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The Water Century

Why have water scarcity and sanitation become truly global problems?

March 4, 2005

Why have water scarcity and sanitation become truly global problems?

Dr. Andrew Hayward, a professor of the University of Nottingham, begins his lecture to medical students with a slide that reads as follows:

Did you come into medicine to save lives? If the answer is yes, perhaps you should give up medical school — and take a course in water engineering.

Why would he say so? If we look back to our efforts to eradicate disease and health risks in the world, we find that we have wiped out smallpox.

But 90% of the diseases of the world are still water-related, according to the U.S. Office of Science & Technology.

Four out of every five deaths in developing countries are the result of water-related disease. This means that approximately six million people die every year because of contaminated water. That is why sanitation remains a major global issue.

Despite the engineering marvels that have delivered clean water, the problem extends far beyond developing countries.

Today, even many developed nations face problems of water purity. Many of the water delivery systems there are fragile — and aging. As a result, contamination is increasing in many "modern" countries.

The trend — and the evidence — is clear, but rarely commented on. Just look at the many citizens of the most developed nations, who now carry water in bottles, have home purifiers and residential delivery services. They do all that simply because they cannot trust municipal supplies.

And as the world raises the standards of what is considered safe pure water, we continue to identify more pathogens and contaminants to be addressed.

Beyond the issue of sanitation, the world also has to contend with the problem of water scarcity. Back in 1950, there were only two cities with more than eight million people.

Today, there are 23 cities larger than 10 million inhabitants — and 18 of these mega-cities are in the developing world.

By 2030, just 25 years from now, the urban population will be two times that of the rural areas — representing an urban growth rate of 160%.

Many of these cities are in areas of major water shortages. And in any event, they often do not have the resources to deliver and purify the water they do have.

The World Bank estimates that some 300 million people on earth now live in areas of "serious" to "severe" shortages. In 25 years, that number will rise to three billion people in areas of shortage.

And yet, the amount of available fresh water will remain constant at about 1%. All the remaining water in the world is either salt water in the oceans or fresh water unavailable in polar caps, in the soil, snow and humidity.

Whether you look at California, Texas or the Sudan, irrigation is very frequently inefficient and wasteful.

Poor farming practices and subsidized water prices that do not reflect its true cost — and thus provide no incentive to save water — result in even more wasted water.

While agriculture uses 70% of the world's water, cities just a few hundred miles away from farms often struggle with shortages and high prices.

What sense does it make, for example, that farmers in the Imperial Valley of California pay $15.50 an acre foot, while residential water in Southern California costs $431 an acre foot?

But farming is not the only culprit. If one looks at manufacturing, the picture is also discouraging.

The world's manufacturing systems are largely open, meaning water is drawn in for production — and then discarded at the end of the process. More often than not, we are discarding a valuable renewable resource.

The manufacture of a complete car requires 39,000 gallons of water.

One barrel of crude oil takes 1,800 gallons, a ton of steel 62,000 gallons — and just one semi-conductor takes 3,000 gallons.

Just take those cell phones that are so ubiquitous today. Just the chips in each single one of them took many thousands of gallons of water to make.

Our food supply is very water-intensive as well. A pound of bread or a pound of rice each take one ton of water to produce.

These numbers aside, the news gets worse. In both developed and developing countries, it is not uncommon for communities to be unable to account for over 40% of their water.

This loss may be the result of leaking, aged systems or corruption. But whatever the cause may be, we are all the losers.

The message is clear: We must have the will power to look at the waste in these two areas — agriculture and manufacturing — and initiate improvements.

In order to meet the sanitation challenge and the scarcity challenge, a third factor — energy — enters into the picture.

The required purification and the improved movement of water depend on energy — lots of it. Whether a generator in a rural village, or in a mega city of 20 million people, energy is inextricably tied to clean, available water.

Energy is expensive, no matter what part of the world one lives in — and it is increasingly scarce. The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that, by 2050, the world will need 7,000 GW of additional electrical generation for clean water alone.

Today's total available volume of power globally is 3,000 GW — for all purposes. We may well ask: Do we have the resources to deliver the huge increase in power for clean water alone? Probably not.

So simply relying on ever-increasing electricity output is clearly not a path we can take. It is a mandate that dictates the application of innovation in efficiency and technology.

One critical, if rarely covered, area is pumping stations. Typically, they rely on 56 kilowatt pumps, which cycle on and off as needed. But this has proven expensive, both in maintenance and energy.

Newer designs use one 26 kilowatt pump running constantly, with a larger pump cycling on at peak usage. The results are impressive: These systems require 50% less maintenance — and 21% less electricity.

When you realize that 70% of a pump's total cost over its lifetime is the energy it consumes, the significance of such technological advances becomes clear.

In the United States, sewage pumps alone use 3% of the nation's electricity. The potential for savings is obvious — and directly affects the ability for more people to have water at reasonable costs.

Available energy is always a problem in developing economies. It is difficult for rapidly growing economies — such as China or India — to meet both industrial needs and those of residential users.

For example, northern China recently suffered from a major drought. This resulted in a strengthened focus on developing new efficiencies as well as higher pricing for the use of water — which ultimately led to a reduction in waste.

It is not uncommon for factories in China to use ten times more water than those in fully developed economies.

This is despite the fact that two-thirds of Chinese cities are short of water, 90% of rivers are polluted — and 20% of water in China is lost from leakage.

China has begun to exercise the difficult — "will power" of innovation — including raising the price of water for the first time since 1949 to encourage wiser use of this essential resource.

Other promising avenues for increasing the amount of fresh water available include desalination, the process by which seawater is turned into fresh water.

There is no doubt that desalination is a large part of the future for developed economies.

Desalination is also an option for some emerging market countries — but not for impoverished “third world” countries, because of the sophistication of the required technology and related energy needs.

The U.S. states of Florida, Massachusetts, as well as several Middle Eastern countries, are all participants in the desalination movement.

And there is some good news to report. Reverse osmosis and new technologies no longer so dependent on energy have resulted in steadily decreasing costs for water.

If you look at the costs from 1991 to 2003, the savings are dramatic — from $6.00 per 1,000 gallons in Santa Barbara to $1.50 in Singapore.

Kuwait will soon be producing 30 million gallons a day of fresh water with technology at even more cost-efficient levels.

Despite all the remarkable advances, there is still little public understanding of the risks of the status quo. In most countries and communities, water has not been offered at “market value.”

Rather, the price of water has been subsidized so that the true cost of water is rarely clear. We must have the political will to consider offering water at market value — and of offering water through private/public partnerships.

There must be a connection between the cost of producing a good and what people pay for it. Without that connection, waste and inefficiency result.

It is our responsibility to increase the awareness that, if people undervalue water, they are far more likely to waste it.

Even the so-called "free" water of rural villages carried from distant wells is far from free. Hours of labor spent to carry water are hardly water without price.

In addition, there are inefficiencies that discourage fair distribution to the elderly and ill. In stressed societies and economies, the elderly and ill typically suffer various shortages disproportionately.

And never mind the problems of providing clean and safe water. The poor often pay dearly for water that is free in name only.

And this cost equation applies in developed countries as well. Remember the cost of the water in the bottles we carry around? It is six to ten times the price of gasoline — a commodity that many consider really expensive today.

In the end, we must be able to look at our globe and recognize that water is not a traditional “local” issue. Just as local supply chain productivity is affecting economies around the globe, the interdependencies of water related issues have become one global issue.

It was the British writer William Bullein in 1562, who said: “Water is a very good servant — but it is a cruel master.”

If we want to become be the masters of our water destiny as we march into the "Water Century," we would be well served to change the outdated ways in which we still think about this precious resource.