Feature Story

Fixing the water crisis: There's never been a better time

by Blake Snow

fixing the water crisis

If society doesn't start making changes to how we use fresh water, our precious supply will run short in the not-so-distant future.

Scientists from around the globe all agree—if society doesn't start making changes to how we use, conserve, and distribute fresh water, our precious supply will undoubtedly run short in the not-so-distant future.  

In fact, two thirds of the world face severe water shortages, reports The New York Times. Half of the four billion people confronting water scarcity at least live in either China or India, experts say, with much of the rest coming from other less developed countries. 

What's causing the shortage? First, there are a lot more mouths to quench now. Over the last 50 years, the human population has nearly tripled. That alone presents a challenge. But thirst-quenching is just a tiny part of the larger water crisis. The greater issue relates to all the sanitation, agriculture, and energy use needed to support that sizable increase in humans. 

See also: How the Internet of Things is aiding the garbage crisis 

Thirst-quenching is just a tiny part of the larger water crisis. The greater issue relates to all the sanitation, agriculture, and energy use needed to support that sizable increase in humans.To make matter worse, our warming climate is complicating how we collect, store, and even use freshwater. "In a warmer future, more precipitation will fall as rain as opposed to snow in the winter," explains water specialist Ted Grantham from UC Berkeley. "Snow that does fall will melt earlier, and vegetation (including crops) will have greater water demands."

In other words, the majority of our freshwater reserves exists in solid form, specifically ice and snow. Changes in climate will generally mean that water supplies will be less reliable and in shorter supply while water use will be in greater demand to offset rising temperatures.

How might we overcome this?

First, we must admit there is a problem. To that end, the National Academy of Engineering reports that lack of clean water results in more annual deaths than from war—up to 5,000 people per day. Most of these are not dying of thirst, however, but rather diarrhea-related diseases that would drop dramatically if sufficient water for sanitation were available.

Second, we need to understand the problem. Specifically, it's not that the world doesn't possess enough water, only that it's not always located or readily available where it's needed. For example, Canada has more than enough water, while the Middle East and northern Africa suffer from perpetual shortages. Additionally, we must respect that agriculture, industry, and energy production consumes well over 95% of the freshwater we need.

See also: 3D printing now rolling out artificial reefs 

The trick, then, becomes in redistributing said water, conserving it, and/or finding ways to harness the vast amount of water that the oceans offer. To the last point, there are 12,000 desalination plants around the world today. These are mostly located in rich, coastal countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Because desalination plants are expensive to build and require lots of energy to operate, however, these aren't a good solution for impoverished or otherwise landlocked countries.

Like the battery problem, then, desalination still hasn't found its mainstream groove. Until that day, scientists are also busy developing nanotube filtering technology, rural distillation units the size of dishwashers to provide daily clean water for 100 people, and drip irrigation techniques to substantially reduce agricultural demands, which often exceed 80% of our total water use.

Ultimately, the water shortage and energy shortage usually compete with one another. "Water cannot be delivered to homes, businesses, and industries without energy, and most forms of energy development require large amounts of water," reports the U.S. Geological Survey. "Enhanced data collection and research can improve our understanding of these important issues and thereby lay the groundwork for informed resource management."

To solve both the water and energy crisis, then, we'll need better data to conserve, redistribute, and renew both simultaneously. "In the long-term, we need to build a culture around conservation," says Grantham. "This takes time, even generations, but can work if our state and local agencies continue to fund and implement water education programs."


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