According to UNICEF, almost 50% of the developing world’s population (2.5 billion) lack access to improved sanitation facilities, while over 884 million people rely upon unsafe drinking water each day. This means that one in eight of us, perhaps unnecessarily, is at a heightened risk for waterborne illnesses and a diminished quality of life. And while it may seem that the developed world is immune to the intrinsic finiteness of this essential resource, there are indications that the West, too, will soon feel the impact of this reality. But to what extent can we depend on technological advances to improve quality and access to clean water throughout the world? May certain “renewable” technologies actually be to blame for placing unnecessary strain on existing water infrastructure?
Between 2001 and 2009, the average annual increase in typical residential water bills in the United States was approximately 5.3 percent. Average annual inflation for the same period was 2.4 percent, indicating a statistically significant rise in the “actual” cost of water per gallon. But does population growth alone account for the presumed increase in domestic demand? It seems unlikely, particularly when one considers the extraordinary growth of water-intensive industries, such as that of ethanol production. In the aforementioned decade, domestic ethanol fuel output increased nearly 500%, from 1,770 million US gallons to 10,600 million US gallons. At a cost of 4.38 gallons of water per 1 gallon of ethanol, 127 million gallons of water are consumed for production each day, or 46,428 million gallons per year (in 2009). What’s even more shocking is that, until very recently, much of this water was sourced from traditional municipal supplies, meaning that it was unnecessarily subjected to the same costly treatment processes as drinking water.
There are examples within the energy sector, however, of increased investment in “water stewardship,” either out of necessity or obligation. Texas’ own White Energy, a self-described emerging leader in the production of renewable energy, recently contracted GE to build a wastewater facility to reduce dependence on the municipal water supply, as Leon Kaye describes:
GE built two reverse osmosis filtration systems that now provide clean water for the facility’s cooling system and boiler plant. The project not only frees up enough water to meet the annual needs of 600 homes, but the resulting concentrated by-product is used in the plant’s cooling tower rather than fresh water. White Energy saves about $200,000 (£123,000) a year in expenses while reducing its water consumption by 43m gallons a year.
Irrespective of one’s opinion of the ethanol industry, one can hope that other companies will follow in White Energy’s footsteps—augmenting, rather than depleting, a community’s water supply.
The critical lesson to be learned, however, is that the developed world is no longer immune to the consequences of irresponsible water management. Perhaps more so than any other natural resource, water acts as a great equalizer, serving as a constant reminder of our shared biological needs. Our dependency on water transcends socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, embodying the very definition of sustainability. Equitable reliance can only be answered by equitable distribution, and our efforts must be similarly diversified. It requires investment in old technologies, like well drilling, to bring reliable drinking water to those who need it most in the developing world. It requires investment in new technologies like caustic concentration, bipolar electrodialysis, and electro-deionisation, to stabilize water supplies in the West. It requires, dare I say, a bit of creativity, and a lot of determination, to solve one of the most pressing issues to have ever faced civilization.