California, especially the Central Valley and Southern California, is experiencing the worst drought since the 1970s, and arguably the worst drought in its recorded history (about 65 years). Yet to most Californian’s it is nothing more than a small inconvenience because water still flows from our taps and shower heads, and clean, safe drinking water in the form of bottled water, is always available.
For Americans, the availability of clean, safe drinking water is taken for granted. Since Louis Pasteur and William Henry discovered more than 150 years ago, that pressurized steam processing could make contaminated water safe, we have known what must be done. Over time, other techniques for treating water by filtration and chlorination have virtually eliminated many waterborne contaminants causing cholera and typhoid in North America and Europe.
But this is not the case for another 1.4 billion people around the world, who every day have no choice but to rely on contaminated water from unprotected wells, lakes or rivers as their water source. All of which remain susceptible to contamination by raw sewage, undertreated wastewater discharges, and urban and agricultural runoff. Consuming this contaminated water that is laced with virus and bacteria contaminates like E.coli, Salmonella, Coliform, Giardia and more, causes serious illness and many deaths.
In countries where contaminated water is too often the only water available, 1 in 5 children, or 1.5 million children annually, will die of dysentery and another 2.1 million adults will die from disease brought on by consuming contaminated water.
A 2010 UN report stated “Dirty water kills more people than war” and that “more than half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied with people suffering from illness linked to contaminated water.” The conclusion of the report was that the earth’s clean and safe water resources are dwindling due to increased contamination due to population growth and the lack of waste water management.
The human body contains as much as 75% water, and without it, can only survive for about three days making clean water the most important factor for global public health.
While more than 2/3 of the earth is covered in water, only 2.5% of it is fresh and only a small percentage of that is drinkable. The 2014 World Economic Forum declared access to safe and clean water as the third most serious global issue (behind fiscal crisis/government debt and climate change).
When it comes to increasing the world’s water supply, there are only four options: increase the amount of reuse/recycling, increase water storage, conserve more water or create a new source. For many years, for many countries, the only new source has been desalination.
Worldwide about 300 million people now get their freshwater from more than 17,000 desalination plants in 150 countries. Most modern desalination facilities use a process called reverse osmosis. But desalination is expensive because it uses 3-10 times the amount of energy a traditional drinking water treatment plant uses. Desalination is also inefficient, requiring two gallons of salt water to create one gallon of freshwater. The other gallon of water contains twice the amount of salt, which is typically then discharged back into the ocean creating an environmental issue.
But for many countries, Australia and the Middle East, relying on desalination is a necessity. Even here in California, it is now necessary. Later this year, the largest desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere will go online in Carlsbad, CA. The $1 billion plant will have a capacity of 50 million gallons-per-day and will provide about 7% of the drinking water needs for the San Diego region. Plus there are, currently, 16 other California desalination plant proposals in the works.
The availability of clean, safe water for all must become a global priority. If it does not become a priority then the likelihood that future conflicts will be fought over water becomes more plausible each year, especially since water, agriculture, health and food are so closely tied together. The Pacific Institute, a non-profit research group that studies worldwide resources, has published a report on the threat of “water wars” erupting in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Even the U.S. State Department and Homeland Security now include the threat of contamination of our water resources by terrorists, as a major threat to our national security.
Consequently an urgent need remains for new techniques and sources that can purify and sterilize large volumes of water more efficiently.
Ian’s weekly column covers regional, state and national issues. His 40 year media career includes 20 years as Publisher & CEO of various media companies. He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.