The future is thirsty

Solutions to water shortages range from speculative to downright icky.

Back when Aristotle experimented with desalination techniques, ancient Greece housed about 13 million people — fewer than Shanghai or Mumbai. Today, the BRIC block (Brazil, Russia, India and China) alone has a population of more than 2.8 billion people. And each and every one of them needs water to survive.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a huge problem since water covers much of the earth. But as Aristotle realized, most of that resource is seawater. Only 2.5% of the planet’s water is suitable for human consumption, not to mention agriculture, energy production and most industrial purposes. And available sources are being rapidly polluted and depleted as demand soars.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development, nearly half the world’s population will inhabit areas with severe water stress by 2030. Stella Thomas, executive director of the Global Water Fund, an organization working to raise awareness of the looming crisis, notes that the human race will reach more than eight billion people in a few decades, and most of the increase will take place in urban centres, where eating habits are more water-intensive than in rural communities. “A single hamburger uses 11,000 litres of water [to produce],” Thomas says. Growing a kilo of rice, on the other hand, requires less than half that amount.

Market speculators already call water “the new oil” and “blue gold.” In Texas, where the population is expected to double over the next 50 years, energy tycoon T. Boone Pickens and some partners have been scooping up water rights attached to the largest aquifer in North America. According to their company’s marketing material, they stand “ready to sell water to communities that don’t have enough for the future.”

Others in the business community aim to make money by developing innovative products and solutions that will help alleviate the supply crunch. In Singapore, Semb-corp provides advanced water treatment technology that allows residents to tap into the same water source used by Kevin Costner in Waterworld — urine. After a toilet flush is run through standard treatment facilities, a process involving micro-filtration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet waves purify the reclaimed water. Branded NEWater, the end product helps serve the demand of industries such as manufacturing. Like in many other cities around the world, Singapore’s treated waste also helps restock local drinking reservoirs. A limited supply is even available in bottles for direct consumption.

Rod Idler is working on a more palatable-sounding alternative. As a partner in California startup Atmospheric Water Systems, Idler is out to make his company’s Dewpointe line of home and office water-makers as ubiquitous as microwave ovens. With ideal temperatures and humidity levels, the US$1,500 units can transform air into more than eight gallons of 99.99% pure water per day while using about the same amount of energy as a refrigerator. Not every location is suitable, though. “If you live in Hawaii, you would have no problem with one of our machines,” he says. “But Toronto in the winter is more problematic,” because energy consumption increases as humidity levels drop.

Despite power-related challenges, Idler thinks new homes across North America will eventually come with water generation capabilities that go beyond meeting demand for just drinking or cooking. Imagine an old basement furnace room, but instead of a furnace, there is a pure-water production unit. It’s not imminent. “This is an infant industry,” he says, but “it is part of the solution.”

Players to watch:

Water Standard
This Houston-based outfit builds desalination ships that produce fresh water with little environmental impact and less energy than shore-based facilities need.

Clearford Industries
The Ottawa company improves wastewater reclamation by offering an innovative sewer architecture that separates solids before effluent streams hit treatment plants.