Our planet’s most distinctive feature is the blue that surrounds our land. This is what earned it its name “Pale Blue Dot” among planets of our solar system in a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe. But even though around 71 percent of Earth is covered in water, 96.5 percent of that is salty ocean water which is not suitable for drinking.
The world is now on the brink of a global water crisis, with many regions already experiencing droughts of historic proportions. This water shortage has many implications for how everyone on Earth lives, eats, works, and plays.
Given the importance of drinking water for sustaining life on Earth and the increasing occurrences of drought due to climate change, technologies for cleaning water so that it can be consumed safely have never been more important.
Unsurprisingly – though very much regrettably – today’s water crisis disproportionately affects the world’s poorest with water-related diseases impacting more than 1.5 billion people every year particularly in developing countries.
But the impacts of water shortages are also being felt across the Western world; for example, the most recent drought in Cyprus lasted four years (2004 – 2008) causing reservoir levels on the island to plummet. The government had to cut the supply of water giving households only just enough water to live on; fines were introduced for those using more than their share. At the height of the crisis, the Cypriot government imported 8 million cubic meters of water from Greece at a cost of over €40 million (US$43.4 million) .
While such water-based challenges are predicted to affect many around the world, there are still many solutions that we can engage in to lessen the impact and perhaps leave us with a more abundant water future.
The following actions are some alternative solutions for water shortage challenges.
Practical solutions to prevent water shortage problems
#1 Greywater reuse
The water that we use to wash our hands, our dishes, and our clothes, known as greywater, can be reused, saving water, money, and reducing the overall burden placed on sewer and septic systems.
Both home and commercial greywater systems are available on the market.
#2 Water conservation measures
Whether it’s at home, at work, or while traveling, we can all conserve water. The most obvious choice is to not leave the faucet running more than necessary when doing activities such as washing dishes, as well as taking shorter showers. Be sure to check your home or office for leaky faucets and pipes that might be wasting water.
Worth considering is the installation of low-flow showerheads, dual flush toilets, and installing aerators on faucets to reduce the water flow during each use. If you live in the United States, be sure to look for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program logo when purchasing new appliances that use water.
Outdoors, we can conserve water by installing a rain shutoff device on automatic sprinkler systems, and only water your lawn or garden when absolutely necessary.
#3 Rainwater capture and storage
In many areas, people are increasingly relying on rainwater as a water resource when surface waters are no longer viable sources of water. By capturing rainwater, we are able to use water that would have otherwise run off into our yards, sidewalks, and streets.
Rainwater from rooftops can be captured and used for watering plants and non-edible gardens. It can also be used for home use but does require additional treatment before it can be consumed.
#4 Ocean water desalination
A few places like in Chile and the state of California in the U.S. are now considering solar desalination systems, which are much more energy-efficient and cost-effective than traditional desalination systems.
#5 Energy saving and increased efficiency
While saving energy may not be the first thing that comes to mind for tackling water shortage issues, the truth is that water is used to produce hydroelectric power and to cool thermoelectric plants. When we save energy, we also save water.
#6 Better water efficiency of irrigation and agriculture
Because approximately 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture, improving the water efficiency of these systems can really make an impact on the availability of water resources and reduce waste.
Growing crops that require less water to grow, replacing leaky and inefficient irrigation systems, as well as using farming techniques that conserve water such as permaculture can go a long way in reducing the demand for water globally.
#7 Pricing water appropriately
Because the cost of water has been relatively low for many areas around the world, water resources have been taken for granted by many people, and this relatively low cost has facilitated many unnecessary cases of water wasting and pollution.
By increasing the price of water, there would likely be a much greater incentive to conserve and protect this vital resource from pollution.
#8 Replacing old and decaying water infrastructure
Much of the infrastructure in many developed countries is inefficient and leaky.
Such a leaky system leads to large amounts of unnecessary waste of perfectly good water. The water infrastructure in many of these places must be updated, and the leaks fixed to prevent this waste.
#9 Preventing water pollution
The pollution of water, through sources such as urban runoff, industrial pollution, and improper sanitation, spoils our precious freshwater and makes the global water shortage even worse.
We must, as a global community, clean up and prevent water pollution wherever it occurs so that future generations will have adequate clean water resources for their needs.
#10 Maintaining the health and integrity of natural ecosystems
The plants in many natural ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, and grasslands perform ecosystem services that naturally store and cleanse water.
By maintaining the health of natural ecosystems, the world receives many water resource benefits for free that would cost almost infinite amounts of money to perform by human-engineered systems.
Green ways to clean water for drinking
Beyond ensuring we use water as efficiently as possible, technologies that can help clean water so that it can be consumed safely will become increasingly relevant not only for overcoming water scarcity but also for addressing global challenges such as eradicating poverty and malnutrition.
While some of these technologies are costly and can create other environmental damage, there are a number of green ways to clean water for drinking that should be explored.
The miracle tree water purification
Many solutions are based on the natural properties of different elements and materials to clean water. One such technology involves using the tree Moringa oleifera, coined the miracle tree.
While initial studies indicated that the process would be too expensive or not feasible for producing water which could be stored, researchers from Pennsylvania State University were able to use the seeds of the miracle tree for achieving the same result.
Their study found that a substance in the miracle tree’s seeds can bind to sediment and kill microbes when used in conjunction with negatively charged sand.
Another widely used method that has several applications is using the sun to help purify water.
The sun plays an important role in the water cycle so naturally scientists have discovered several ways to use the sun’s energy and the processes of evaporation and condensation to help sanitize water and make it safe to drink. A relatively simple and inexpensive method is using solar stills.
The technology is fairly rudimentary as some of the first solar stills were used as early as the 19th century in Chile to provide drinking water to mine workers.
Today, the Suns River Solar Still which runs on renewable energy providing water can be used for both drinking and agriculture. the Suns River Solar Still can produce around 20 liters of water per square meter of floor surface compared to just 4 liters per square meter for standard solar stills .
There are also more personalized solutions, for example the Watercone can provide up to 1.5 liters of clean water per day by absorbing sunlight and heating up the water .
A third exciting technology involves the use of salt.
Using the sun to disinfect water works primarily on water that is clear – or relatively clear. However, in most regions where water scarcity is high, the available water tends to be murky. So, the first step should be to remove the clay particles through a process called flocculation.
Joshua Pearce, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University worked with student Brittney Dawney of Queen’s University in Ontario to discover that sodium chloride, in other words simple table salt, can do this job very well. When added to muddy water, salt binds with clay particles and settles to the bottom of the water container .
It’s then easy to strain the water and remove the mud so that the water can be further purified using sun-based technologies. What is more the water does not become overly salty, it has a lower sodium concentration than Gatorade, so it can still be used for drinking when other water sources are not available.