Water Security in a Resource-Strained World: Part 4 of 5: The Path Forward

Romolo Tavani / iStock Getty Images Plus

Posted by: Christopher L. Overcash, PE, BCEE, LEED AP, ENV SP

There are four major focal areas that can help alleviate some of the water security constraints expected in the future: monitoring, security, conservation, and technologies.

Monitoring Potential Areas Where Conflict Could Arise Over Water Issues. This will allow for the effective distribution of available resources to hopefully resolve or curtail the identified issue. It is important to keep in mind that a water secure world is more likely to be an economically stable world, which is good for all nations. Some good examples of this monitoring currently in operation now include the Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net), set up by USAID in the 1980s to track food, water supply and other parameters throughout the world in response to the massive famine in Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985, and the Pacific Institute, which provides information on a wide variety of water-related items, and it also tracks all the potential conflicts with any association to water issues world-wide.

Currently in the world, there are a few regions noted as potential water conflict areas. These include the Tigris and Euphrates associated with Turkish control of the water before it flows south and the Aral Sea where ex-Russian republics are deciding on the fate of the remaining water in this once large lake. The upper reaches of the Nile are also a potential conflict point between Chad and Egypt.

Continued Development and Expansion of Support in Areas of Water Scarcity to Increase Water Security. Examples of organizations that are currently engaged in such work include:

  • In the non-governmental organization (NGO) arena are groups such as Water for People that provide volunteer opportunities for engineers and other professionals to design and build water supply and sanitation infrastructure in impoverished areas worldwide.
  • Johns Hopkins University is a good example of a research institution that is working on many fronts to help alleviate water issues worldwide. Hopkins maintains a Water Institute to provide research and support on advanced water supply technologies. Other operating units such as the Environment, Energy, Sustainability and Health Institute provide an interdisciplinary approach to help solve water issues, while the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health is looking at the water issues from the human health aspect.
  • The U.S. Water Partnership seeks to utilize public-private partnerships to provide private funding and public resources to help solve water supply and sanitation issues world-wide.

Water Conservation. Water conservation, which can be summed up by the 3 R’s of reduce, reuse and recycle, is the most cost-effective way to positively impact water use and availability worldwide. For many industrialized nations, water use per capita is elevated compared with other areas of the world. For example, the U.S. uses 100 gallons daily per person on average while a European uses half that, and in underdeveloped areas, it may be as low as 15 gallons daily per person. This is illustrative of the fact that there exists a real opportunity for the U.S. to implement significant water conservation measures to gain more supply options for the future.

There are a variety of methods to accomplish water conservation. For example, it is important to control pollution to surface water so that it can easily be recycled. Reclamation, or recycling, of irrigation and industrial-use waters instead of discharging them is another area of focus. Stormwater capture and treatment can increase water supply potential as well. Technology that reuses greywater, which is used for processes such as washing dishes, provides another conservation option. Instead of being discarded, greywater reuse systems recycle this water for another use such as irrigation instead of discharging it to a sewer.

Direct reuse provides another method of water conservation in which water is not discharged at all. After collection of the water, it is treated and then placed back into the potable water system. This method is used in many areas of the world, most notably in Singapore, which does not have a significant natural source of potable water. The first such system in the U.S. was put into service in Witchita Falls, Texas, in 2014.

Water System Technologies. All new infrastructure should be designed and constructed today to meet the highest standards of sustainability in not only water, but energy and material use. This applies not only to water system components but any infrastructure. This is important to keep in mind since any element of the built environment will impact water supply through use of construction materials, the amount of water that was used to produce that material and its use of water or energy throughout its service lifetime. This will have direct water supply impacts because of the energy-water nexus. Engineers today have the tools available to make sure that all designs are completed to meet water conservation and overall sustainability goals. Rating systems like the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure’s Envision and the US Green Building Council’s LEED certifications are examples of design checklists created to meet sustainability goals; a major factor in these rating systems is applicable to water use impacts.

Other technologies which stand to play a large role in water supply as we move into the future include desalination. Right now, 1% of the world population relies on water produced through desalination, although 50% of the population in the Middle East is supplied by desalinated water. The major issue with desalination technology, whether it is reverse osmosis or distillation based, is that it is very energy intensive. It takes 15 times more energy to run a desalination plant than a typical surface water treatment plant. This obviously has a major impact to the water-energy nexus. There is also a resulting by-product of desalination of concentrated brine solution, which must be disposed of as well.

Other technologies that will become more common in the future include aqueducts and piping systems that will be established to move water from areas of abundance to areas of need, such as those constructed in California in the previous century. These types of systems, however, utilize significant amounts of energy for pumping of the water.

It is also likely that in the future, water will be transferred by marine vessel, essentially converted oil tankers, to water scarce areas. The export of water as a commodity in this method has been contemplated but has not been put into practice on a large scale yet.