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🔬 "What’s Wrong with What We Drink (& How to Fix It)"

Talk Water - BlueTech Research Podcast Series

Photo by Anderson Rian / Unsplash

Table of Contents

Host: Reinhard Huebner
Guest: Seth M. Siegel | NYT Bestselling Author
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[4:01] “There are lots of places around the world that are deeply challenged from a water perspective that have not taken steps to fix their water situation, whether it's in agriculture, [or] wastewater, [or] wastewater reuse, [or] desalination. […] They rely upon fate or nature and they allow their water situation to grow worse and worse as the years go by. So, if necessity was […] indeed the mother of invention, as the expression goes, then […] everywhere [where there is] water scarcity would be a water hub of innovation and excitement.”

[4:39] “Singapore is a marvel, in terms of what it does in water. But there are two reasons that I think we should not look at it too closely. First is, […] Singapore is not a democratic country, and you can get a lot of things done when you compel behaviors. And I don't like the idea of a model where society's brought along by compelled behavior. And the second reason is that Singapore imports 100% of its food. And the model has to be a situation where you're able to grow your food.”

[5:13] “It [comes down] to a couple of different areas that Israel's been so great [in water]. […] First of all, Israel from a governance point of view and from a culture point of view is as good as you can get. They teach about […] water scarcity, the value of water from the time children are in nursery school, and it never stops. The public education continues throughout everyone's lifetime. […] Second of all, the way water is administered in Israel is completely divorced from politics. In much of the world water, unfortunately, becomes very political and that means that winners and losers get either better or worse outcomes, but it also means that the price of water is adjusted as needed for the political needs of the moment. So Israel doesn't do that. Israel's administration is purely political and entirely technocratic, which leads to the second big important area that Israel charges the real price for water, which means that it can get really high quality outcomes by charging the full real price for water with zero government subsidies. […] Subsidies distort market signals and Israel therefore gets pure market signals from their full price of water. Consumers then also are becoming your partner, society’s partner in conservation and smart use of water. And the third area is that […] Israel overall is a technological marvel, […] a global center of innovation and problem solving, and certainly in water as well.”

[7:01] “To highlight a handful of those technologies that Israel either invented or perfected or advanced, Israel is the world's center of smart agriculture. Drip irrigation was invented in Israel. […] Likewise, in agriculture, which absorbs most of the freshwater of every country, Israel leads the world in non GMO breeding of plants to make very low use of water. So if agriculture is eating 70 to 95%, of every country's fresh water, in Israel, they grow their self-sufficient fruits, vegetables, and other parts of agriculture, poultry, dairy, and so forth. They're able to do that, because of the fact that they are so water efficient, and because they have […] non GMO breeding, that [is] less water consumptive than the similar plants elsewhere.”

[8:02] “The second great thing Israel does is that Israel, from very early […] [is] really thinking about how to use sewage as a resource. Now, in most of the rest of the world, when they talk about […] potable reuse, […] taking it, treating it and then making people drink it, Israel had the thought that people will never really comfortably do that or want to do that. […] And so they spent a couple of decades and many billions of dollars building a parallel national water infrastructure system that captures virtually all of the sewage of the country, close to 90%, and treats it to an ultra high pure level, and then transports it to agricultural districts, where it is then used for agriculture. So it's drinkable quality water, but used for agriculture, and then through the process of irrigation, it becomes further purified and […] there's no ill effect on the health of the public from eating those fruits and vegetables.”

[9:09] “I mentioned that Israel is close to 90% of recycled water. In the United States we’re about 5 or 6%. And the next significant country that makes use of water after Israel is Spain, and there's somewhere hovering between 15 and 20%. So the world has a long way to go to catch up to the idea of turning sewage from a nuisance into a benefit.”

[9:30] “The third great technology that Israel's invented or perfected is desalination. […] If you were to allocate all the desalinated water used in Israel, it would come to  80% of the household water consumed in the country. So by virtue of the fact that two thirds of the nation's water is from your sewage or from desalination, basically, manufactured water, repurposed water, it takes fantastic pressure off of the natural resources of the country from rainwater, from springs, from groundwater and so forth.”

[15:34] “We purify the water and it's good. We get rid of […] bacteria and viruses and things that could kill us. And that's why Coronavirus isn't coming up in our water. […] But there are other chemicals and compounds […] that survive all that and that we are then ingesting and which the EPA is doing nothing about. [The] industry could be fixing [that problem], but doesn't get the incentive to do that, […] because the EPA doesn't demand it. […] There's over 100,000 chemicals that are in commerce, but there's only 70 chemicals on a grand total of 91 contaminants altogether, that are regulated by the EPA that require utilities, that they test for them and reduce their concentration if they're above a certain level. […] And that's why PFOAS and pharmaceutical residues and pesticides survive this treatment and we drink it.”

[17:20] “If we transition to talking about lead, it's a heartbreaking story. Because lead, it's clear, whereas with almost all these other chemicals just because of slowness of the EPA and doing research, we don't always get a chance to know what the health hazards of the health effects are of these chemicals on our bodies. […] But the saddest part […] about lead […] is that we know for a fact that we can completely solve this problem. We know for a fact that when children and fetuses ingest lead and it's bio accumulative, once you get it, you don't get rid of it, that the more lead you ingest, the lower your IQ falls, the more likely you are to have social integration problems and ailments like ADHD, and the more likely you are to have to be arrested for some crime before your 18th birthday. It's not by chance that a very high percentage of violent criminals in jail in the United States have elevated lead levels. And I regard this as a moral failure by the United States, there were 7.5 to 10.5 million lead pipes, lead service lines in the United States.”

[21:11] “I think the single greatest impediment to moving forward isn't cost. The single greatest impediment to moving forward is a lack of awareness. […] For very little extra money, […] every utility could be encouraged to make use of these technologies to improve the quality of the water. And so we deal with the situation where Americans turn on the tap, they don't know what's coming out of the tap, a significant percentage don't trust it, they just drink bottled water, another significant percentage, don't think twice about it and do drink the tap water. Bottled water by the way is no great shakes either from a health perspective, but that's a different question. And, and if we could only raise awareness properly, then the political class would have no choice and the media would have no choice but to report on it and talk about it. And I think within a matter of a very few years, we'd have a […] very different outcome [of talking about] water.”

[23:03] “Your cable bill and your cell phone [do] not get charged […] by your mayor. Those are private transactions between the public and the provider. 85% of all utilities in the United States are municipal utilities. And that means that when water prices rise, consumers get angry because they see it as a tax increase. […] Many mayors divert water fees to other purposes […]. So what happens […] is that the political class has made a decision to do what they would do with no other responsibility, they would never allow such terrible outcomes in education, or roads, or police or hospitals or parks. But they do it when water because people don't see it, it's underground. […] They don't understand that 1/3 to 45% of all water gets lost in the leaks in much of the United States. And they don't understand what that effect is on their cost, on health and so forth. […] I'm not saying we should privatize all the utilities, although that's one outcome that's fine. I'm agnostic as to who controls the utilities, but we must delink […] the pricing of water from the political class.”

[34:04] “We are a fractured industry […] with nearly 50,000 utilities, but we don't have enough consolidation of message. [It would be fantastic] if all these companies [spent] a quarter of 1% of their budget on water education. I would urge us to create some type of Clearinghouse or some type of a trade association just focused on that issue so that we can all speak together.”

Rating: 💧💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 35 min | 🗓️ 06/01/2021
✅ Time saved: 33 min

Additional Links:
Book: Troubled Water (Seth M. Siegel)
Book: Let There Be Water (Seth M. Siegel)
Podcast: How Dangerous Is Our Drinking Water? (The goop Podcast)