Why we can't get water safely to billions of people

Why we can't get water safely to billions of people
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It’s challenging to know where to start when talking about water.

Depending on what seems like an infinite number of variables, water can take on countless forms. It can support and save life, or it can cause death. It can provide immense bounty or drive immense tragedy. Its absence for extended periods can be catastrophic, and too much in too short a period of time may be just as damaging. It’s one of the most wasted natural resources. Yet, has the potential to be the most renewable.  

Solving the problems associated with water, at a global scale, is one thing above all else: difficult. The lack of available, clean and safe drinking water isn’t just an issue in developing nations either — one doesn’t need to look very far to find a water crisis in our own backyard. Newark, Pittsburgh, Flint.

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Although we live in a technologically advanced society, the general approach to water infrastructure today would be recognizable to an ancient Roman. We still wait for rain, channel the water to a facility where it’s treated, and flow it downhill in pipes to communities as safely as possible. Along the way, we lose an estimated 20 percent of the treated water (in the U.S.; much more in some other countries), and in many places we accidently welcome toxins and pathogens that make people sick. The result is that we can’t get the water safely to billions of people — yes, billions. Why? 

Potable water is really, really difficult, and the political leaders of our world have a responsibility to pay attention to the issue at hand. They must ask, and ultimately solve for how to sustainably provide safe drinking water to the billions of people that need it.

The current paradigm around water delivery falls short of 21st century needs, and to move beyond aqueduct-esque infrastructure, it’s important to understand four basic fundamentals of water that makes something so simple, so very difficult.

The first fundamental is that water is an incredible solvent. Water dissolves a wide range of substances, in many cases to incredibly high concentrations. Due to this property, it is the delivery vehicle of much of the good stuff that our bodies need, such as sodium, magnesium, calcium, iron and trace elements.

That same property means that water also dissolves and delivers harmful toxins, when present, like mercury, lead, arsenic, industrial chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. When it comes to our public water, these toxins can create problems on an almost unmanageable scale if contaminated.

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Second, water is the stuff of life in all forms, including dangerous pathogens. In the absence of sterilizing chemicals, usually a type of oxidant, pathogens are likely to proliferate. We know that our bodies are cultivators of an ecosystem of bacteria that come to an equilibrium called our microbiome. This ecosystem serves us, helping us to digest and train our immune systems. But when an unfamiliar, or particularly harmful bacteria or virus is introduced, often through the water we drink, it can cause tremendous harm quickly. Think everything from E. coli to Ebola.

The third fundamental of water, particularly in urban areas, is that it doesn’t play nice with infrastructure. Water has physicochemical properties that make extracting, moving and storing it the greatest infrastructural challenge humanity has ever tried to conquer — its why when the infrastructure begins to deteriorate, leaks and other issues arise. 

Finally, while there may be plenty of water on earth, fresh water is finite. Ground water reserves have been substantially depleted in many geographies at the same time that climate change drives shifts in weather patterns and water flows. Rain is unpredictable, raining more in some places than others, and not reliably. These facts mean that our growing demands on water use stand in contrast to the already built infrastructure and puts additional strain to dependably provide enough clean water to society.

These four problems exist everywhere on the planet to various degrees. In the desert, scarcity is more of a problem than the rainforest. In Norway, infrastructure is less of a problem than Uganda. Some problems may appear innocuous in some places, and prominent in others, but all four exist, everywhere.

Today’s water solutions are bespoke, each solving for a subset of these problems. And some of those solutions (like plastic bottles or desalination) have made way for a whole new set of problems. Most people don’t understand quite how tricky water is, and what that means. Despite the ease with which we are accustomed to accessing water in the U.S., there are more than 750 water main breaks a day, and over 1 million miles of aging lead pipes in the country. Globally, one person dies from waterborne illness every 10 seconds, and half of all hospital beds occupied are attributed to diseases related to unsafe water.

In order to reach true sustainability, and a solution for water for everyone, we can’t just modernize the Roman aqueduct. We need to rethink water in terms of solving all four challenges at once, instead of playing whack-a-mole with one or two at a time. 

We are lucky to be living at a time when technological advancements are accelerating. The advent of so much new science in this area means that almost nothing is impossible. If we can apply the global braintrust and the best parts of the human imagination to the global water problem, we can solve it.

Cody Friesen is a professor of engineering at the Arizona State University. Friesen is the CEO and founder of Zero Mass Water, a technology startup that can create safe drinking water by harvesting energy from the sun and moisture from the air. His work recently earned the Lemelson-MIT Prize from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.