From: Dr. Lynn A. Wilson, Kaplan University
Published March 25, 2014 09:37 AM

Future costs of water is no small change

Water scarcity was, until recently, considered by most of the developed world to be like James Hilton's Lost Horizon:  "far away, at the very limit of distance." However, the convergence of aquifer depletion from increasing agricultural, industrial and municipal water use with more frequent and intense extreme weather events creates an urgency  to develop new, reliable sources of fresh water to "drought-proof" communities  through a combination of desalinization technologies, water recovery and reuse  programs and PPP (public private partnerships). The race is on to provide fresh water to satisfy ever-increasing human demands. In order to make responsible decisions, changing conditions require rethinking water policy and distribution.

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In 2012, desalinization plants numbered about 16,000 worldwide with reverse osmosis (RO) membrane technology representing over 60% of the plants; thermal technologies accounted for about 27%. When operational, California’s Carlsbad Desalinization Project (the largest project in the Americas) will have a 54 million gallon capacity at a cost of US$ 922 million — US$ 1 billion according to the 2014 Davos report.  Heralded as a direct solution to potable water access by vulnerable populations, this and similar projects face significant challenges including high energy usage, hyper-saline brine waste disposal, costs of facilities’ production and maintenance, water transport to the most vulnerable people, and marine ecosystem alternation.

Energy required to power the plants is primarily fossil fuel, adding to the energy burden and increasing CO2 eq emissions. While the World Economic Forum reported in 2013 that emerging technologies offer the potential for reducing energy consumption by 50% or more, those technologies are not currently available. Construction and maintenance costs grow with required pipeline and infrastructure improvement. Carlsbad has addressed costs with a unique PPP that divides the responsibilities for ownership, financing and operational arrangements between the private company that owns the operation, San Diego County Water authority that is responsible for infrastructure modifications to link to existing water systems, and the state financing authority agency for both public and private bonds. Can other national and global communities emulate the Carlsbad model?

In the absence of creative financing mechanisms, concern about the ability of economically distressed communities and developing countries to maintain desalinization projects after initial development funding is exhausted is coupled with concerns about transporting water to vulnerable populations in areas with aging or non-existent infrastructures. Significant increases in droughts and floods alter seasonal patterns of water availability and affect water quality and aquatic ecosystem health,  with implications for social and economic wellbeing that are exacerbated in regions of high poverty and political instability. Moreover, these highly stressed locales are most often located in regions experiencing the most extreme effects from extreme weather events.

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Dripping water image via Shutterstock.

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