In 2015, the global risk report published by the World Economic Forum identified “water crises” as the foremost societal risk to the global economy, ahead of cross border conflict, weapons of mass destruction and infectious disease. Global trends are slowly beginning to reflect this: climate change is affecting accessibility to water; middle classes blossoming around the world are generating a bigger demand for water; and global slumps in water quality are bringing down the ready supplies of clean water, raising water treatment costs and putting health of communities at risk.
The problems are extensive and not concentrated. For instance, a 2016 investigation by USA Today revealed a disproportionate and detrimental amount of lead served to over 6 million people in the United States of America (USA) by about 2,000 water suppliers. Already there are the current water quantity and quality issues, and by 2050, there is a forecasted 40 per cent deficiency in clean water supplies. To stave these off, immense investments in innovate water reuse and recycling technologies as well as infrastructure reviews and improvements will be needed in the coming years in order to safely treat and deliver water to consumers.
Huge issues like a global water crisis need huge answers, and thus far, they have mostly revolved around using seawater desalination to create an unlimited supply of fresh water, notably in coastal metropolises. But desalination plants demand large reserves of electrical power and in the event of alterations in policies or the environment, they can place a steep financial burden on payers. For example, as Australia’s 10-year drought cycle comes to a close, four large desalination plants lie unproductive as ratepayers continue to stump out millions for their contractual charges and maintenance.
And it’s not just ratepayers who are affected; the impact water risks have on companies and countries financially is substantial. Enterprises privately revealed to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in 2016 that the paucity of fresh, clean water cost them more than USD$14 billion in new treatment systems, fines, acquiring water from new suppliers and production loss.
To that end, new organisations like the Global Cleanwater Desalination Alliance have been formed in order to spur innovation in the desalination industry with their pursuit of renewable energy and new technologies.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that a broader range of solutions is needed to have an expanding, water-resilient economy, and not just answers that boost supply like desalination, but also those that bring down water demand, by conserving, reusing and recycling it. There are boundless possibilities there: currently, less than three per cent of wastewater is being recycled. But according to Bluefield Research, there is hope; the industrial water treatment and recycling market is positioned to swell more than 50 per cent over the coming half decade, and will likely hit USD$11 billion in 2020; municipal wastewater reuse is set to rise 61 per cent by 2025.
However, as water prices continue to go up around the world, reflected in the price hikes witnessed recently, water will remain underpriced, even in locations where is a dearth. Consequently, preserving water through conservation and reuse will not always manifest in notable savings, though it will assist the world in dodging the spectre of water scarcity.
The final goal of ‘unlimited water’ is within reach, where the constant use and reuse of water eradicates deficiencies. But water technologies will have to be embraced at a scale never before seen. Droughts and the strategic importance of water have raised awareness for water conservation, reuse and recycle, and can these prompt policy changes that stay for the long run.