Water is the new oil: Use it efficiently | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 06, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 06, 2013

Water is the new oil: Use it efficiently

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Steven Solomon had a simple answer to why water beats oil as the world's most precious resource. "You can't drink oil, and you can't grow food with it," he said to the standing-room-only crowd at the RAND Corporation.
Solomon, author of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, explained how intrinsic water is to the way we live -- from what we wear to the cars we drive and the computers we use -- and how its scarcity drives economic, environmental, and political conflicts around the world.
According to the UN's World Water Assessment Programme forecast, the future global water crisis is indeed a gloomy thing: by 2030 half the world's population will face a fresh water deficit. Thirsty nations will take up arms against their saturated neighbours. People drinking polluted water will become ill. Ecologies will die out when the rivers feeding them are depleted for the sake of farms and factories.
However, despite scarcity, we take water for granted. And why not? We turn a tap and water comes out. But that's going to have to change, says author Alex Prud'homme. As he explains in a new book, The Ripple Effect, the basic problem is this: the quantity of water in the world is finite, but demand is everywhere on the rise.
What oil was in the 20th century -- the key resource, a focus of tension, even conflict -- is what water will be of the 21st; as states, countries, and industries compete over the ever-more-precious resource. So we need to figure out how to use it more sustainably.
Right now water is considered an "axis resource," meaning it's the resource that underlies all others. So whether you're building a computer chip, or growing crops, or generating power, all these things require lots of water. But there's only a finite amount of water, as resources butt up against each other.
If water is now the kind of precious commodity that oil became in the 20th century, can delivery of clean water to those who need it have the same sort of powerful force as the environmental movement in an age of climate change?
And, in another sense of green, is there money to be made in a time of water scarcity?
The answer to both questions, according to environmental activists watching a global forum on water, is yes. "As climate change accelerates and we see a changing hydrological cycle, diminishing access to resources, there are direct human impacts that are water-related," said Jonathan Greenblatt, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles who advised the Obama transition team on civic engagement and national service.
However, despite direct human impacts, there's not a great economic incentive to use it efficiently. I came to believe after all this research that we need to give greater value to water. So, does that mean putting a price on water? Even privatising it? That's probably the trickiest question in water today, because it raises a moral dilemma.
Is water a common intake, like the air we breathe? If it is, it should be free to everyone. Or is it a commodity, like oil or gas, that is processed and sold as a commodity? On the one hand, if we don't price water, people waste it. On the other hand, if we price it too high, then we are playing a game with life and death, predicated on making a profit.
Now the most critical question is: What shall we do? Shall there be a middle ground? A middle ground is probably an acceptable solution. We need to provide a certain amount of water to every person, essentially for free. And that figure is about 13 gallons per capita per day.
In the US, that's not very much water, but in a place like sub-Saharan Africa or China or India or Bangladesh, it's a lot. Beyond that, we should institute a tiered price structure. So that the more water you use, the more you will pay for it.
The most important question is what else can we do to make our water use sustainable? The most common answer is that we need to change the way we value water. We need to focus on efficiency and conservation.
There have been talks on "soft path," as opposed to "hard path" engineering. Soft path is technologically driven; it's kind of a smarter and less dramatic way of conserving the water supplies that we have, and using them more efficiently.
Fairly simple steps -- low-flow showerheads, low-flush toilets, drip irrigation, side-mounting washing machines, storing water underground instead of above ground, where it evaporates. These are not super hi-tech, they're existing technologies; we just haven't used them intentionally enough yet.
But then there is the question of motivation towards adapting these "soft path" technologies for using water more efficiently? Does the education on "ways to use water" help? My personal experience says yes, it does.
Once I got into the proper information about the scarcity of water and information on how to use water, I discovered the many ways I had been wasting water without realisation. So now I and my family recycle a lot of water; serving the purpose of having it stored longer.
We are very careful about what we put down the drain; we now have a more efficient, low-flush toilet. We have fixed the leaks in our house. The stat that I remember is that a dripping faucet can drip ten gallons of water a day -- water that's been carefully collected and cleaned and piped to us. That's just a crazy waste of resource.
While the future of water scarcity is unavoidable, the critical question remains: Are there any alternative sources of fresh water to be used? Yes, there is; we may consider sea water as an alternative source. Sea water desalination has being improving over the decades, and the most cost-efficient facilities produce water at around $0.5 per cubic metre today.
There is also iceberg towage, which is done on a limited scale in Canada now, but has the potential to become a regular enterprise in a thirstier world. Optimistic estimates promise iceberg water at $0.8 per cubic meter.

The writer is the Principal Research Scientist of the Pacific ENSO Applications Climate Center (University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA).
Email: rashed.chowdhury@outlook.com

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