Clean Water Isn’t Just Water, It’s Energy

Happy World Water Day 2018! We’re a month away from Earth Day and today, we are celebrating all there is about that one life-sustaining part of our home planet—water. The issue of global water resources, however, is about more than just the water itself. Today, I’m hoping to convince you that water is in fact about money. More than that, when thinking of the bigger picture, water is about energy.

It’s easy to look at groups with a scarcity of clean drinking water—a nomad population living in an arid environment or urban apartment dwellers in a city growing beyond its means—and think that these water problems would be solved with more water. Remember, though, that water is abundant and conserved, meaning that water is endlessly cycled and we are not going to run out of water by using it. The problem is that we need water of a certain purity to sustain human life.  Now imagine that these residents had access to an endless supply of money. They could pay to clean the water. They could pay to extract water from every last source, even the air. That not sufficing, they could pay to desalt a tiny bit of our vast oceans and transport the water across long distances.

It’s not water as a whole that we lack, just cheap water.

Money can pay for the energy to produce clean water, but only insomuch as there is energy available to use. If everyone starts purchasing expensive water, as opposed to the cheap water we associate with a local supply of clean water, then we will quickly exhaust our global energy supplies. For this reason, water and energy are inextricably linked, and the concept is known as the water-energy nexus. Among water resource discussions, the worry is often not so much on where will we get water from, but rather how much will it cost.

The average cost of water in the United States as reported by the American Water Works Association is US$0.04 per gallon, typically from surface water and groundwater sources. Comparatively, desalination is considered an expensive source of water, but a 2011 white paper from the WateReuse Association reports that the cost of producing water using 2010 seawater desalination technology is as low as US$1.50 per cubic meter, only 1.5 times more expensive as surface water. Desalination technology has advanced to become nearly as efficient as possible. A more expensive source of water could be imagined, such as condensing water vapor from air which might cost US$1.50 per six liters (from a relatively low cost solar AWG), or 200 times more expensive than treated surface water. While expensive, keep in mind that this product exists because it produces water more cheaply than the cost of bottled water.

It doesn’t stop at water. The water-energy-food nexus is a better description of how we need to think about resources in the future. Like water, food is a representation of energy. Likewise, there is both cheap and expensive food. It was only today that I came across the environmentalist and physicist Vandana Shiva. She has pointed out that shortages in food and water among wealthy sectors of society are often solved by stealing these resources from poor and marginalized groups. She explains how low prices of food and water are a falsehood because they do not account for costs in human lives, human health, and environmental health. I hope this has sparked a thought about the true meaning and costs of clean water, and perhaps inspire discussion beyond today’s celebrations.

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