

The desertification process in China is amongst the worst and fastest in the world. According to At the Desert’s Edge, a film by Kit Gillet, 27.4% of the land in the country has been degraded. At this rate, there will no arable land left in all of China in as little as 200 years.

Sustainability activist Lester Brown predicts that in the near future, spreading drought and desertification will create Dust Bowl conditions in China that will make the US Plains in the 1930’s look like child’s play. Yet the country has plans to build 500 new mega-cities (approximately 327 billion square feet of built space) in the next 20 years. Which begs the question—where in the world (literally) do they think they’ll get the water to support those cities?

While farming, power plants, and factories are the main users of our water resource, water efficiency in the built environment is essential. The combination of dilapidated infrastructure, drought, and climate change have driven water prices up exponentially, so implementing creative water efficiency and conservation solutions has become the key to keeping monthly utility bills affordable for homeowners.

In the U.S., we drink about 1% of the water piped into our homes. The other 99% of this high-quality H2O is used to flush toilets, wash laundry, water lawns and take showers.  This inefficient use of water has begun to get more scrutiny, now that water availability has become such a critical issue. We’re seeing the initial adoption of “fit for purpose” water supplies (separate pipes carrying differently treated water) across the country. In fact, the new 2012 International Residential Code includes a non-prescriptive section encouraging greywater reuse in homes.

As our water supply becomes increasingly more taxed, we should expect to see augmented demand and regulation around products like water efficient appliances, low flow fixtures, whole-home filters, and harvesting systems.

Clearly, it’s time to rethink industrial, agricultural, and urban water use, and also take dramatic measures towards mitigating drought and desertification. In China, the government is combating drought through projects like the “Great Green Wall”— a line of planted trees stretching thousands of miles, reminiscent of the Great Wall, in hopes of mitigating further land degradation and providing protection from the violent sand storms that plague the country.

Singapore is on the leading edge of developing new, innovative sources of water. With a widespread water conservation program (that encourages industries and households to use water wisely, saving 10% of their water consumption every day), water collection infrastructure, and advanced treatment technology, Singapore is now recognized internationally as an emerging global “hydrohub”.

One of the few countries in the world to harvest urban storm-water on a large-scale for its water supply, Singapore has created a “water superhighway”, a comprehensive network of drains, canals, rivers, storm-water collection ponds, and reservoirs that harvest approximately 90% of the nation’s storm-water.

Once harvested, water is filtered through the country’s NEWater process, which uses advanced membrane technologies and ultra-violet disinfection to create ultra-clean, safe drinking water. NEWater currently provides 30% of the nation’s current water needs, with plans to grow supply to 55% of future water demand.

Singapore has also made great strides in the area of desalinization technology, with two seawater reverse-osmosis plants that produce 100 million gallons of water each day—approximately 25% of the country’s total water needs.

In Singapore, water has become serious business. The country has a thriving industry of 130 water companies and 26 research centers that receive ample funding from both the private and public sectors. The country has created a successful model that engages and creates consensus between industry, government, academia, and the public. If we’re smart, we’ll replicate Singapore’s innovative strategies on a global scale to develop viable sustainable solutions for water management that solve our urgent water, drought, and desertification issues.

Sara is the Co-founder and CEO of Green Builder Media. An experienced entrepreneur, investor, and sustainability consultant, Sara specializes in developing companies that are simultaneously sustainable and profitable. Sara is a former venture capitalist and has participated in a portion of the life cycle (from funding to exit) of over 20 companies. Sara graduated Cum Laude from Dartmouth College and holds an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance from the University of Colorado. This article was reprinted with permission from Green Builder Media.

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