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Sustainability and the Water Crisis

BY Jonathan Strickland / POSTED February 24, 2014
Hammerbrook - City can this really be true?
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Drought over California. | Courtesy LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC Drought over California. | Courtesy LANCE/EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

As we’ve said before, water is critically important to our future. It was even the subject of our fifth episode. How we can conserve water and make more efficient use of it isn’t a discussion we can put off for later — according to the UN, 783 million people don’t have sufficient access to clean water. And this isn’t just a problem for developing countries.

California is facing a serious drought — perhaps the worst one the state has seen in five centuries. It’s been three straight dry years for California and scientists like paleoclimatologist B. Lynn Ingram say the trend could continue into the future. Pair that bad news with the fact that many places depend upon old urban water infrastructure in poor repair and you could have a major crisis looming in the near future.

Now I’m not trying to spread all doom and gloom here. There are many people working to meet these challenges through different strategies. For example, David Sedlak, who is a professor of civil engineering at UC Berkeley and deputy director of Re-inventing the Nations Urban Water Infrastructure (ReNUWIT), is looking at ways to recycle and reclaim water.

Sedlak’s strategy includes capturing rainwater rather than allowing it to become urban runoff. He’s also looking at recycling water for further use and desalination plants that remove salt from seawater. None of these are new techniques but applying them systemically across a region hasn’t really been attempted on a major scale. California could serve as a testing ground for new strategies that other places could implement later on.

Necessity truly is the mother of invention and Sedlak envisions what he calls Water 4.0, the fourth generation of innovations that we need to keep a fresh supply of water available for a large, urban population. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, all our water treatment facilities will mirror those aboard the International Space Station and not a drop will be wasted.

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