Water worries: equipping ourselves for the future

7th April 2015

When I’m thirsty, there’s a glass in my kitchen I love drinking from. It’s a simple flared tumbler with a thick base containing a bubble of air. In it, water looks clean and pristine and seems to taste far better than when drunk from a plastic bottle. But as I filled the glass the other day, I found myself wondering how many human or industrial systems my pure-looking water had passed through before reaching me.

Actually, in New York, where I live, most of it comes from a watershed in the Catskill Mountains and the Hudson River Valley. But given the pressure on global water supplies – caused by both growing consumption and increased contamination – we’ll all need to start relying more heavily on technologies that turn bad water into good.

Of course, through its continuous movement between land, oceans, rivers and the atmosphere, all water is in one sense recycled. “There’s not a single drop of water that hasn’t gone through the kidneys of some dinosaur,” Giulio Boccaletti, The Nature Conservancy’s global managing director for water told me recently.

The problem today, however, is that agricultural and industrial processes are contaminating the supply, particularly as the global population grows more affluent. For with greater affluence comes increased consumption of foodstuffs and consumer goods, all of which involve processes that require a lot of water.

It takes about 1,000 litres to produce a kilogramme of wheat, for example, and about 15 times that for the same amount of beef, according to the UK’s WaterWise. Growing coffee for just one cup takes 140 litres. Some 11,000 are needed to produce the average pair of jeans and about 400,000 litres go into manufacturing a car. With a finite supply on the planet, we clearly need to get much better at recycling water.

Technology can help. Not only are improvements in filtration technologies making the reverse osmosis process used in treating water more energy efficient, they also make water clean enough to be returned directly into drinking water system.

As Marc Pidou of the Cranfield Water Sciences Institute recently explained to me, this make sense, as it cuts costs and the water is actually cleaner than if put through the traditional system, where it’s pumped back into local aquifers or reservoirs.

What’s more, people are becoming less queasy about the idea of drinking water that’s come directly from the sewerage system. “It’s not just the technology,” he said. “The acceptability of this practice is very important – and this is going in the right direction.”

As well as conserving precious resources, recycling water brings other benefits. Take the technology developed by Vancouver-based Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies. The company recovers nutrients from industrial and municipal wastewater and transforms them into a slow-release fertiliser. Because it does not dissolve in water, the fertiliser does not result in chemicals leaching into surrounding rivers and waterways.

For industry, closed-loop recycling systems will become more important. At its factory in the water-stressed state of Jalisco, Mexico, multinational food company Nestlé is recycling water from its dairy operations, avoiding the need to extract groundwater.

Heating fresh cow’s milk (about 88 per cent water), the company removes some of the water as steam, which – once condensed and treated – is used to clean the evaporating machines. Once the machines have been flushed out, the water is again collected, purified and recycled.

But technology will only take us so far. As those who have implemented energy efficiency programmes know, reducing water consumption is a laborious process that means examining every part of the industrial chain to look for savings.

This means we’ll need new skills to survive in a water stressed world. And one smart idea comes from Environmental Defense Fund, the US-based environmental group. In partnership with business schools, EDF matches MBA students with companies for summer internships during which the interns look for water saving opportunities.

Working across enterprises such as telecoms companies AT&T and Verizon, theEDF Climate Corps interns map out a company’s consumption and devise measures to improve water efficiency. Then they work out the return on investment – in terms of both cash and water savings.

These are the kinds of skills that both companies and governments will need. If no action is taken, by 2030 – when nearly 60 per cent of the world’s population will have moved into the middle class – water demand is expected to outstrip supply by 40 per cent.

Companies are already worried. In a study published last year, more than three in four said they were up against water-related challenges. And more than four in five believed that in the next five years they’d be facing such challenges, according to the study, carried out by Pacific Institute, an environmental research group, and Vox Global, a communications firm.

So while investments in technology will be important, so will human resources. And any company serious about addressing the global water crisis should be thinking about adding a new position to its executive jobs listing – the enterprise-wide water manager.