The issue isn’t just the amount of water required for hydration and sanitation, it’s that water is thoroughly embedded in our lives, woven through most everything we manufacture or consume. The reason that 70% of the world’s water is used for agriculture is because one egg requires 120 gallons to produce. There are 100 gallons in a watermelon. Meat is among our thirstiest commodities, requiring 2,500 gallons per pound, or as Newsweek once explained, "the water that goes into a 1,000-pound steer would float a destroyer."
Beyond food, education takes a hit, as 443 million school days a year are lost to water-related disease. Thirty-five gallons of water are used to make one microchip - and a single Intel plant produces millions of chips each month - so information abundance suffers too. Then there’s energy, where every step in the power production chain makes the world a dryer place. In the United States, for example, energy requires 20% of our nonagricultural water. Finally, with 3.5 million people dying annually from water-related illnesses, nothing is clear than the direct ties between health and hydration.
With 97.3% of the water on the planet too salty for consumption, and another 2% locked up as polar ice, an orders-of-magnitude change does not come from bickering over the remaining .5%. This is not to say we should ignore conservation and efficiency, but if our ultimate goal is abundance, then that requires an entirely new approach. Fresh water must go the route of aluminum, from one of the scarcest resources on Earth to one of the most ubiquitous.
Dean Kamen, inventor of the Slingshot: "Stick the intake hose into anything wet - arsenic-laden water, salt water, the latrine, the holding tanks of a chemical waste treatment plant; really, anything wet - and the outflow is one hundred percent pure pharmaceutical-grade injectable water."
view larger image
We can learn from our mistakes. Certainly we screwed up water (and not just in the developing world: America’s infrastructure is so old that wooden pipes still run beneath the city of Philadelphia), but issue awareness is at an all-time high. And thanks to the wireless revolution, we’re communicating best practices better than ever. Moreover, we now understand that community support is the most critical component for any water solution; without it, all of these efforts are sunk. We also know that parts must be readily available, that maintenance workers need to be incentivized, and, ideally, that these technologies are assembled and maintained locally. But we’ve learned this is true for all solutions, both high tech and low tech. Moreover, the idea that high-tech solutions won’t work in rural environments went away with the cell phone. What’s more high tech than a Nokia mobile phone? Yet, there are nearly a billion of them working all over Africa.
Energy and infrastructure capitalization are the two main issues with most technological solutions to our water problems. With abundant energy, half of this problem is solved.
Of the 1.1 billion people in the world without access to safe water, 85% of them live in the countryside. Of the 2.2 million children that die each year from drinking contaminated water, the vast majority are rural as well. So a machine capable of providing clean drinking water for these communities, by boosting health and child survival rates, actually reduces fertility in the one place where it matters most. Beyond being a water purifier, the Slingshot is an extremely well-targeted family planning device: a prophylactic disguised as a drinking fountain.
Michael Pritchard’s TED Talk | "How to make filthy water drinkable"
Related: IBM Smart Grid | Smart Water Conservation
Imagine potential upgrades. Imagine toilets that require no infrastructure. No pipes under the floor, no leach field under the lawn, no sewer systems running down the block. These high-tech outhouses powder and burn the feces and flash evaporate the urine, rendering everything sterile along the way. Rather than wasting anything, these toilets give back: packets of urea (for fertilizer), table salt, volumes of freshwater, and enough power that you can charge your cell phone while [going to the bathroom], should the need arise. Tie these toilets into the smart grid, and the electricity can be sold back to the utility company, marking the first time in history that anyone has been paid to poop. As a final component, do all this at a cost to the consumer of five cents a day. Now, that’s not just an upgrade, it’s a revolution.
"In the developing world, where sanitation issues cause tremendous death and disease, this will obviously save millions and millions of lives, but in the developed world, three-quarters of our water bill is the cost of hauling away waste and running sewage treatment plants. So the goal is to solve both problems: to find a way for people to go to the bathroom that doesn’t involve running water or sewage, while still rendering human waste completely harmless…You can burn the fecal portion of the waste and use that energy to completely clean up the urine, turning it back into water and solids…there’s over a megajoule per day of energy in human feces, which is enough to do everything the toilet needs to do, with plenty left over for cell phones and lights. And we have the technology already; we can literally do this with off-the-shelf parts."
The upside of this toilet is almost incalculable. For starters, removing human feces from the equation solves an enormous portion of the global disease burden (which also slows down population growth). Doing so in a way that is distributed (so that it doesn’t require massive upfront infrastructure investment) and net positive for water and power makes this technology radically disruptive. Moreover, the efficiencies provide a much-needed savings. Toilets account for 31 percent of all water use in America. The US EPA estimates 1.25 trillion gallons of water - the combined annual usage of LA, Miami, and Chicago - leaks from US homes each year, with toilets being the biggest waster. Lastly, in addition to feces and urine, this technotoilet processes all organic wastes, including table scraps, garden cuttings, and farm refuse, thus closing all the loops while providing a family with all the water they might require.
In 1990, in one of the most celebrated acts of an extremely illustrious career, astronomer Carl Sagan decided it might be interesting to have the Voyager 1 spacecraft, after completing its mission at Saturn, spin around and take a snapshot of the Earth. Viewed across this vast distance, the Earth is inconsequential, a nondescript speck among specks - or, as Sagan says, "a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." But it’s a blue mote; thus the photograph’s famous name: “the pale blue dot.”
Our planet is a pale blue dot because it’s an aqueous world, two-thirds of its surface covered by oceans. Those oceans are our backbone and our lifeblood. There is no question that a billion people now lack access to safe drinking water, but our oceans hold the secret to a better future.
Carl Sagan: You Are Here | Consider Again That Pale Blue Dot
Abundance is not a cornucopian vision. While the innovations just explored share the potential to tap these oceans - recycle their contents and change their chemistry, providing us with all the water we need and then some - it will not happen automatically. We have much work ahead. Yet because these waterwise technologies are all on exponential growth curves, they represent the greatest leverage available. They are the easiest path from A to B, but - and it’s a critical “but” - we still must commit ourselves to the path.
Of his famous photograph, Sagan once said: "This distant image of our tiny world…underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known."
So today, right now, bring on the efficiencies, take shorter showers, eat less beef, do all that we can to preserve a currently limited resource. But for tomorrow, know that a world of watery plenty is a very real possibility, and putting our energy behind exponentials puts us on the fast track.
Above excerpts via Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think; Part Three: Building The Base Of The Pyramid, Chapter Eight: Water
by Peter H. Diamandis
and Steven Kotler