The demand for clean water has surpassed the supply. What can we do about it?

For the latest installment of Batten’s Expert Chat Series, water sustainability experts Charles Iceland and Jon Freedman spoke and took questions on the world’s most vital resource.

The largest city in Brazil nearly ran out of water a few years ago. California recently experienced its worst drought since record keeping began. The major Indian metropolis of Chennai had to receive emergency water deliveries by tanker truck last summer. 

“We’ve reached a point where the global demand for water exceeds the supply,” Jon Freedman told an online audience during last week’s installment of Batten’s Expert Chat Series. 

Freedman and his fellow speaker, Charles Iceland, brought two complementary perspectives to the discussion, where they spoke and took questions on the future of clean water. Freedman heads global government affairs for SUEZ - Water Technologies & Solutions. Iceland is director of global and national water initiatives at the World Resources Institute. Together representing corporate and nonprofit approaches, the two men teach a class on water sustainability at the University of Pennsylvania.

According to Iceland, the reason for water scarcity is simple. “Basically, we’re taking more water out of rivers and aquifers than is being replenished in many places around the world,” he said. “Like someone who is spending more out of their bank account than what is getting paid in by their wages, this is an unsustainable situation.”

Primarily due to population growth, economic growth, and climate change, the gap between the need for clean water and the amount that actually exists has been widening for many years and will likely continue to do so, Iceland said. The problem is especially dire amid COVID-19. In slums like Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, people often lack access to clean water for handwashing. Water shortages also affect U.S. communities; in the Navajo Nation reservation, for example, 40% of households lack running water. 

There are three main ways to address the problem of water scarcity, Freedman explained. The first is simply to use less water. “That’s a great start, but it only gets you so far,” he noted. The second is to desalinate seawater, but that solution is “expensive and energy intensive.” The third is something that his company intensely focuses on: water reuse.

Despite the fact that we have the technology to safely recycle wastewater for all of our needs, only 3-4% of the world’s wastewater is being reused today. Why? “The answer is economics,” Freedman said. “It’s often just cheaper to take water from the ground or a river, where it’s often free, or even from a potable municipal system, where it’s almost universally underpriced, than it is to implement reuse technologies.”

As a result, “governments need to step in and create policies that are going to promote reuse,” Freedman said. Sharing findings from a report he co-authored that contains 150 examples of policies that governments in different countries have already implemented, he outlined four categories of water reuse policies: You can educate people, explaining that it’s both important to reuse water and safe to do so; you can remove barriers to using reclaimed water, such as regulations preventing it from being injected into the ground; you can provide incentives, such as low-cost loans or grants; and you can mandate water reuse.

“These policies work,” Freedman said. “Israel has implemented all of them and they’re reusing 85-90% of their wastewater today.” The U.S. is increasingly adopting these tactics as well, he added; the Environmental Protection Agency just developed its first national water reuse strategy and action plan.

In addition to governments, individuals and corporations can help address water scarcity as well, Freedman and Iceland pointed out. Corporations can engage in water-related philanthropy, perhaps by funding handwashing kiosks or other facilities. When it comes to individuals, minimizing household water use doesn’t do much, Iceland said. “The number one thing you can do individually for the environment—which is not just water but of course includes water—is to change your diet,” Iceland said. Since beef, for example, uses a high amount of water per calorie, he recommends that people cut down on the number of times per week they consume it.

One of the most powerful things about water, the men agreed, is the central role it plays in our lives. “Water is a fundamental human right,” Freedman said. “You can only live three days without it.” On an international scale, that means nations which share the same rivers—India and Pakistan, China and India, the U.S. and Canada—can experience serious political anxiety around water sources. Batten’s dean, Ian Solomon, posed an important question to this week’s experts: “What do you consider to be the most promising means of water cooperation, rather than conflict?”

Iceland cited the Indus Waters Treaty. Brokered by the World Bank, the agreement gave Pakistan purview over the western tributaries of the Indus River and India purview over the eastern ones. Although the agreement is now under pressure due to high water demand, it remains a hopeful example in our conflict-ridden world.

“Pakistan and India negotiated that treaty notwithstanding all the animosities over other issues that they've had throughout their history,” Iceland said. “Between those two countries, water was a force for peace.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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