According to the United Nations Population Fund, the Earth’s seven billionth person was born today, a large milestone not only in number but in the effects it will have on our planet’s resources. If that person consumes water like an American, before leaving this earth, he or she will have used more than 4.3 million gallons of water, perhaps Earth’s most precious resource. Water has no alternatives; there is no substitute for its role in energy, agriculture and basic life necessities. It is as unique as it is indispensable.

As necessary as water is, this fuel remains taken for granted. While populations continue to expand and financial belts continue to tighten, political leaders and communities must become more engaged to find unique solutions for the continued reliability of water delivery. The coming decades will yield water crises in portions of the globe previously immune to such challenges. Government commitment has to be clear, like H2O itself.

Water demand can only grow; by 2025, water withdrawals will increase 18 percent in the globe’s developed regions and 50 percent in developing countries. This larger figure indicates that not only will populations expand, but countries will require more water as better quality of life develops.

Also on the horizon, the UN estimates that by 2050, the population will reach 9 billion – with 90 percent of this added population located in regions already facing water stress or scarcity.

We have seen small-scale water crises, but nothing to the degree expected over the next decades. Although each community’s problem is unique, the most successful plans to overcome water challenges incorporate numerous solutions. Assessing each community individually will determine the most financially-solvent and sustainable methods to address changing water and energy needs.

Queensland, the fastest growing state in Australia, the world’s driest continent, experienced its worst drought in 100 years during the mid-2000s. With one water reservoir, the Wivenhoe Dam, only 15 percent full, policy makers, water providers and industry leaders enacted a plan to escape water crisis.

The most notable improvement came from water infrastructure investment, including building the Western Corridor Recycled Water Project (WCRWP) to treat recycled waste water. Not only did the investment free-up precious water resources for households, but the return on investment was huge – WCRWP-generated water flowed to power generation plants for cooling purposes, where it produced additional energy resources. Furthermore, the plant, the southern hemisphere’s largest high-tech water recycling project, improved water quality.

Recognizing the immediacy of the water crisis, the state government funded the program of work at an accelerated pace. Within 10 months, a design and construct team “met a timetable that some said was impossible” and built a “high-tech plant producing some of the best-grade recycled water in the world” Queensland’s then-Premier Peter Beattie said.

Meanwhile, in Palm Beach County, Florida, the quest for generating energy began with water investment. Florida Power & Light’s West County Energy Center provides power for 4.5 million customers. In cooperation with a regional water utility, the company was able to use recycled water to be the Energy Center’s primary water source. The water conservation effects will be substantial, as Florida is one of 14 states the National Resource Defense Council says will face “high risk” water shortages by 2050.

Other countries, too, are making smart investments in recycled water. Singapore has commissioned four NEWater Factories, the latest at their Changi Water Reclamation Plant in May 2010, one of the most efficient in the world. Engineers tailored the global solution to the community’s specific needs: because the country is one of the world’s smallest, the overall reclamation plant was constructed at a third of its usual size without losing any functionality.

The 4.5 million Queensland inhabitants, 4.5 million Florida Power & Light customers and 5.2 million Singapore residents are only a fraction of the world’s 7 billion – and growing – people. Their situations and solutions, though, represent what our water-challenged planet can overcome with government consciousness of the problem, strong investment and engaged communities.
These large-scale projects demonstrate that ensuring water resources for growing populations can also produce growth of another kind, with recycled water fueling development of the electric and natural gas energy we consume every day. We’d be wise to follow their lead, applying global examples of collaborative thinking in our own communities.

Dan McCarthy is President and CEO of Black & Veatch’s global water business and a member of the Black & Veatch Board of Directors since 2005. McCarthy earned his civil engineering degree from Iowa State University in 1975 and his master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Kansas in 1982. Since joining Black & Veatch in 1976, he has served in roles with progressive leadership responsibilities. McCarthy is a member of the nominating committee for the Lee Kwan Yew water prize awarded each year during Singapore International Water Week, a board member of the WateReuse Association, and chair of the Water Environment Federation’s Water Leaders Council. He has also served as a board member for the American Water Works Association. McCarthy has presented at many global, regional and local conferences for the water/wastewater industry, as well as at a wide range of business, civic and political forums.

Black & Veatch is a global leader in the consulting, engineering, construction and operation of what the world needs now and in the future in the crucial areas of energy, water and telecommunications and in providing up-to-the-minute services in the fast changing federal and environmental markets. Founded in 1915, the employee-owned, $2.3 billion company operates out of more than 110 offices worldwide and has completed projects in more than 100 countries.