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We are Running Out of Water - Now What?

This piece was authored by Jon Freedman, Global Government Relations Leader for GE Power & Water. It originally ran on May 12th on GreenBiz.

Last weekend, Jessica Yu's new water documentary "Last Call at the Oasis" took us on tour of the impacts water scarcity is creating around the globe, from the parched pastures of Australia's farmlands to the sewage-polluted banks of the Jordan River. This film shines a much-needed light on the various water challenges we all now face at a critical time. The numbers alone are eye-opening.

If current water usage trends continue, by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population -- or 5.3 billion people -- will be vulnerable to water shortages. What many here in the U.S. may not know is that we are far from immune to water stress. One need look no further than Texas, where a record-breaking drought last year created massive water shortages that significantly impacted the state's water supplies, agriculture and industry. Although the world's water supply works in a continuous cycle of consumption and replenishment -- we are currently using more at a faster pace -- and nature is not able to keep up. It's no longer enough to conserve water during droughts, or to turn off the tap while we brush our teeth. Water reuse must be part of the long-term solution. The time has come to look past the "yuck factor" that some associate with treating and reusing "used" water, rather than drawing from our shrinking fresh supplies. The water used in today's morning shower shouldn't disappear down the drain, but rather find new life to feed crops or produce electricity.

By recycling and reusing water, governments and businesses will be able to better insulate themselves against the impacts of climate change, as reclaimed water can be used to irrigate fields, sustain industrial activity and even create drinking water. Looking ahead, our community and business leaders must take steps to advance water recycling and reuse in order to secure a sustainable water future.

Many forward thinking governments across the country are already taking steps to adapt to this new reality. A panel discussion I recently moderated at the American Bar Association's Water Law Conference uncovered ways that local, state and federal agencies are adapting to the changing water landscape.

For example, New York City, which currently gets about 50 percent of its daily water supply from the 330 mile long Delaware River, is constructing a filtration plant to produce water to meet up to 30 percent of demand from its eight million residents. The city predicts that the water supply will shrink from reduced snowpack and decrease in quality from more frequent storms.

Industry is also waking up to the critical role it can play to turn this crisis around. More than 20 percent of the world's freshwater is currently used in industrial applications. Water-intensive industries, such as the high-tech or pharmaceutical sectors, can recycle water to shield themselves against higher costs or a diminished supply that could disrupt operations and impact profitability.

Companies like AB InBev, who recently made a commitment to drastically reduce the amount of water used per liter of beer, and Levi's, currently marketing "water-less jeans," are two examples among a growing number of corporations tackling this issue.

However, water scarcity is too important and the resource too precious to allow the burden to hang on the shoulders of a few cities or industries. The solution lies in a combination of factors that include government policy, technological innovation and collaboration.

Governments can take steps to promote reuse, such as raising awareness of the realities of water scarcity, making reuse requirements easier to meet, offering incentives through subsidies or pricing, and expanding regulations requiring reuse.

A number of countries around the world have enacted incentives to encourage more reuse. Singapore, for example, has created a Water Efficiency Fund that provides up to 50 percent of the capital cost of water recycling facilities. To the extent that incentives exist in the US, they tend to be at the local level. So we are working with several members of Congress on creating a legislative measure that would provide a federal incentive.

One of the largest hurdles to the implementation of water reuse on any scale is cost. It is imperative that companies in the water treatment and processing industry -- like GE and others -- are committed to developing economically viable and energy efficient technologies to help cities, companies and communities address water challenges related to availability, quality and productivity.

Finally, this issue is far too large for any government, company or non-governmental entity to tackle alone. We all need to work together to assess the water-related risks the world faces as we grow and help identify solutions.

A great example of this type of collaboration is the Aqueduct Alliance, a consortium of private and public sectors, non-profits and academia, which has developed an online tool to help measure and map geographically explicit water risks, which will likely be exacerbated by climate change. Identifying hotspots of risk that can constrain access to water, increase costs and disrupt operations can help pinpoint where reuse is feasible and necessary.

Water is one of the fundamental building blocks of civilization -- so fundamental that we are tempted to overlook it until we reach a crisis situation. The fact is, that without a sufficient supply of water, a society cannot grow and prosper. Although the demand for clean water continues to grow while supply becomes increasingly threatened, we don't have to choose between economic progress and the protection of our natural resources. By making choices to reuse water today, we can redefine how we secure, deliver and utilize water to preserve this resource for a growing world.

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