The world faces a widespread water crisis – and it’s not just how much we use, but how we use it. Global shifts are big contributing factors, as climate change and population growth are challenging and putting acute pressure on existing water supply. An estimated 2.8 billion people worldwide live in areas under severe water stress – where demand exceeds the amount available – with almost two-thirds of these affected populations residing in developing countries.
But in many instances, access to clean, safe water could be expanded simply with better use and better management of the current supply. In the United States, there are an estimated240,000 water main breaks per year. It’s also estimated that every day, mainly due to aging infrastructure, approximately 6 billion gallons of treated water leak out of old pipes and then back into the ground after being polluted by urban cities. In emerging market nations, the problem is worse: an average of 38 percent of water supply is lost due to leaks and even theft. The economic and social costs of this waste are obvious: poor water management limits access to this crucial resource, wastes investment, and contributes to widespread health problems.
Leaking pipes and crumbling infrastructure can remain hidden underground, becoming apparent only when there is a catastrophic pipe burst. In an ideal world, entire cities could be lifted up and ageing pipes could be replaced en masse. But this would be almost impossible to execute and prohibitively expensive. Replacing 1 million miles of pipes in the U.S. would cost approximately $2.1 trillion. Other equally costly options include expanding the supply of fresh water by building dams and reservoirs, diverting rivers, or developing facilities like desalination stations.
Fortunately, technology, talent, and new innovative ways of solving and financing the rehabilitation of old infrastructure are starting to emerge. The solution to the world’s water crisis requires a combination of public and private expertise. Take Manila: a city with a population of 11.8 million that recently overhauled its aging water utility creatively and efficiently. Maynilad Water Services, a utility in western Manila, faced the challenge of supplying potable water to 9 million customers with a 130-year-old infrastructure strained by booming population growth and significant leaking. The city government knew they needed to improve water management, but lacked the funding to pursue traditional fixes. So they invited companies to offer radically new ideas and encouraged this inventive thinking by eliminating traditional barriers, such as rigid technical requirements and financing structures, in the bidding process.
The new approach paid off. Miya, an Arison Investments company that optimizes water supply in urban water systems, spent several years partnering with Maynilad to develop and apply nanoscale technology and new software to go right to the source of the problem. As a result, Maynilad was able to identify and repair leaks in aging pipes with much greater precision. The end result speaks for itself: the city now saves more than 185 million gallons of water every day (the equivalent of eight desalination plants), and an additional 2.6 million people are connected to the system for the first time. Maynilad has also quadrupled its income within five years.
Manila’s success is easy to replicate. City leaders in places such as the Bahamas and Brazil are trying to follow similar paths. Making small, targeted repairs to improve the efficiency of systems, integrated with new tools and old fashioned teaching and training, goes a long way toward ensuring water supply. This kind of pragmatic solution will only become more appealing as the exploding global middle class puts increasing pressure on old-tech utilities. Today, about 1.8 billion people in the world are middle class, but by 2030, that number could reach 5 billion people – nearly two-thirds of the world’s population.
Ultimately, water loss doesn’t have to be the norm. Governments can use new technology and partnerships to become more responsible stewards of natural resources. Consumers also have a part to play in water conservation. The San Francisco-based startup WaterSmart, for example, incentivizes water conservation by providing customers with personalized reports showing their water use compared with neighbors and offering water-saving tips. The company’s tactics have already contributed to average per-customer water savings of 5 percent, and these seemingly small gains at the household level are translating into substantial savings for the startup’s partner utilities. Clearly, when consumers, governments, and public utilities work together, water abundance is obtainable.