What are they up against this year? Here’s a quick rundown on the growing global water crisis.
1) We’re Changing the Climate, Making Dry Areas Drier and Precipitation More Variable and Extreme.
Climate change is warming the planet, making the world’s hottest geographies even more scorching. At the same time, clouds are moving away from the equator toward the poles, due to a climate-change driven phenomenon called Hadley Cell expansion. This deprives equatorial regions like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central America of life-giving rainwater.
Paradoxically, climate change is also increasing precipitation in other areas, and people who live near rivers and streams have the most to lose. Currently, at least 21 million people worldwide are at risk of river flooding each year. That number could increase to 54 million by 2030. All countries with the greatest exposure to river floods are least developed or developing countries – which makes them even more vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. This summer, extreme flooding submerged over a third of Bangladesh, claiming over 115 lives and affecting 5.7 million citizens.
2) More People + More Money = More Water Demand.
It’s a simple equation: As populations increase and incomes grow, so does water demand. The world’s population, now at 7.5 billion, is projected to add 2.3 billion more people by 2050. How can the planet satisfy their thirst? Growing incomes also exacerbate the water problem, because of the water-intensive products—like meatand energy from fossil fuels—that richer populations demand.
3) Groundwater Is Being Depleted.
About 30 percent of Earth’s fresh water lies deep underground in aquifers. And it’s extracted daily for farming, drinking and industrial processes – often at dangerously unsustainable rates. Nowhere is this more evident than India, which guzzles more groundwater than any other country. 54 percent of India’s groundwater wells are decreasing, meaning that water is used faster than it’s replenished. Unless patterns shift, in 20 years, 60 percent of India’s aquifers will be in critical condition.
Unlike an incoming hurricane or a drained lake, the naked eye cannot see when groundwater reserves in aquifers are declining. Global water supplies are susceptible to this hidden and growing threat.
4) Water Infrastructure Is in a Dismal State of Disrepair.
Having enough water to go around is only the beginning. That water also needs to be transported, treated, and discharged. Around the world, water infrastructure―treatment plants, pipes, and sewer systems―is in a state of disrepair. In the United States, 6 billion gallons of treated water are lost per dayfrom leaky pipes alone. Built infrastructure is notoriously expensive to install and repair, meaning that many localities ignore growing infrastructure issues until disaster strikes, as it did in California earlier this year.
5) And Natural Infrastructure Is Being Ignored.
Heavy machinery removing trees in Ecuador. Flickr/CIFOR
Healthy ecosystems are ” natural infrastructure” and vital to clean, plentiful water. They filter pollutants, buffer against floods and storms, and regulate water supply. Plants and trees are essential for replenishing groundwater; without them, rainfall will slide across dry land, instead of seeping into the soil. Loss of vegetation from deforestation, overgrazing and urbanization is limiting our natural infrastructure and the benefits that it provides. Forested watersheds around the world are under threat: watersheds have lost up to 22 percent of their forests in the past 14 years.
6) Water Is Wasted.
Although it’s true that water is a renewable resource, it’s often wasted. Inefficient practices like flood irrigation and water-intensive wet cooling at thermal power plants use more water than necessary. What’s more, as we pollute our available water at an alarming rate, we also fail to treat it. About 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is discharged back into nature without further treatment or reuse. In many countries, it’s cheaper to receive clean drinking water than to treat and dispose of wastewater, which encourages water waste. This brings us to the next issue:
7) The Price Is Wrong.
Globally, water is seriously undervalued. Its price does not reflect the true, total cost of service, from its transport via infrastructure to its treatment and disposal. This has led to misallocation of water, and a lack of investments in infrastructure and new water technologies that use water more efficiently. After all, why would a company or government invest in expensive water-saving technologies, when water is cheaper than the technology in question? When the price of receiving clean water is closer to its actual service cost, efficient water use will be incentivized. And on the flip side, the poor often end up paying disproportionately high prices for water, stunting development.
It’s Not Too Late
Amidst these seven deadly water sins, there is good news: governments, businesses, universities and citizens around the world are waking up to water challenges, and beginning to take action. Each year brings more solutions – like using wastewater for energy, using restoration to bring water back to dry topographies, and monitoring groundwater levels more closely. However, even the best solutions will not implement themselves. Along with fresh water, political will and public pressure are critical resources in ensuring a sustainable future for all.
by Leah Schleifer – August 24, 2017
More than 5 million Americans get their drinking water from public water systems that could contain hazardous levels of a chemical called nitrate, which is linked to public health risks — including cancer and birth defects. And the concentrations found in the vast majority of that drinking water would be deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a study published this month in the journal Environmental Health.
Nitrate occurs naturally in soil, water, and food. But when it is ingested, it can react with organic compounds in the body to form carcinogens.
A team of researchers at environmental health advocacy groups looked into nearly 40,000 public water systems that between 2010 and 2014 served 70 percent of Americans. They found that more than 1,600 of the systems they reviewed had average nitrate concentrations of at least 5 parts per million.
While that amount is just one-half of the level that the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe to drink, the lead study author told Grist that there is evidence that the federal standards may be outdated.
“The EPA is very slow in updating drinking water standards,” said lead author Laurel Schaider, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit research group in Massachusetts that studies the effects of chemicals on women’s health. In fact, just this week, Politico reported that the EPA won’t place federal limits on two chemicals associated with cancer and other health issues in drinking water — despite lawmakers on both sides of the aisle pressuring Andrew Wheeler, the agency’s acting administrator, to take action.
The EPA established 10 parts per million as its regulatory standard for nitrate in 1991 primarily to protect infants from “blue baby syndrome.” The syndrome, which can impact infants who are fed formula mixed with nitrate-contaminated water, causes a drop in in the amount of hemoglobin in the blood, which cuts the babies’ oxygen intake.
It’s unclear whether the EPA is considering revising its safety standard. In a December 2016 review of drinking water standards, it designated nitrate as “not appropriate for review at this time.” But in September 2017, the agency released a draft plan to reassess the health effects of nitrate, noting that health studies published since 1991 had called into question whether the EPA’s current maximum nitrate contaminant levels “provide adequate health protection for the general population.” The EPA declined to provide a comment to Grist.
Several studies have documented increased health risks — ranging from colorectal cancer, thyroid disease, and birth defects affecting the brain, spine, or spinal cord — stemming from elevated nitrate levels, even at concentrations below current federal regulatory limits. For example, a 2013 study of more than 4,000 mothers found that women who consumed water with levels well below the EPA limit were roughly twice as likely to deliver babies with birth defects. And a 2010 study of more than 21,000 women in Iowa documented an increased risk of thyroid cancer for people exposed to nitrate levels in public water supplies that were greater than 5 ppm for five or more years.
Although 99 percent of water systems surveyed in the Silent Spring Institute’s analysis showed nitrate levels below the EPA’s 10-ppm standard, 129 community water systems serving 144,000 Americans had an average nitrate concentration surpassing that upper limit. Private drinking wells weren’t included in this study, but are often located in rural and agricultural areas, where that study shows there tends to be more nitrates that can seep into the groundwater.
The biggest culprit for nitrate contamination is runoff from fertilizers or manure. That could point to why states in the West and Midwest, home to eight of the top 10 agriculture-producing states, had higher levels. The increased use of fertilizers, more prominent fossil-fuel combustion, and the growing popularity of nitrogen-fixing crops like soybeans have led to a doubling of the natural rate at which nitrogen is deposited into land since the 1920s.
Schaider’s team also found that water systems that served populations with a larger proportion of Hispanic people tended to have higher levels of nitrates. The researchers hypothesized that the correlation was due to the group’s association with agricultural work. But Hispanic residents didn’t appear to have high exposure to nitrates in the Midwest, suggesting a different explanation for the community’s outsized link to nitrates in their water.
Mary Ward, a senior investigator at the Occupational and Environmental Epidemiology Branch at the National Cancer Institute and a leading expert on nitrates, lauded the new research, which relied on publicly available data collected by EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act, as the first assessment of the U.S. population’s potential exposure to nitrates through their public tap water.
Since most health studies on nitrate to date have focused on populations using public water supplies, a majority of the findings are for exposures below the EPA’s maximum contaminant level, said Ward. After all, public water utilities are mandated to provide drinking water that meets EPA safe-drinking standards.
Ward adds a note of caution when it comes to raising the alarm on nitrate levels below that current standard: “We need additional studies,” she wrote to Grist in an email. “The number of well-designed studies of these health outcomes are still too few to draw firm conclusions about risk.”
The study authors write that the issue merits further study, since nitrate has also been found to occur alongside other pollutants present in drinking water, including arsenic, pesticides, and other chemicals used to filter water. Robust monitoring of nitrate, the say, could be one way to improve water quality overall.
by Justine Calma | Jan 29, 2019
Off Grid Box, an Italian startup, was founded to bring clean water and renewable energy to the millions of the people in the world who still live without. The box itself is a simple container, measuring six by six by six feet. With solar panels on top and water treatment inside, it can help remote communities with both off-grid energy and easily accessible filtered water. Founder and CEO Emiliano Cecchini has sold a few of the units, but he worries he’s not yet found the formula to take his invention to scale.
After three years on the market, Off Grid Box is a trusted enough product that 28 individuals and organizations have bought the container at $15,000 and up. Half the units went to nonprofits in Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda, Colombia, and elsewhere; another half to “cool guys that had a camper in the middle of nowhere, who want to be green, cool, resilient,” says Cecchini. One washed away to the Pacific Ocean: a unit that sat on the shore of Bantayan Island, in the Philippines, until it was caught by a 2014 typhoon.
But Cecchini, who is Italian, doesn’t feel the startup is yet at a point where it can ramp up sales and production, and get itself on stable financial footing. Selling one unit at a time isn’t particularly profitable (including after-sales) and it doesn’t get enough Off Grid Boxes out there in the world. “We’re looking for the next system to scale,” he says. “The idea came three years ago and, yeah, we’re kind of struggling to make it bigger. Back in Italy, it’s not easy to find the right financing strategy, mentors, and accelerator programs.”
Off Grid Box was recently selected for the 2017 cohort of the Mass Challenge accelerator program, in Boston, where Cecchini will hone a new business model. Instead of selling units to cool guys and NGOs, it now plans to install them where they are needed and then charge end-customers for access. For a few cents a day, people will able access clean water and clean power at a station continually attended by local people. “The new model is pay-as-you-go micro-payments, local contractors, and local empowerment,” Cecchini says.
Inside the container is a five-stage micro-filtration tank that takes in dirty water and produces an odorless, transparent, bacteria-free drinkable water, Cecchini says. A family of four pays 12 U.S. cents (100 Rwandan Francs) to fill up with enough water for the day. At the same time, each unit has solar panels sufficient to allow 300 families battery packs subsidized by the startup. These hold enough power to run three LED lights for four hours and to charge two mobile phones.While in the U.S., Cecchini is signing up impact investors and donors, who can monitor their projects remotely and online. Each installation costs about $15,000–which comes out of a joint financing pool. He thinks the units can generate 10% profitability and that there will be further revenue opportunities to grow the business in the future. Ideally, the boxes will become community hubs, with Wi-Fi and associated commercial activity. “Once we add connectivity and we have people attending all day, we have a strong financial business model. The Wi-Fi opens up services that could be backed by venture capital.”