Water Infrastructure and Our Society

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on April 04, 2017
Vicky Harris
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Water infrastructure is central to civilization. Throughout history, empires have risen based on water access, and wars have been fought to control it. Though it may seem obvious, water must be a “national priority.” To ensure that water is elevated to its rightful, national priority level is the sole objective of an annual event in the United States, called “Water Week.” Every year, Water Week has a different focus. The goal of this year’s event, held March 20-26, was to “communicate the value of water to environmental protection, to economic development, and to job creation—and to inspire action.” The week-long event included talks, conferences, and workshops around this theme.

Fresh water: a rare gift for millions of people around the world.

As abundant as water is on Earth, fresh drinking water is relatively scarce. According to the United Nations, 85% of the world’s population lives in the driest half of the planet. Of this population, 783 million have no access to clean water. Every year, 6 to 8 million people die from the consequences of water-related disasters, such as floods, and diseases related to water sanitation. Fresh water is, indeed, a global priority.

Bringing Water to Your Home

In support of Water Week, The Brookings Institution published an article, “10 Facts About Water Policy and Infrastructure in the U.S.,” that explored how to keep U.S. water infrastructure “safe and functioning.” In a country like ours, we take safe and available water for granted until a crisis hits—like the water contamination in Flint, Michigan or the over-flooding of Oroville Dam in California. The fact is, bringing fresh water to your home is a monumental work of infrastructure, both here and around the world. From the engineering genius of Roman aqueducts to the modern pipes that take water from places where it is abundant into cities and food fields, human ingenuity continues to rise to the challenge to meet civilization’s priority need for water.

The first of ten facts about water infrastructure from The Brookings Institution article states what we all know: “Water plays a critical role in the economy.” They support this with some impressive figures, “30 of the country’s largest water utilities support up to $52 billion in economic output and 289,000 jobs annually.” These numbers, however, would grind to a halt if the access to water that we take for granted ever ceased.

When Water is a Rare Gift

People in the developed world are incredibly fortunate; we have access to clean water. The last fact in The Brookings Institution article states, “Despite concerns over water safety and infrastructure, Americans have greater access to clean water than most people around the globe.” A contributor to the article, Pat Mulroy, former general manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, is quoted as saying, “We, in this country, have no idea how fortunate we are; we are a small minority around the world that actually has reliable 24/7 water.”

The abundance of fresh water is only part of the story. The infrastructure to make it available plays a critical role, both here in the U.S. and other developed economies. Even places like Dubai, where there is no fresh water, have emerged thanks to huge infrastructure projects designed to take water there. Contrast that with economies where fresh water is not available and where governments have no resources to bring it from far-away places. Coping with clean water scarcity, which is always linked to poverty, is a harsh reality for more than 10% of humanity.

Innovation Can Make Clean Water Available

Building huge infrastructure works to bring fresh water to cities and towns is not the only way to make it available. New technologies are making it possible to transform whatever water is available into a potable source. Some recent examples of water innovation include demand response systems that automate water pump schedules, bioelectric processes to treat water while generating biogas energy, and precision agriculture to maximize water efficiency in the countryside.

Innovation is also enabling us to convert water from the oceans into fresh water cheaply (de-salinization is too costly today). For instance, Hydrogen 2.0 technology, which can produce clean energy from water on-site and on-demand, can also be used to produce clean water. The by-product of the combustion of hydrogen fuel, when combined with oxygen in the air, is water that is pure and clean.

The basic way to lift people out of poverty is by securing their access to the two key ingredients for progress: energy and water. With Hydrogen 2.0, these two necessities can come together. Future access to this technology could give people in developing nations a way to produce clean water for their daily lives, in addition to clean energy, which goes hand-in-hand.

A Priority for Progress

The Brookings Institution “10 Facts” article on water infrastructure stresses how critical water is for any society and how fragile the infrastructure can be against things like floods and contamination—even for countries like ours, where we often take access to water for granted.

More than a national priority, a solid and functioning system to make fresh and clean water available to people, whether in the form of huge, centralized infrastructure or distributed equipment to produce water on-site, is a global priority for civilization’s continued progress.


Photo courtesy of photographer Christopher Michel.
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