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The poisoning of the residents of Flint, Michigan, by lead leaching out of the city’s aged water pipes was a warning: The world, including the United States, is entering a new and alarming dimension of a clean water crisis.
I wrote in my book Trends 2000 more than 20 years ago, and have forecast repeatedly since, that the production and delivery of clean, safe water is among the most powerful and enduring global trends affecting populations worldwide.
The water crisis isn’t only driven by droughts. The crisis is now exasperated by the thousands of municipalities with water systems a century or more old.
A report published in early 2016 in the Journal — American Water Works Association estimates that more than 6 million lead water pipes in the United States alone still link city water mains to homes where as many as 22 million people live.
But the problem isn’t just lead in the pipes. The pipes themselves are getting older.
Significant portions of most U.S. municipal water systems are more than 100 years old. There are about 240,000 water main breaks in the U.S. each year. The American Society of Civil
Engineers rates the U.S. public water system every four years and consistently assigns it a grade of “D.”
These antiquated systems leak an estimated 14–18% of the water traveling through them — some systems, such as Flint’s, are estimated to lose up to 40%.
That not only wastes water and, therefore, money, but also creates low-pressure spots where contamination can infiltrate the grid — and there’s plenty of that going on.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent annual compliance report for public water supplies logged 16,802 “significant violations” of national drinking water safety standards. More than 47% of the violations were in the form of bacteria.
Some of the easiest ways to save water are to simply repair leaks and use available technology to monitor underground pipes to find where the worst leaks are. Regulating water use is a common tool.
Governments are trying a variety of ways to solve those problems. Some cash-strapped cities are turning to private water companies to help out.
But thanks to mismanagement, and private companies’ exploitation of monopoly power, efforts to ease the water crisis haven’t always worked well.
So increasingly, technology is stepping in with its own answers.
Some solutions are simple. For instance, coastal areas are setting up “fog nets” to collect condensation from the morning’s dew.
A teenager from Nashua, New Hampshire, worked with a mentor at 3M to devise a way to use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to create chemical reactions that kill waterborne bacteria.
Design Technology and Irrigation, a British firm, has developed an underground irrigation system that brings ocean or briny water direct to farm fields in the Middle East.
The dirty water travels through pipes buried in the fields. The pipe lets water vapor pass through but traps salts and other contaminants on the inside. The vapor passes through the pipe into the soil, where it condenses back into water that plant roots can absorb.
Desalinating seawater, an energy-intensive operation, is becoming more feasible as solar-powered facilities are replacing diesel-fired plants. Saudi Arabia is a leading developer of this technology.
These last two projects could make their way to the United States.
On the broader global scale, the growing risk of safe water shortages will require countries to focus on new approaches to basic water stewardship, including replacing leaky urban water mains and building or improving underground storage facilities.
That will increasingly include private entrepreneurs and investors joining with public water supply and management entities to develop the best solutions. There will also be plenty of potential profits along the way.
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