Blog  /  February 2017  /  The Age of Water Scarcity: What Are Our Options?

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When it comes to water, we’re headed for trouble.  As industry and production have grown in regions all over the world, so too have economies, and so too has water contamination.  Droughts, as well as floods and storm conditions, are on the rise. Aging infrastructure undermines dependable  storage, treatment, and delivery of water, not only for small communities and major metro areas, but for a range of institutions we may depend on. Everything from agriculture and industry, to schools, golf courses, and car washes depend on reliable infrastructure. Population growth all over the world means more water demand, not just to feed, clothe, and house us, but to provide us power, pharmaceuticals, and products to consume – water is critical to all of it.    In the next 15-20 years, water demand to support population and economic growth will outstrip usable supply by 40%. 

We are living in the age of water scarcity.  

The Age of Water Scarcity

This is not news to people living in California or Texas, in Brazil or Australia, or in the Middle East.   However, “water scarcity” means more than drought, and this can seem confusing at first glance.   After all, planet earth is a closed system, so we have neither more nor less total water than we had millions of years ago.  Unfortunately, humans need freshwater, and more so we rely on the freshwater supplies that we can actually access (e.g., lakes, rivers, and underground aquifers, as opposed to the freshwater that is tied up in icebergs) which make up only about 0.01% of earth’s total water resources.  

Water scarcity refers to our historical use of these freshwater resources to sustain life, community, and industry, alongside a range of other human interests, and the fact that the proportion of resources that continue to be usable is, in fact, shrinking.  Our growing thirst for water resources has translated into significant groundwater losses. As rain and snow patterns have changed over the years, both surface and groundwater resources are less predictably replenished.  What’s more, we as a species tend to generate a lot of byproducts that make their way into our water – salts, oils, metals, plastics, drugs and chemicals, dyes, etc. – and we aren’t necessarily consistent about how or if we clean them up.


Photo Credit: United Nation Environment Program


These issues tend to manifest in a variety of ways.  In areas where drinking-water supplies share the same space as waste deposits, a range of health problems, from skin lesions and dysentery to reproductive disorders, neurological conditions, cancer and death begin to emerge.  Ecosystems change, fishing villages dwindle, and livelihoods are altered.  In situations where droughts move from the novel into the chronic condition, water-use becomes regulated and rationing common.  Business bottom-lines become harder to predict, and insurance rates increase.  Interest in water rights rises, and tensions increase along with it.  The price tag can get very big.

Seawater and Piping

When it comes to water scarcity, two of the more common questions I am asked are about desalination and pipelines.  After all, we are a very watery world, why not take the salt out of all this seawater we’ve got (“desalination” or “desalinization”) so we have more usable water?  Why not pipe water from where it is plentiful to where it is not?  These are logical questions to ask, and they seem like straightforward solutions. 

Desalination is a regional solution:  only regions located near seawater are likely to benefit. This leaves a lot of communities out of the picture.  For regions where desalination is an option, it is extremely expensive, which narrows the field even further.  Not only is it a significant capital expense to build a desalination plant, it’s highly energy-intensive to run. The desalination option has historically been successful when adopted within wealthy regions or regions with strong federal-level backing (e.g. parts of the Middle East and China), or in regions that have successfully garnered multi-regional funding support (e.g. Southern California).  Even so, where we tend to see high initial investments in desalination, a few years later we see a surge in water recycling and reuse:  once the water is desalinated, it is cheaper to keep it clean than it is to make more.


Photo credit: ERE Engineering

Which brings us to pipelines.  What’s involved in using pipelines to move water from where it is plentiful to where it’s scarce?  This is conceptually popular, particularly within populations of drier regions that are in proximity to wetter ones. However, in practice, it presents a range of financial and engineering challenges (not to mention political ones).  For the feat to be meaningful – and therefore worthy of investment - the volumes of transported water and size of the pipes  must be large. Water is heavy – heavier than oil – and pumping water so it can move over great distances and variable terrain – including hills – translates to the need for tremendous pressure which stresses the infrastructure carrying it.  Water is corrosive and the infrastructure must account for that, as do the materials, coatings, and connectors.   Long-distance water pipelines are not in widespread use, because they are expensive, impractical from an engineering standpoint, and highly subject to failure.

Silver Bullets

So even though desalination and pipelines may not be the silver bullets to water stress that we might like them to be, there are many solutions. It’s important that we don’t view the problems of water stress as a simple “silver-bullet” kind of challenge.  It will not be a singular solution, or one new technology, that changes the entire landscape of water stress.  Some of the most important innovations of our future will result from bringing prices down on existing approaches, deploying current solutions on a smaller or larger scale, applying long-refined know-how in new circumstances, and coupling new innovations with traditional systems.  The circumstances will vary, because the nature of our water  use varies simply by how we’re using it.

Water co-exists with all kinds of additional substances, variable by the industries, ecosystems, and communities that use and surround it. It’s subject to constantly changing weather conditions, as well as the infrastructures and geological features through which it flows.  A drilling site that uses water to release natural gas deep underground, may have different geological features and a different source of water than a drilling site down the road.  A community water system located in a valley will have some shared, but also many different, issues than its neighbor on a hillside nearby. Moreover, they may be dealing with the downstream results of how their hillside neighbor  manages the water resources.  

The characteristics of the water we use are unique, nuanced, and shifting at every turn.  To ensure that water is useful for the various purposes of those dependent upon it, we are required to be able to design and deploy solutions just as unique and nuanced as the circumstance at hand.  


Connecting the Dots

As unique as any given region, use, or circumstance may be, this doesn’t mean we don’t have the technology and expertise to solve the vast array of water-related issues they encompass. Whether it’s at the scale of global indicators, regional trends, or down to very tangible, specific situations, we have the tools.

There is expertise all over the world.  When it comes to human ingenuity, needs tend to breed innovation and nurture refinement over time:  drought-prone areas have made some of the most innovative advances in water conservation and reuse. Know-how from the Middle East is directly relevant to the water woes of Australia, Brazil, and California. The U.S. Rust Belt has been dealing with the water-industry interface for half a century. This know-how can have a huge impact on industrializing regions such as India and China. The Dutch have been dealing with high sea-levels and flood conditions for centuries – and applications for this expertise abound, from Florida to Indonesia.  The trick is how we connect the players, and how we can do it more quickly than we do now.  The clock is ticking.

Translating know-how within and across geographic lines, as well as industry silos, is how we will overcome water stress and explore new frontiers.  In fact, the existence of technology and expertise around how to deal with water challenges is not generally the problem.  The problem is that the industry is fragmented.  The use of water is so ubiquitous, and the range of expertise so vast, there is no easy way of knowing what your options are, where the breakthroughs have happened, who is dealing with which challenges, and who might know how to fix them.  Being able to find the right technology or expertise – precisely when and where it’s needed – is the problem.  Being able to find who needs the expertise – when and where they need it – is the problem. 

Visibility and connection, amidst all the noise, is the problem. 


Photo Credit: Associated Press

When things go wrong with water, the reaction is visceral.  Sometimes decisions are made defensively, but not quickly or carefully. Furthermore, these decisions are not made using the wealth of information that already exists. The costs of getting it wrong can be very high. 

As the demand-supply imbalance increases in many parts of the world, the political, environmental, public health, and financial dynamics surrounding water are about to get a lot more colorful.