By Alison Loomis and Andy Mannle | Saturday, 17 May 2008
Experts warn that declining water supply and failing water infrastructure globally may soon become the world’s next energy crisis if meaningful action isn't taken.
“We need to pay attention to water, because it has a huge impact on energy, and it will only intensify in the future.” said Thomas Rooney, managing partner of RCI Consulting in a keynote address at a Green Energy Conference in San Francisco in April.
New studies indicate that water is under-valued by about 300 to 500% relative to its true cost, which encourages waste and inefficiency. Additionally, a lot of water is lost through leaking pipes and other infrastructure; but fixing these systems could cost upwards of twenty trillion dollars globally. Compounding the issues of waste and mismanagement are the decreasing supplies of freshwater globally due to over-consumption and pollution, and the increasing demand for it by expanding global middle class whose appetite for meat, dairy, and electricity all impact water supplies.
“It is widely accepted that water will be the "oil" of the 21st century. But, unlike oil, the planet cannot survive without water,” said Timothy F. Brick, Chair of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) Board of Directors at a recent Caltech/MIT Enterprise Forum.
Scarce Water Undervalued
Even though two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water, only 0.01% of the world’s total water is accessible, drinkable water. Global water use has tripled since 1950, while global fresh water supply has dropped 33% since 1970, according to Brick.
Today's undervalued water market has not come to terms with alarming water scarcities. "What is $2.50 a gallon in the US should be closer to $8 a gallon, like in France," according to Rooney.
“Water sources are running dry,” says Rooney. Around the world, water is being drawn heavily from rivers at rates many-fold faster than nature can replenish; the Yellow and Yangtze River in China, the Nile in Egypt and the Colorado in America frequently run dry. Meanwhile water-mining has become more common as water tables drop and aquifers are depleted world-wide. But digging deeper and deeper wells requires more money and energy to pump it to the surface.
“Population is also dramatically growing in water-poor areas, like L.A., Las Vegas, and New Dehli,” furthering the need to dislocate water across vast distances—a very energy intensive process.
In Southern California, for instance, 71% of water is imported from Northern California and the Colorado River, while consumer water costs remain heavily subsidized.
This creates what is known as “California’s hydro-social contract,” according to Tony Wong, principal at EDAW, in an interview at the 2008 EcoCity World Summit. “The community expects the government to provide water as a cheap public good. The community then becomes divorced from taking responsibility for its water use.”
The problem is compounded by water-intensive agricultural practices and outdated laws and regulations which often hinder efforts to harvest, and re-use water.
The Energy-Water Relationship
Just as biofuels have contributed to the world's food crisis, tomorrow’s energy crisis could be water-driven.
The veiled nexus between energy and water is beginning to surface as oil prices reach $126 a barrel, and potentially $150 a barrel by the end of summer. “Most energy solutions fail without water, but all water solutions fail without energy,” says Rooney. Because capturing, purifying, desalinizing, and transporting diminished supplies of water can’t be done without energy, the “increased water demand means higher energy demand.”
Yet generating energy also requires water. "Producing one gallon of oil requires four gallons of water. To produce one gallon of ethanol, 800 gallons of water is needed. Electrical power generation consumes 39% of all water withdrawals. In all cases of energy generation, the water consumed is left in much poorer quality," says Rooney.
The energy-water relationship is further heightened via industry. For instance, computers, at the heart of our new economy, are dependent on water-guzzling semiconductors. Globally, semiconductor plants use 1.5 trillion liters of very pure water annually.
Failing Water Infrastructure
Most striking is the projected total cost of needed global water infrastructure. A well cited 2007 report from Booz Allen Hamilton says that "more than half the world’s urban infrastructure needs a $40 trillion makeover.” Maintaining the world's water supply is anticipated to take $22.6 trillion of this figure.
“The need for water is greater than all other infrastructure systems combined,” says Rooney.
In the US, the majority of the infrastructure was built after World War II. According to America’s Environmental Report Card, close to 50% of all leaks are from inferior post-war pipes, while 15-45% of drinking water is lost to leaks, and nearly 300,000 of the 900,000 miles of water mains break per year in the US.
The EPA confirms, “the Nation's water systems must make significant investments to install, upgrade, or replace infrastructure to continue to ensure the provision of safe drinking water to their 240 million customers.”
Booming Middle Class
Of the global figure, nearly 80% of it is needed in areas other than the United States. In other words, within 25 years, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world's inhabitants will live in countries with serious water problems. Almost two-thirds of China’s 660 cities have already begun to report water shortages, and China’s rapidly growing industrial water contamination has also left millions without safe drinking water.
Experts say that population is misperceived to be the root of the problem. “It is a booming middle class that causes water consumption to skyrocket,” says Rooney.
In developing countries like China and India, the economic awakening increases the middle class, which increases water consumption and pollution of water sources. Still, the average consumption of 13 gallons per person per day is less than a tenth of an average middle class American using 158 gallons per day. And even that pales next to the average New Yorker who uses nearly 700 gallons a day, not because they drink more, but because so much is lost in the pipes transporting the water to the city.
Dangerous Price Signals
As water sources run dry and water infrastructure decays, soaring energy prices may trigger the planet to come to terms with realistic water pricing. Ideally, this would help speed a global shift toward better water-management, and forestall future calamities. Unfortunately, a dramatic rise in the price of water - and with it food and energy prices - could prove to be calamitous for many of the world's poor.
Water technologies for conservation, sewage treatment, purification, remediation and desalinization are all expected to experience significant growth in the future. The $400 billion global water market may grow to $740 billion in 2010—equal to one per cent of global GDP.
Tony Wong from EDAW says, “With better appreciation of water cost, fresh water will keep pace with recycled water.“
Desalinization, albeit a much more expensive technology than water recycling, is also moving forward. “San Diego is presently the only county in California able to justify desalinization, of which 50-80% of production cost is energy," says Rooney. “I project that both California and Nevada will be desalinizing massive amounts of water in the next 15 years.”
If his prediction is correct however, it will either mean that desalinization has gotten dramatically cheaper, or, unfortunately, that the price of water has risen astronomically.
Many alternative solutions are presently available to ease the nexus between water and energy, and better prevent a water-energy crisis.
Most important, is to create an evolved and resilient water infrastructure, as opposed to patching and expanding a conventional one. “This should be a restoration era, not a replacement era, says Stephen Engblom, Principal Urban Designer, EDAW, at the 2008 EcoCity World Summit.
Establishing policy measures that encourage the sustainable use of water are equally important. Presently there is no national policy on the linkage between water and energy according to a Department of Energy's energy-water report to Congress and a recent California Energy Commission study.
Furthermore, very few government incentives exist for residential consumers to find safe, easy ways to recycle their own greywater. According to Greywater Guerrillas at the 2007 West Coast Green Conference, Arizona is the only state in the US that has incorporated greywater recycling into their building code.
Another very crucial--and a much lower hanging fruit in saving water--is energy efficiency. The US EPA’s Office of Water, for instance, has recently announced a suite of water-energy saving goals for the water industry via its WaterSense program. The ENERGY STAR program estimates that about $4 billion is spent annually for energy costs to run drinking water and wastewater utilities. The 56 billion kilowatt hours of energy this requires will generate approximately 44.8 million tons of greenhouse gases.
Not including the inflation of energy prices, the EPA estimates the water sector could reduce energy use by 10% through cost effective investments in energy efficiency. Collectively, it would save about $400 million annually.
Beyond implementing effective water-energy policies and energy efficiency, many progressive water projects across the globe are setting inspiring examples of what could be scaled up to create a sustainable water economy for the future.
Dr. John Todd, visionary ecological designer and founder of Ocean Arks International, is employing bio-mimicry to sewage treatment and city restoration projects. Bio-mimicry looks at how nature deals with biological waste, and copies it. Todd has demonstrated in many places, such as Toronto, that his 'living machines' could treat all the city's sewage using natural lagoons with specialized plant and animal life, and completely avoid dumping sewage in Lake Ontario. This method is far cheaper than today’s process since the low-tech procedures don't rely on dangerous chemicals or large facilities, instead using photosynthesis and a natural food chain to break down waste.
Similarly, young entrepreneurial companies like GO2 Water, use advanced integrated pond systems to treat sewage with algae. The water-resourceful algae eliminate toxins, odors and the need to use infectious bacteria. GO2 Water co-founder, David Hammond, at the 2008 EcoCity World Summit, says the high rate algae pond rings also don’t lose energy, they create it, by installing cost-effective anaerobic digesters. “Our biogas bi-product is almost pipeline quality.” Furthermore, the algae bi-product is a ‘sludge-free’ digestible protein for agricultural feed.
Sustainable water practices are also being applied to agriculture in arid environments, like Africa. For instance, by turning to drip irrigation, thin plastic pipes release water directly onto the roots of the plants without flooding the entire field, and recapture any excess water for reuse. The same principles are being applied to urban agriculture, which is proving capable of producing more crops with less water, right in the city where they're needed.
As city planners design the cities of the future, they are integrating water sustainability into the greater city design. For instance, Singapore is recycling all its greywater to drinking quality standards by using a new filtration technology. And many more cities are catching rainwater and filtering stormwater to green their streets, reduce runoff, and replenish groundwater.
EDAW, a leading sustainable design firm, is helping to establish "water sensitive cities" in arid Australia. “We are transforming cities into water supply catchments,” says Wong. “It is actually the insurance companies driving such regional developments. They are forcing us as planners to raise the issue of climate change and water scarcity.”
Ismail Serageldin of the World Bank famously warned that, “The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water." Water security is essential for our energy and agricultural economies, while access to fresh drinking water is a basic human necessity. If we don't work together to develop strategies for valuing, conserving, and reusing our water soon, we will almost certainly end up fighting for it later.