From space, the Earth may look like "a pale blue dot," but the blue is "thinner than the skin on an apple," notes David Gallo, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The tiny blue speck on the right above represents all the freshwater on the planet—the kind that all the plants and animals on land need to survive. It would take dot too infinitesimal to see—just 2% of the speck—to represent all the surface freshwater, which is the most easily accessible.
If water is too salty, too alkaline, too acidic, too hot (steam), too cold (ice), too polluted with toxins and pathogens, we can't use it: so it's a speck of a speck of a speck. Timing also plays a role. Too much water coming all at once triggers floods, while too little, too occasionally leads to drought.
The water industry is really a series of verticals focused on getting clean water to where it is needed and dirty water away from where it can do harm. It spans everything from urban infrastructure, to "smart" GPS-enabled irrigation systems, to a water-miser shower head that becomes a multi-million dollar hit on Kickstarter.
According to a new report by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), water insecurity carries a high global price tag: a half trillion dollars annually. Add in environmental costs and "the total drag on the world economy could be 1% or more of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP)."
"...Flood damage is estimated at US$120 billion per year from urban property damage alone, while major droughts were found to reduce per capita GDP growth by half a percentage point. Investing in water security would mitigate many of these losses and promote long-term sustainable growth.
The costs related to inadequate water and sanitation services in developing countries are estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) at US$ 260 billion a year. For very poor countries this cost may be 10% of GDP. In agriculture, water insecurity is estimated to cost existing irrigators US$94 billion per year..."
In more human terms, an estimated 1 in 9 people on the planet does not have ready access to clean drinking water. This isn't just a developing world problem. In the US, wells are going dry as aquifers become depleted. The Ogallala aquifer, a sort of sixth Great Lake stretching 174,000 square miles beneath eight Great Plains farm states, is now measured in inches (See: The Great Plains’ invisible water crisis). For millions of Americans, it is their only source of drinking water.
And this is before the impacts of a changing climate are factored in. A warmer world holds more atmospheric water so there is literally more rain (and snow, sleet and hail) to pour down. Winter snow packs that melt too quickly mean there won't be enough water flowing into mountain streams and rivers to fill reservoirs for drinking water and irrigation. Meanwhile shrinking polar ice sheets are raising sea levels, not only threatening coastal cities with chronic flooding and coastal farmlands with salinization, but also global trade, 90% of which at some point involves shipping.
If the problems are daunting, the money to solve them is substantial—and increasing:
There is simply no substitute for water and with the human population expected to grow to 8.5 billion in the next 15 years, demand will only grow. If there is any good news to be had in the epic California drought, it is the attention it has brought, spurring innovation and investment.
From reinventing the shower head to reinventing waste-water recycling, there are opportunities to make a difference and make money are vast. Even pipes are poised for disruptive innovation:
Water efficiency turns blue turns to green. Before the current crisis pushed efforts into overdrive, California was already a leader in water conservation. In a recent article for the New York Times, Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst, noted that "the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California now supplies roughly 19 million people in six counties, and it uses slightly less water than it did 25 years ago, when it supplied 15 million people. That savings — more than one billion gallons each day — is enough to supply all of New York City." Just as with energy efficiency, savings drop to the bottom line.
And that's worth raising a glass of good clean water and making a toast.
In this TEDxMidwest talk, oceanographer David Gallo talks about water, the planet's most precious commodity.
Gates Foundation-supported OmniProcesor is a "low-cost waste treatment plant that combines a steam power plant, an incinerator, and a water filtration system into a machine capable of converting 14 tons of sewage into potable water and electricity each day." (Wired)
The Nebia shower head uses as much 70% less water than a typical shower. Investors include Apple's Tim Cook, Google's Eric Schmidt (family foundation) and thousands of Kickstarter supporters.