The climate change discussion takes center stage, but water plays the most important supporting role. Water scarcity and quality are intimately connected to climate change with droughts and flooding increasing in severity each year.
At the end of March, NYC ushered in UN Water Week to put the focus squarely on the role of water as a human right. The statistics are sobering. Almost half of the world’s population is affected by water scarcity. According to the United Nations, over 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and around 4.2 billion people–more than half of the world’s population–experience severe water scarcity for at least one month per year. Ninety percent of natural disasters are water related.
On a recent visit to the UN in Geneva I was reminded by my host that nearly one-third of the world’s population relies on surface water for drinking. A young woman from Turkmenistan shared that her country’s major source of water, the Aral Sea, has largely turned to salt – a problem so overwhelming that when the wind blows it often feels like it’s raining salt. Rivers are also affected. Changes in temperatures and salinity are leading to a severe decline in biodiversity.
About 1.2 billion people worldwide drink surface water that is untreated and potentially unsafe, leaving them at risk of contracting diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and diarrhea. Untreated sewage, industrial waste, and agricultural runoff are among the leading contributors to surface water pollution. The toxicity of groundwater is caused in part by the plastic waste in these waters. It is estimated that there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean. These plastics harm marine life and are also ingested by humans, especially children, and nearly impossible to remove from the body. Microplastics are ubiquitous, having been found in human fetuses and freshly fallen snow in Antarctica.
At UN Water Week young water-workers seeking to bring about change in their respective countries were invited to speak. A young gentleman from Kenya reported that 90% of kids in his country consume microplastics in water.
The GeoPolitics of Water
While lots of the earth is covered in water (71%), just over 2.5% is covered by fresh water. Hence, water often becomes the root of geographic disputes. Throughout the Water Week conference there was talk of struggles to conquer, but also to cripple, water supplies by attacking hydro-electric dams.
There is also a schism between developed and less developed countries. Wealthier countries experience water issues primarily in terms of property (mostly flooding) while poorer nations suffer in terms of people (mostly water borne disease).
An encouraging thought? 110,000 young people from 68 countries took part in the Water Week’s initiatives worldwide. Jobs in water management were touted as career paths for young ambassadors. The spokeswoman from the Dominican Republic spoke eloquently on the need for low tech solutions like composting toilets, asking the audience to not always rely on the silver bullet of high tech to solve all water problems. The Nigerian delegate also brought up the need for dry toilets to increase overall sanitation.
As part of the Water Week the Netherlands teamed up with NYC to create a special program focused on solutions like reducing pollution, ecological construction of dams, improving protection from flood though the building of dykes and levees, waterproofing buildings, integrating nature based solutions, and reducing pollution and runoff especially in agricultural areas. The Dutch, no strangers to water management living in a country where seawater is a constant threat, have taken a leadership position.
More Crop Per Drop
Seventy two percent of all water withdrawal is currently used by agriculture, as opposed to 16% used by municipalities and households. Agricultural advancements in water usage involve more sparing use of water, rainwater management, and the use of non-potable grey water for crops. Technologies like IoT sensors in the field that measure and control the exact amount of water required for a given crop are already widely used.
Where education and new technologies are most sorely needed are in homes and municipalities. Simple, low tech aerators are being installed to control the flow of water through bathroom and kitchen faucets by mixing air with the water. This can often reduce water flows by 30% without sacrificing performance.
Leak detection systems are also being used more frequently, as are shower regulators (yes, pleasurable as they are low pressure showers that can save lots of water). A water flow restrictor or a low-flow shower head reduce a flow of between 5-8 gallons per minute to 2.5 or fewer gallons per minute. Two leading water leak detection products are the Phyn Plus Smart Water Assistant + Shutoff and the Flo Smart Water Monitor and Shutoff. Low tech solutions including saving the cold water from your tap while you wait for your water to heat up can save as water as well.
On-demand, or tankless, hot water heaters have become increasingly popular. These tanks don’t heat hot water and store it in an insulated tank. Instead, it senses when a hot water fixture is opened, such as turning on a shower, or starting a washing machine to clean a load of clothes, and only then starts heating water. The hot water heater heats the water as it flows to where it is needed in a home. And for goodness sake, train yourself to shut the tap while you’re brushing your teeth or soaping your face.
Building codes can also play an important part. In Flanders (the Northern part of Belgium) water scarcity became an issue nearly 20 years ago. In 2004 the collection and circulation of rainwater for non-potable use was mandated as part of the building code.
At Water Week I also got to see some emerging technology like Hydraloop, a residential product designed in the Netherlands that separates out grey water from laundry, showers, and dishwashing from dirty water. It then reconditions the grey water through a system that allows it to be used for these same functions. Separating potable from non-potable water and reusing the non-potable could ultimately garner adoption, especially as the price of systems like Hydroloop’s come down.
Conserving water is going to require a combination of high tech, low tech, and a good wallop of common sense. But it starts with using potable water for drinking and other forms of water for everything else. It won’t reverse climate change but it’s absolutely critical in protecting us from its affects.