Solving Water Scarcity for All: Collaboration Makes Good Business Sense

on March 23, 2015 at 11:20 AM
Sao Paulo Region Suffers From Extreme Drought

An aerial view of the Atibainha dam, part of the Cantareira reservoir, one of the main water reservoirs that supplies the State of Sao Paulo, during a drought on February 23, 2015 in Braganca Paulista, Brazil. The water level of the Cantareira System is 8.5% of its total capacity. (Photo by Victor Moriyama/Getty Images)

Atlanta, Texas, California! As drought has moved across the country, Americans have had to look out for their water supply. Empty reservoirs led to restrictions on use. In many places, lawns are being replaced by xeriscaping. In many California cities, strict watering schedules are being enforced. In Texas, California and Florida, many people developed rain water harvesting systems and grey water use systems. It is an eye opener for those of us who are so used to turning on the faucet and the water flows. We take it for granted.

Behind the scenes, engineers and water managers have been running water utilities, sourcing water, and maintaining and upgrading infrastructure to assure the highest quality of water for all of us. Today, our water systems face new challenges. Water scarcity means competition between city and farmer, between water for use at home, and water for industry, between water for producing electricity and water for fish and wildlife and water for mining. Our water utilities are part of this competition, and are looking to new water re-use systems, desalination systems and conservation measures to bridge the gap. Many of these are expensive options. Money has to be borrowed to make the investment in new systems. A second challenge is that much of the backbone of our water infrastructure, the main pipes, the treatment systems and the reservoirs that hold the water are now old, and need to be replaced. We now have as many pipes break a day in America, as we used to have in a year. These two challenges, water scarcity and aging infrastructure, mean that if we continue to expect high-quality water in our homes, to manufacture things, to grow food, and produce electricity and fuels, our water costs and borrowing needs for investment may be going up a lot.

But this note is not about doom and gloom. It is about choices we have to make together. Choices that move us from competition for water to collaboration on solutions to the challenges posed to us. Our hope is for cities, industry, agriculture and power to learn to work together in developing a sustainable and efficient way to manage water use. Through creativity, cooperation and better communication, we can find innovative and sustainable solutions to tackle water scarcity. With shared visions and clear priorities, maintaining a healthy standard of living will be obtainable for every population around the world. We need citizens and businesses to understand where the water comes from, what it costs to produce, and what the different choices of how we use and treat water mean in terms of costs and shortages. In cities and in industry, we need to find ways to better capture, store, treat and re-use water to improve our supply. We need to close the water cycle so “waste water” is useful water. We need to understand how improving irrigation efficiency in agriculture makes more water available with lower costs for all. In any county, or state or watershed we need to understand what water is available, how it is used, and how it could be used. Looking at our collective options together may save us money in the long run, help create jobs, and avoid water wars.

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Governments and other organizations need to facilitate awareness as to our local and national water choices, and help establish plans and goals for how we can bring industry and other stakeholders together to meet the challenge. Proposals on how to incentivize conservation, allow water trading, develop new water system designs, green infrastructure, and ensure the high quality and quantity of supply at the lowest cost need to be developed together. Laws and regulations need to be re-examined to help us transition to a 21st century water economy.

Working together across industries on the world’s most complex water-related challenges, like water scarcity and the need for water reuse, is the only way to solve problems with such magnitude. If we can increase awareness and understand each other’s water needs and interdependences, we can continue to develop technologies to improve our water reuse and sustainable manufacturing practices. Americans working together can provide the technical, legal and business innovations to set a direction that ensures a bright future for all parts of the world.

Heiner Markhoff is president and CEO of GE Power & Water’s Water & Process Technologies, a global business that focuses on the world’s most complex water-related challenges. Employing approximately 8,000 people and operating in over 100 countries, Water & Process Technologies provides innovative solutions that address the growing demand for increased water availability and quality, while improving customers’ productivity and meeting more stringent environmental regulations.

Before assuming his current role in October 2008, Heiner led GE Plastics Europe, Middle East, and Africa for two years. Throughout his tenure at GE, he has held several leadership positions, including general manager-automotive for GE Plastics Americas and CEO of GE Bayer Silicones. Heiner began his GE career as a member of the Corporate Business Development team in Fairfield, CT in 1994. Prior to joining GE, Heiner served as an associate with Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategy and technology consulting firm.

Heiner graduated from the University of Cologne, Germany, with a degree in business administration and economics.

Upmanu Lall is Director of the Columbia Water Center at Columbia University. As he explained in a recent issue of Columbia Engineering, for Professor Upmanu Lall, “the goal of engineering is to develop solutions to societal problems.” Over three decades as a hydrologist, Lall focused on the societal problems associated with water: from severe water shortages that are expected to occur in one-third of the developing world during this century, to the relationship between global water systems and climate variability and change, to the interlinked risks and opportunities of the water/energy/food nexus.

Lall grew up in India, seeing the impact of droughts first hand. He remembers how even middle class people had to stand in line at government ration shops for days on end because of major famines.

In his study of engineering, he was drawn to areas that employed mathematics and physics, and found that water could bring those two disciplines together in a way that also addresses real-world problems. His intellectual interest in systems analysis, which is where he focused his graduate studies, led him to investigate the complex linkages between climate, natural hazards, agriculture and energy.