A Tenuous Connection, A Saving Grace
We’ve been inundated with worst-case scenarios for a long time now: extreme drought, the promise of another dust bowl in our lifetime, degraded water quality, increased treatment and delivery costs, and an infrastructure that’s literally crumbling beneath our feet. Add to that a world population that continues to explode—over 7 billion at last check—along with increased urbanization and industrialization, and what you’ve got is a recipe for disaster . . . and a voracious need for new resource management protocols and technologies.
But these innovations will come at a cost.
According to a report released late last year by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) titled “The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture,” in order to stave off (or at least slow) a worldwide resource crisis, the FAO estimates that over $3 trillion alone must be invested in irrigation development and management by 2050. According to EPA, in the US the current “water infrastructure gap”—the difference between projected funding allocations and funding needs—is about $6 billion a year, or over $500 billion over the next two decades.
So how will we fund these much needed improvements and innovations?
One answer might be found in the Mega City: urban spaces that house anywhere from 10–20 million inhabitants “within the walls of an urban über metropolis where resources are scarce and clean water is a luxury” (http://www.waterefficiency.net/WE/Blogs/1158.aspx). But while Mega Cities often seem to exemplify the worst aspects of human development, these urban environments can also be incubators of change and innovation. As the “US and Canada Green City Index” states, “It is well known that city life can exacerbate problems such as harmful greenhouse gas emissions or urban sprawl, but increasingly cities are also generating unique solutions to these challenges through effective local policies.”
Released earlier this year by the Economist Intelligence Unit and co-sponsored by Siemens, the “US and Canada Green City Index,” rated 27 cities throughout the US and Canada in 16 different categories, including waste management, energy usage, and water efficiency. One of the key findings of the report was that despite some of the highest water consumption rates in the world, both “US and Canadian cities have efficient water infrastructure and robust policies regarding water conservation.”
This water efficiency success is due in part to the “strong correlation between higher GDP per capita and lower water consumption” and the fact that in North America the average leakage rate is just 13%, beating even the wealthiest of European cities (who average around 16%). We are also capitalizing on water reuse: according to the Green City Index, 23 of 27 cities surveyed recycle water to some extent (compared with 9 out of 30 European cities, including only 6 of the 15 wealthiest).
Of the 27 cities surveyed, Calgary was rated number one in water resource management, due in no small part to the city’s commitment to reduce water consumption by 30% by 2033, primarily through demand management and automatic metering. Phoenix was also singled out for its award-winning wastewater treatment system that discharges treated water into manmade wetlands. In Washington DC, the “Skip the Bag, Save the River” program has led to both waste reduction and improved water quality. And in Houston, the energy efficient, solar-powered aerators used to treat water at Lake Houston—one of the city’s primary sources of drinking water—has resulted in a reduction of energy costs by 28%.
The time to implement similar programs and strategies across the globe is now. The FAO report concludes that a combination of population growth, climate change, and degraded resources are conspiring to pose “a profound challenge to the task of feeding a world population.” According to the report, improving the efficiency of water resource management is the key to dodging global catastrophe. Because “most irrigation systems across the world perform below their capacity,” concludes the report, “a combination of improved irrigation scheme management, investment in local knowledge and modern technology, knowledge development, and training can increase water use efficiency,” and perhaps avert disaster.
For many of us, the “out of sight, out of mind” nature of the relationship between source and use means it’s easy to forget that the clean, cheap, potable water we enjoy often travels hundreds of miles to get to us. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that our water resources are fragile and the water we depend on is located far way, often in compromised or threatened environments. For the urban dweller, that connection between source and use is even harder to conceptualize, but the tenuous status of water resources in our cities and urban landscapes may prove to be our saving grace. Because, in the end, it’s that raw nerve of need-versus-supply that will spark innovation and ultimately lead us to a more efficient, empowered water resource management future.
Author's Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is the Editor of Water Efficiency magazine and Distributed Energy magazine
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