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🔬 "Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource"

Talk Water - BlueTech Research Podcast Series

Photo by Hadija Saidi / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Host: David Sedlak
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[2:39] “If you were a student, starting out in business school or you wanted to learn about innovation, one of the first things you've learned about is the S curve for technology diffusion. […] The idea here is that technologies diffuse out, they go from invention, to prototyping, to demonstration, to early adopters. And that y axis are the number of units that are installed, and the x axis is time. And so over time, you'll have this period where there's kind of a run up where people are figuring things out and making mistakes and improving. And it's only the early adopters, […] who are willing to spend the money to do these things, because they want to be ahead of the curve. […] And later after they've proven it, others […] want one of those too. And so it grows over time. […] And the time period is about six years.”

[4:04] “In the water industry, because of the low return on investments, the reluctance to take risk, the long lifetime of equipment, that x axis is greatly expanded. Things like nutrient removal technologies have taken 30 or 40 years to run through the S curve. And that's why I think we're designing the technologies for the water infrastructure of the second half of the 21st century.”

[7:21] “When we talk today about the closed loop system for water reuse in factories, when we talk about solutions for developing countries, […] we have to realize that we're on the left hand side of that S curve. But what we do now is going to determine the trajectory of all these technologies as we move to the 21st century. And that's really important, because we're really going to need them in the 21st century, because things are going to change very quickly.”

[8:25] “There are about a billion people on earth, who live on an income of somewhere around 12,000 US dollars per year and more. And there are about a billion people on earth who are in extreme poverty [with] less than about $1,000 a year. […] We have about five and a half billion people who are living in Asia, and South America and Eastern Europe who kind of fit in the middle. And these people will largely be the beneficiaries. […] 30 years from now, there are going to be more people with more money, and fewer people living in abject poverty. […] And that wealth is going to allow them to adopt some of the technologies that seem to be out of their reach right now, and probably could be out of their reach forever.”

[10:00] “The other thing we have to think about when we think 30 years in the future and the people who are going to use these technologies is to think about why they're going to need them. And we've all been talking about urban water challenges and urban water security as an issue. […] [In] Surface water cities, about 15% of cities that rely upon surface water have a shortage for one month, a year or more. And in terms of groundwater, maybe 20% or so of the cities have a falling groundwater level in their city, which means unsustainable groundwater management. But over the next 30 years, we're going to see continued migration to cities, we're already in this period of great migration to cities, it's going to go from […] 52% to about 80% of people living in cities, and we're going to see climate change having an effect on water supplies.”

[11:12] “For surface water cities, […] if the cities have first priority for the water, something like 27% of the cities that use surface water will have a shortage one month a year. And if they don't have first priority, if they have last priority, because industry and power generation and agriculture have those water rights, it's close to 50%. And with respect to groundwater, of the 482 cities that [the study] looked at 230 of them were predicted to have fallen groundwater levels.”

[16:33] “I'm part of a team […] called the National Alliance for Water Infrastructure Innovation (NAWI) […] and we're thinking that we can get 50% reduction in the cost of desalinated water and water reuse, and we'd like to shoot for 90% over the long term. […] If we could drop the cost of desalination, water reuse, stormwater capture, if we could make conservation feasible for a lower cost, suddenly millions of people who are getting wealthier will be able to adopt these technologies sooner.”

[25:59] “There are a lot of people in the world who live in places that lack sanitation, I think [about] 2.3 billion […]. And I'm a big fan of the approach that the Gates Foundation is taking with reinventing the toilet, and a lot of these bottom up approaches and I think they will start having an impact in the coming years. But just remember that solving the sanitation challenge, not committing to sewers for human waste is part of a solution, but it's not a solution that's going to provide drinking water to people. So these places are still going to need a drinking water supply. And these distributed bottom up solutions don't show a lot of potential for providing a drinking water supply.”

[26:45] “It's also important when you set your sights bigger than just water for people who are wealthy living in cities to think about water for food. […] When we grow food, we grow food either in rain fed agriculture or irrigated agriculture. In the next 30 years, we're going to have to grow about 70% more food to feed people. So people are getting wealthier, they're getting hungry for more meat, populations are growing, we're going to need to grow food and we're going to need to do that while the climate is changing. […] So what do I think's going to happen over the next 30 years? Well, I think we'll probably be building more reservoirs to replace rain fed agriculture with irrigated agriculture. […] I hope we don't damage the environment in a catastrophic way as we do it. But moreover, we're going to be intensifying the way we do irrigated agriculture. […] And so it's going to be a challenge. But it's not just a water challenge. It's a soil challenge. It's a plant breeding challenge. It's a labor challenge. And it's a global market challenge. So don't think that we're going to solve the world's food problems simply by solving the water problem.”

[28:46] “But that said, […] there's something that […] I'm always a little puzzled why it's not discussed by the agronomist and the hydrologist. And that's this idea of what happens to the water. So when you take a hydrology course, one of the first things you learn is the difference between consumptive and non consumptive water use. But when I see it, as someone who thinks about mass balances, I think about useful water and wasted water. […] So if you're growing crops, water that ends up in the crop at the end, […] that's not wasted water, that's water that goes into your product. […] And the water when you do flood irrigation, the water that percolates into the aquifer that you pump back up to the surface the next year, that's not wasted water either. That's water that stays on your farm. And so the only wasted water is the water that flows off of the field. And we call that agricultural runoff by tradition. But as an environmental engineer, I feel compelled to call it agricultural wastewater. The reason I call it agricultural wastewater is that it's not pure water anymore, it's polluted water.”

[30:06] “When we look around the world and we see algal blooms […] that are affecting people's water supplies and making people sick and causing dead zones. [..] I'm an environmental engineer, I see wastewater causing a problem downstream. What do I do? Treat the wastewater and this is what agronomists have been doing. For many years, agricultural engineers [have built] ponds for retention ponds to collect phosphorus, they build wetlands to remove nitrate, we can do that. […] We could intensify the way we treat this agricultural runoff and prevent some of these downstream solutions. But that's not how environmental engineers think anymore. Environmental engineers think about wastewater becoming a resource. So what if we could start to reuse the agricultural runoff on our farms and close the loops and grow our food that way again.”

[32:05] “In summary, […] I don't really worry too much about big cities in North America and Australia and Europe, they're wealthy enough to pay for the solutions to their water problems. But like other technical technological innovations, whether it's the iPhone, which then was adopted by people in less wealthy countries to gain information about agricultural prices, or to do telemedicine, they're going to be repurposed, and people are going to use them for other applications that we can't even think about yet. So research and development is needed as a first step to drive down the costs of desalination, water reuse, resource recovery and closing the nutrient cycle.

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🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 34 min | 🗓️ 06/01/2021
✅ Time saved: 32 min

Additional Links:
Book: Water 4.0 (David Sedlak)