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Breaking seven billion: water solutions for a populous future

28 February 2012




Now that the Earth's population has reached seven billion how will future generations cope with an escalating water crisis? Rowan Watt-Pringle takes a look at a variety of innovative and futuristic concepts to provide clean water, ranging from the practical to the outlandish.


By 2050, the global population is expected to rise to nine billion and there have been significant calls for a change in the way the world is dealing with growing water shortages.

According to Maude Barlow, chairperson of the Council of Canadians, Canada's largest public advocacy group, the finite sources of freshwater (less than 0.5% of the world's total water stock) are being diverted, depleted and polluted so fast, that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population will be living in a state of serious water deprivation.

"Governments around the world must act now to declare water a fundamental human right and prevent efforts to privatise, export and sell for profit a substance essential to all life," Barlow claimed.

Meanwhile, WaterMicron Technologies, producer of atmospheric water generators, pointed out: "Research has shown that selling water on the open market only delivers it to wealthy cities and individuals.

"Water-related conflicts are springing up around the globe. Malaysia, for example, owns half of Singapore's water and, in 1997, threatened to cut off its water supply after Singapore criticised Malaysia's Government's policies."

So what solutions are out there?

Sietch Nevada: an oasis in the desert

"Research has shown that selling water on the open market only delivers it to wealthy cities and individuals."

Frank Herbert's seminal sci-fi classic Dune, set mainly on the dystopian desert world of Arrakis where water has become a form of currency, is the basis for a futuristic concept city design in America's arid interior: Sietch Nevada.

Designed by Matsys Designs, the concept envisages a drought-stricken future where water-hoarding societies are forced to battle against constant drought and 'water wars'.

An underground city of tunnel and cave networks, Sietch Nevada stores water in aquifers below the honeycomb-structured dwelling areas and tunnels which act as both transportation passages and irrigation channels.

The underground city draws power from above, harvesting surface water, generating energy from renewable sources and growing food with the use of urban agriculture and aquaculture techniques.

Cloud seeding with laser beams

Cloud seeding as a concept has been around for decades, with the usual intention being to increase precipitation. This usually involves inserting silver iodide crystals, dry ice or other chemicals into clouds in the rarefied atmosphere to increase cloud formation. While cloud seeding has traditionally been undertaken by aircraft dispersal or by ground-based dispersion devices, such as generators or canister-filled rockets, recent research has been looking into the potential of using lasers.

Researchers at the University of Geneva have already used lasers to generate small clouds on demand in the lab, according to science journal Nature Photonics.

Jérôme Kasparian, a member of the research team, reports that laser pulses generate clouds by stripping electrons from atoms in the air, encouraging the formation of hydroxyl radicals, which convert airborne sulphur and nitrogen dioxides into particles that act as seeds to grow water droplets.

Kasparian claimed that while "the efficiency of this technique is controversial," critics of the experiments have failed to take into account the success of real-world experiments conducted in Berlin, which suggest it can work under natural conditions. "As in the lab, the effect is clearly detected," Kasparian asserted. "It does not require saturation of the atmosphere."

Following the success of this trial, the researchers will now try to optimise laser wavelength, focus and pulse duration to increase the effect and produce droplets large enough to fall as rain.

LEAF self-generating water resource

One example of future water creation technology on the brink of production could transform many lives in humid regions of the world. Pune-based Indian student Anurag Sarda's solar powered LEAF Self-Generating Water Resource won first prize at the international Time to Care Sustainable Design Award, organised by the makers of the adaptable knife, Victorinox Swiss Army.

"A student at the MIT Institute of Design, Sarda claimed that LEAF can be practically implemented in humid regions across the globe, particularly rural areas."

Capable of producing 20 litres of drinking water every day, the LEAF is an 18-foot tall water condensation unit. Similar to a natural leaf, the unit transforms condensation into water, which is then purified via an attached sand filtration unit and finally collected in an earthen pot.

LEAF utilises solar energy to generate electricity and cool its upper metallic surface, facilitating the formation of dew, which is then collected via the leaf-like shape of the structure. The unit is extremely low maintenance, with the filter simply needing to be cleaned every now and then.

A student at the MIT Institute of Design, Sarda claimed that LEAF - which is currently in the conceptual stages - can be practically implemented in humid regions across the globe, particularly in rural areas where people might have to travel long distances just to find clean drinking water.

Sarda explained: "I wanted to create a sustainable design and chose to do the LEAF after I saw dewdrops on the seat of my bike and thought about converting into a product," adding that he is working on a prototype model over the next two years with sponsorship from Victorinox.

Iceberg rodeo

One rather more far-fetched scheme was concocted by French engineer Georges Mougin over three decades ago, when challenged by a Saudi prince to tow an iceberg from the Antarctic to the Arabian Peninsula.

While Mougin's project was originally beset by difficulties, the use of glacial ice that would otherwise melt into the ocean could be one potential solution to the global water crisis for the world's arid regions in years to come, as soon as there is technology available to make this feasible.

It starts with you

"According to UN-Water: "Producing one kilogram of beef, for example, consumes 15,000 litres of water, while one kilogram of wheat 'drinks up' 1,500 litres.""

While these futuristic concepts could one day help to alleviate the pressures being placed on our global water resources, an eminently achievable solution can be found much closer to home, with how we ourselves consume water.

The re-use of greywater for irrigation is likely to become an integral part of homes and businesses alike in coming decades, while an increasing number of people around the world are already turning to concepts such as permaculture (permanent agriculture) to produce their own fresh vegetables. Permaculture provides a myriad of benefits by localising production, re-using waste material and incorporating greywater and rainwater, instead of drawing from the main water supply.

A shift in the way we consume food will also be necessary and permaculture could again be part of the solution. UN-Water, which runs the World Water Day 2012 campaign, claims that while statistics show we each drink between two and four litres a day, most of the water we consume is actually embedded in the food we eat. According to UN-Water: "Producing one kilogram of beef, for example, consumes 15,000 litres of water, while one kilogram of wheat 'drinks up' 1,500 litres."

UN-Water's recommendations include consuming less water-intensive products (for instance reducing the amount of meat in our diets) and the urgent need to "reduce the scandalous food wastage: 30% of the food produced worldwide is never eaten," to prevent wastage of the water used to produce that food.

Virtual water

The concept of 'virtual water' or Water Footprint has been defined by researchers Hoekstra and Chapagain as "the volume of freshwater used to produce the product, measured at the place where the product was actually produced".

Professor John Anthony Allan of the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) expanded on this: "Virtual water has major impacts on global trade policy and research, especially in water-scarce regions, and has redefined discourse in water policy and management. By explaining how and why nations such as the US, Argentina and Brazil 'export' billions of litres of water each year, while others like Japan, Egypt and Italy 'import' billions, the virtual water concept has opened the door to more productive water use."

This, combined with more refined water usage by businesses, communities and individual households, as well as some futuristic concepts for water creation and savings, could just be enough to stave off the looming worldwide water shortage catastrophe.

Designer Nenad Katic's depiction of urban life among Sietch Nevada's water bank canals.
An illustration of the process involved in seeding clouds via aircraft.
An individual unit of Anurag Sarda's solar powered LEAF Self-Generating Water Resource.