Fresh water depletion has been identified as one of the most problematic and impactful issues that we will face during the century. Yet, in most modern societies treated fresh water is wasted in large amounts while at the same time many places are facing imminent severe water shortages. We should rethink the value of water and learn from places which through water scarcity have come to understand its value.
Fresh water on Earth is very valuable for us humans as it is not only our lifeline for survival, but also indispensable for agriculture and other essential activities on which we depend.
We live on a “water planet”, but only about 2.5 per cent of the total amount of water on Earth is fresh - the vast majority is stored in the oceans in a salty form. And only a small fraction of fresh water sources are readily available for consumption.
Modern societies have completely lost appreciation for the value of fresh water.
Indeed, fresh clean water is provided in a very convenient way: we switch on the tap and water comes out. Most of us never bother to consider where the water comes from and which processes it has undergone to transform it into the clean consumable fresh water pouring from our taps.
We tend to forget that the water we drink, the water that we shower with, the water that we waste so easily requires complex treatments which are both highly energy intensive and costly. But most of all, we have forgotten that fresh water is a scarce resource that takes a long time to renew itself through natural processes.
In modern developed societies water usage is simply highly inefficient. Wastage occurs at all levels, from over-usage (domestic and industrial) to utilisation of clean treated water for a range of non-necessary applications.
Fresh water resources on Earth are running out fast for three main reasons:
Overconsumption: With rapidly growing global population and industrialisation comes an exponential increase in water demand both for individual consumption and industrial use. In fact many aquifers and fossil water storage areas are running dry, and more and more rivers no longer reach the sea because so much has been extracted along the way.
Climate change: Climate shifts will greatly affect and modify the distribution and availability of fresh water on Earth. Many communities, which have been dependent on natural cycles for their water consumption and agricultural needs, will be severely affected.
Contamination: With industrialisation also comes pollution, particularly the contamination of fresh water supplies. Stored underground water sources that used to be consumable have become so polluted that they now require expensive treatments.
An appreciation of its value
While many nations have benefited from seemingly unlimited supplies of fresh water over the years, many places around the world have had to rely on very restricted supplies of fresh water and have had to learn to adapt and value this resource.
Two scenarios occur: In some places water is simply too difficult to access to waste any of it, while in other places water is available but contaminated, and treating the water is too expensive for poor communities to have the luxury of wastage.
In such places, water is clearly the most precious resource and its usage is restricted and valued. All aspects of water management are based on conserving the resource using practices such as no wastage during transport; storing the water and reusing every drop (e.g. closed loop irrigation); but most importantly, the resource is consumed wisely with full recognition of its value.
Citing Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.” As fresh water becomes rarer, more difficult to reach and more expensive to treat, we will come to understand its value as they have done in arid areas. But it may be too late.
The business case
Unless significant breakthroughs lead to much cheaper ways of treating water, current technological processes (desalinisation and waste water treatment) do not provide large scale solutions to the water crisis. The cost of the process is simply too expensive and energy intensive. Indeed, a single modern desalinisation plant costs hundreds of millions of US dollars! While convenient for wealthier nations, these technologies seem unrealistic for most developing countries.
The cost of tap water (treated water) in developed countries does not reflect its value and is therefore abundantly wasted. Yet, controversially the sale of bottled water is one of the most successful drink businesses, and a single bottle can cost more than US$20 for 500mL! There seems to be a paradox here: we are willing to pay an expensive premium on water which is naturally purified. However, treated tap water prices remain low while the treatment cost is very high. Distortions in the value of fresh water are synonymous with various instabilites (price, markets, political, etc…) and will likely induce changes in water prices.
At the end of the day, as fresh water resources deplete, the cost of water can only go up. We can therefore expect the cost of consumable water (both treated and untreated) to rise significantly throughout the century. To avoid this scenario, significant advancements in the way water is used and produced need to be found.
Despite recent improvements in water treatment, there is not a clear solution to date on how to provide clean water at low cost on a global scale.
While most of our efforts have focused on technology improvements (desalinisation and waste water treatment), relatively few efforts have been put into finding more passive ways of cleaning large bodies of water such as using natural filters (e.g. plants) or other means that do not require significant energy inputs; because in fact the water treatment challenge is an energy one.
At the end of the day large scale water management comes down to maintaining healthy ecosystems. In natural environments, water is purified through the work of organisms and substrates filtration (natural filtration through layers of earth). If we preserve ecosystems, we also ensure the purity of the water supplies.
Another obvious step is to vary the degree of water treatment according to its end use. Still today clean treated consumable water is wasted on applications which do not require it to be thoroughly treated (e.g. cooling in industrial processes, irrigation…) As a general rule the more purification required, the more energy intensive and expensive the process. Wastage could be greatly reduced with better management of clean treated water.
The future will require us to be smarter about the way we treat and use water. We need to diversify water sources, including captured and stored rainfall, and reduce the treatment costs to a level that can be deployed on a wide scale for all economies.
Sylvain Richer de Forges is head of sustainability at Siloso Beach Resort.