It is no joke that the future world wars may be fought over access to WATER and not oil. While the scientist in me gets excited about properties of this colorless, odorless material, which is the only material found in nature in all 3 physical states (I have published some papers on phase transitions of aqueous particles), it is the more human, the more thirsty-quenching aspects of this drink that fascinate me more. Clean healthy water is essential for human health, and yet it is in short supply in many parts of the world. We have learnt since primary school days that about 72% of the fat free mass of the human body is made of water, but something I learnt not too long ago indicates that in order to function properly, the body requires between one and seven litres of water per day to avoid dehydration. My personal goal: drink 4-7 large glasses of water a day.
Societies around the world consume water in many different ways, from drinking and cooking of foods to irrigation, construction, personal hygiene, travel, recreation, etc. This post is not a lengthy article on properties or uses of the liquid that is the essence of life, but just to point out (a) how important water is to us, (b) how many people on this earth have no access to clean drinking water, (c) how water has become an expensive commodity even in the developed world, (d) the need for conservation of water, (d) a threat to geo-political stability in the case of wars over water, and (e) need for new technological enhancements and investments to secure clean water for the world.
Access to healthy drinking water:
Finding and using healthy water has been one of the more basic challenges of humanity ever since the civilizations began settling down. No wonder all major towns, cities in history were built around rivers or other water sources. That need remains, and even though some technologies allowed us to direct water into areas further away from the point sources, it can safely be said that civilizations will flourish or flail depending on their ability to utilize this wonderful nature resource. From major port cities to agricultural havens, water continues to be the fuel that feeds civilization. When water becomes scarce (for example famine and drought in part of Africa) or over runs the land (for example the floods in Bangladesh), mankind suffers terribly. For researchers, there is a wonderful repository on access to clean water on the web at http://www.worldwater.org/.
Water fit for human consumption is called drinking water or “potable water”. Water that is not specifically made for drinking, but is not harmful for humans when used for food preparation is called safe water.
This natural resource is becoming scarcer in certain places, and its availability is a major social and economic concern.
Currently, about 1 billion people around the world routinely drink unhealthy water. Most countries have accepted the goal of halving by 2015 the number of people worldwide who do not have access to safe water and sanitation during the 2003 G8 Evian summit . Even if this difficult goal is met, it will still leave more than an estimated half a billion people without access to safe drinking water supplies and over 1 billion without access to adequate sanitation facilities. Poor water quality and bad sanitation are killers; some 5 million deaths a year are caused by polluted drinking water.
That is hardly surprising, since in the developing world, 90% of all wastewater still goes untreated into local rivers and streams. Some 50 countries, with roughly a third of the world’s population, also suffer from medium or high water stress, and 17 of these extract more water annually than is recharged through their natural water cycles. The strain affects surface freshwater bodies like rivers and lakes, but it also degrades groundwater resources.
Politics of war:
If you and I worry about the conflict in Middle East raging over holy lands and religion, try imagining wars over access to water resources. It is no surprise that a large strategic goal of Israel’s re-drawing of the borders with the illegal wall is to secure water and agricultural resources (Israel already controls 90% of the water in Palestine and gets 5 times as much water per person as Palestine). The Middle East region has only 1% of the world’s available fresh water, which is shared between 5% of the world’s population. Thus, in this region, water is an important strategic resource. By 2025, it is predicted that the countries of the Arabian peninsula will be using more than double the amount of water naturally available to them. India and Pakistan are no different. With all of Pakistan’s rivers starting in the Kashmir region, the conflict in that region has as much to do (or more) with long term strategic interests in natural resources than anything else.
Because of overpopulation in many regions of the world, mass consumption and water pollution, the availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking as of the year 2006. For this reason, water is a strategic resource in the globe, and an important element in many political conflicts. Some have predicted that clean water will become the “next oil”, making Canada, with this resource in abundance, possibly the richest country in the world. There is a long history of conflict over water, including efforts to gain access to water, the use of water in wars started for other reasons, and tensions over shortages and control . UNESCO‘s World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from its World Water Assessment Program indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. 40% of the world’s inhabitants currently have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought. In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds due to easily preventable water-related diseases. Fresh water, now more precious than ever in our history for its extensive use in agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, and energy production, is increasingly receiving attention as a resource requiring better management and sustainable use.
Clean water is produced at natural sources (springs, lakes etc), or has to be cleaned via technical measures (such as reverse osmosis to clean sea-water). In many societies, availability of clean water is still considered the government’s responsibility, but that has been changing fast as market based mechanisms have taken root. The lack of new and readily accessible natural sources, as well as the lack of infrastructure to bring clean water to the users, has led to a burgeoning of the bottled water industry. The Independent reports that just in the UK, the water industry is currently valued at 1.9 billion euros. “Tap water costs a tiny fraction of bottled water, typically about a thousandth of the price at £1 per 1,000 litres. By contrast, the average cost of a single litre of bottled water is 90p” (Source: The Independent).Water is more expensive than beer or even petrol in the gas stations, and with the global warming starting to show present and clear signs in our weather, the price of water is only expected to go up. No surprise then that the largest bottlers of the world (Coca-Cola and Pepsi/Nabisco) are now holding major stakes in water companies. Even Starbucks has bought a water-company (Ethos), trying to put on a softer image by advertising that some portion of their revenue is used to help poverty-stricken Africans. A list of US bottlers is available at the portal for bottled water industry.
Drinking water is often collected at springs, extracted from artificial borings in the ground, or wells. Building more wells in adequate places is thus a possible way to produce more water assuming the aquifers can supply an adequate flow. Other water sources are rainwater and river or lake water. This surface water, however, must be purified for human consumption. This may involve removal of undissolved substances, dissolved substances and harmful microbes. Popular methods are filtering with sand which only removes undissolved material while chlorination and boiling kill harmful microbes. Distillation does all three functions. More advanced techniques exist, such as reverse osmosis. Desalination of abundant ocean or seawater is a more expensive solution used in coastal arid climates.
The distribution of drinking water is done through municipal water systems or as bottled water. Governments in many countries have programs to distribute water to the needy at no charge. Others argue that the market mechanism and free enterprise are best to manage this rare resource, and to finance the boring of wells or the construction of dams and reservoirs.
Reducing waste, that is using drinking water only for human consumption, is another option. In some cities, such as Hong Kong, sea water is extensively used for flushing toilets citywide in order to conserve fresh water resources. Polluting water may be the biggest single misuse of water; to the extent that a pollutant limits other uses of the water, it becomes a waste of the resource, regardless of benefits to the polluter. As other types of pollution, this does not enter standard accounting of market costs, being conceived as externalities for which the market can not account for. Thus other people pay the price of this water pollution, while the private firms’ profits are not redistributed to the local population victim of this pollution. Pharmaceuticals consumed by humans often end up in the waterways and can have detrimental effects on aquatic life if they bioaccumulate and if they are not biodegradable.
The field of water cleanup and supply is not a new one, but one that is certainly gathering tremendous momentum around the world. It is not just the technologists who are eager to identify new ways of producing and transporting clean water, but both early stage VC and late stage equity investorsare also starting to take notice. VC and private equity funds in Middle East are eager to invest in the future of water in the region, but there are also investment opportunities in cleaning up water for developing countries (for example using catalysis or molecular membranes to remove arsenic from wells in Bangladesh and elsewhere). In the report, “Evaluation of the Costs and Benefits of Water and Sanitation Improvements at the Global Level”, by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, it is estimated that an additional investment of around US$ 11.3 billion per year over and above current investments could result in a total economic benefit of US$ 84 billion annually. That means “the economic benefits would range from US$ 3 to US$ 34 per US$ 1 invested, depending on the region. Additional reductions in exposure to contaminated drinking-water, such as through household-level disinfection, would lead to an overall benefit ranging from US$ 5 to US$ 60 per US$ 1 invested”, the report estimates.
Water conservation has also evolved from a personal endeavor to a corporate one. It is no surprise that some more forward thinking companies, such as Genzyme, have already developed factory and office facilities which recycle water, while others are looking at water and other clean technologies closely in their development path. MIT has introduced mechanisms for collecting storm water on its buildings and utilizing them for indoor use, research is underway for sensor chips to detect the quality of water for drinking and other laboratory/industrial purposes, and drip irrigation technology is gaining acceptance worldwide. Closer to Pakistan, LUMS University in Lahore is starting a new School of Science and Engineering (with which I am proud to be associated with), and one of the priorities on their list is to establish a center for research on energy, environment and water. If you are more interested, following are some of the hot topics in the industry (Source: http://www.wateronline.com):
So where are we left then?
Clearly there is a shortage of water, and given that most of the world barely earns about $1 or 1euro per day, there is no way that bottled water of the sort that is currently sold in rich capitals of the world (ans also in the developing world for the rich), can be used to satisfy the need of 6 billion+ people in this world. There is a need for technologies that can refine, recycle, reuse, and efficiently transport water from all kinds of sources including lakes, streams, rivers, sea, oceans, rain and even our own sewage and rainage systems. The technologies have to be affordable, robust and available en mass. Perhaps many water technologies will not be universally applicable, but even ones designed for local systems or habitats would do, as long as they realize that in the long term, nature conserves mass and the only way to sustainabily use this natural resource is to find ways to recycle it. On a personal level, we all need to understand the importance and value of this natural resource, and as the learning goes, we have to find ways to reduce the amount of water we use and waste. As for the geo-politics, the aggressors and the greedy will always want more – and we just have to resist them. Humanity has to resist hoarding of this precious global resource. The world cannot really afford to have water become the next oil.