Water crises seem to be everywhere. In Flint, the water might kill us. In Syria, the worst drought in hundreds of years is exacerbating civil war. But plenty of dried-out places aren’t in conflict. For all the hoopla, even California hasn’t run out of water.
There’s a lot of water on the planet. Earth’s total renewable freshwater adds up to about 10 million cubic kilometers. That number is small, less than one percent, compared to all the water in oceans and ice caps, but it’s also large, something like four trillion Olympic-sized swimming pools. Then again, water isn’t available everywhere: across space, there are deserts and swamps; over time, seasons of rain and years of drought.
Also, a water crisis isn’t about how much water there is – a desert isn’t water-stressed if no one is using the water; it’s just an arid place. A water shortage happens when we want more water than we have in a specific place at a specific time.
So determining whether a given part of the world is water-stressed is complicated. But it’s also important: we need to manage risk and plan strategically. Is there a good way to measure water availability and, thereby, identify places that could be vulnerable to water shortages?
Because it measures whether we have enough, the ratio of water use to water availability is a good way to quantify water shortage. Working with a group of collaborators, some of whom run a state-of-the-art global water resources model and some of whom work on the ground in water-scarce places, I quantified just how much of our water we’re using on a global basis. It was less straightforward than it sounds.
More than 300 million people living in 256 districts are affected by drought in India after two years of sparse monsoon rains. BBC Hindi's Ajay Sharma travels through seven states to find that the drought has changed India's villages and their residents.
When I started my nearly 7,000km (4,349 miles)-long road journey from the southern state of Karnataka in October, my brief was simply to report on how poor rains were changing India's rural landscape.
I had no inkling that I would be witnessing the making of a drought, that would change a country and its people.
The change is writ large in the wrinkled face of the 101-year-old widow, Hanumanthi: a face that symbolises the endless struggle of India's rural poor.
Is India facing its worst-ever water crisis?
Searching for water in drought-hit India
India's water refugees
I met her in Hunchinal village in the southern state of Karnataka.
Hanumanthi, who owns a small patch of land, told me she was going to "die soon because there was nothing to eat".
She told me that she had nothing, and nobody, to care for. There were no tears in her eyes, and no bitterness in her voice.
Her neighbours said she could survive but only if the rains came. But the weather gods had not relented for three consecutive years, so these were high hopes indeed.
By 2040, 33 countries are expected to face extreme water stress, according to the World Resources Institute, making the race to develop innovative solutions more furious than ever. Ap Verheggen has been on the cutting-edge of solar thought experiments for several years. You may recall his SunGlacier – a conceptual solar-powered leaf that produces water in the desert. Now he’s back with WaterDrop, a handheld solar-powered device that produces condensation for drinking. Ap acknowledges the concept is a bit like science fiction, but solar technology has taken huge strides in recent years, so it’s worth giving it a closer look.
An industrial design student in Vienna has created a product that uses the air’s moisture to fill a water bottle attached to a bike, but he has higher hopes than just fuelling bike riders travelling long distances: he hopes his invention can someday provide water in areas that have shortages or polluted sources.
This weekend’s impending storm notwithstanding, 2015 is already looking like another bad year for the parched West. One rainstorm won’t change the fact that nobody’s getting enough rain or snow. But the region’s problems only begin with its mutant water cycle. The real dramas come from the difficulty in managing what water remains. From the tension between big ag and big oil to the irony of low precipitation in Oregon, here are five stories to watch while you’re waiting for rain.
Each page is its own little filter that can clean up to 100 liters of water (that’s around a 30-day supply).
In developing countries, clean drinking water is not a given. According to the World Health Organization, every year, around 3.4 million people die from water-related illnesses. To put it in perspective: That’s roughly equivalent to Los Angeles’ entire population. Accessing clean water often means waiting in line for a truck to haul it to you, boiling it (an energy-hungry option) or running it through a ceramic filter (expensive). But the truth is, more often than not people don’t clean it at all.
A new project from the Water Is Life organization is looking to simplify the purification process with a high-design solution. The Drinkable Book, as it’s called, looks like something you’d keep on your coffee table, but it’s actually a full-on water purification system.
Each page is its own little filter that can clean up to 100 liters of water (that’s around a 30-day supply). This means each book can provide a single person with up to four years of clean water. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and University of Virginia developed a special kind of paper that’s coated in silver nanoparticles, which kill bacteria. “Some socks use silver nanoparticles to prevent fungus from growing on athletes’ feet,” explains chemist Theresa Dankovich, the project’s lead scientist who has been researching this process since 2008.
While Australia’s rich stocks of raw mineral resources have contributed to the nation’s wealth and given us a competitive advantage we are also one of the highest waste producing nations in the world (on a per capita basis).
In 2009-10 we dumped 21.6 million tonnes of household and industrial waste in 918 landfill sites around Australia. Of all the waste we produced we recycled only about half (52%).
But can we do things differently? Can we change our production and consumption patterns to generate wealth from what we currently designate as waste?
The potential exists
Consider e-waste, which is the old TVs, DVDs, computers, household appliances and other electrical goods that we throw away. This type of waste has emerged as one of our fastest growing waste streams but only about 10% is recovered or recycled.
But e-waste devices also include valuable metals such as copper, silver, gold, palladium and other rare materials which means they are also ending up in landfill.
By 2008 we had already sent some 17 million televisions and 37 million computers to landfill, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).
But if 75% of the 1.5 million televisions discarded annually could be recycled we could save 23,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, 520 mega litres of water, 400,000 gigajoules of energy and 160,000 cubic metres of landfill space.
Another way of looking at this is to compare gold yielded from an open pit mine with that from discarded electrical goods. Mining yields 1 to 5 grams of gold for every one tonne of ore. From the same quantity of discarded mobile phones and computer circuit boards, you can extract 350 grams and 250 grams respectively.
Humans live on a water world, and yet, many of us still struggle to slake our thirst. Why is that? Earth’s oceans are salty. Just 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater, and of that, 60% is trapped in glaciers, 30% in groundwater (not all of which is accessible), and just 10% is on the surface in lakes and rivers.
There is, of course, great demand for freshwater, and it isn’t all for drinking. Freshwater is used for industrial and agricultural purposes too. Because current methods for removing the salt from ocean water (desalination) are energy intensive and expensive—there is increasing competition for a limited supply of freshwater.
Human emissions of carbon dioxide are increasing the levels of acidity in the oceans at rates not seen for millions of years, scientists say.
The world's oceans are becoming acidic at an "unprecedented rate" and may be souring more rapidly than at any time in the past 300 million years.
In their strongest statement yet on this issue, scientists say acidification could increase by 170% by 2100.
They say that some 30% of ocean species are unlikely to survive in these conditions.
The researchers conclude that human emissions of CO2 are clearly to blame.
The study will be presented at global climate talks in Poland next week.
In 2012, over 500 of the world's leading experts on ocean acidification gathered in California. Led by the International Biosphere-Geosphere Programme, a review of the state of the science has now been published.
This Summary for Policymakers states with "very high confidence" that increasing acidification is caused by human activities which are adding 24 million tonnes of CO2 to oceans every day.
Climate change combined with rapid population increases, economic growth and land subsidence could lead to a more than nine-fold increase in the global risk of floods in large port cities between now and 2050.
There is a certain curiosity about the way water is used in Phoenix, which gets barely eight inches of rain a year but is not necessarily parched.
The hiss of sprinklers serenades improbably green neighborhoods early in the morning and late at night, the moisture guarding against the oppressive heat. This is the time of year when temperatures soar, water consumption spikes and water bills skyrocket in this city, particularly for those whose idea of desert living includes cultivating a healthy expanse of grass.
Half of the water consumed in homes here is used to irrigate lawns, but there is a certain curiosity about the way water is used in Phoenix, which gets barely eight inches of rain a year but is not necessarily parched.
The per capita consumption here, 108 gallons a day, is less than in Los Angeles, where residents average 123 gallons a day. And though humid Southeastern cities like Atlanta have grappled with recurrent water shortages, there is no limit here to how many times someone can wash a car or water flowers in a yard.
“We’re often maligned as being an unsustainable place simply for existing in an arid climate,” said Colin Tetreault, senior policy adviser for sustainability for Mayor Greg Stanton. “But that’s just myopic.”
Experts call on governments to start conserving water in face of climate change, pollution and over-use
The majority of the 9 billion people on Earth will live with severe pressure on fresh water within the space of two generations as climate change, pollution and over-use of resources take their toll, 500 scientists have warned.
The world's water systems would soon reach a tipping point that "could trigger irreversible change with potentially catastrophic consequences", more than 500 water experts warned on Friday as they called on governments to start conserving the vital resource. They said it was wrong to see fresh water as an endlessly renewable resource because, in many cases, people are pumping out water from underground sources at such a rate that it will not be restored within several lifetimes.
"These are self-inflicted wounds," said Charles Vörösmarty, a professor at the Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Centre. "We have discovered tipping points in the system. Already, there are 1 billion people relying on ground water supplies that are simply not there as renewable water supplies."
A majority of the population – about 4.5 billion people globally – already live within 50km of an "impaired" water resource – one that is running dry, or polluted. If these trends continue, millions more will see the water on which they depend running out or so filthy that it no longer supports life.
California’s Central Valley has three times more freshwater in underground aquifers than previously thought, drinking water that could help the state weather future drought and fortify itself against a changing climate, according to a new Stanford University study.
But tapping that water, locked thousands of feet beneath the ground, will be expensive and comes with an enormous risk — it could cause the valley floor to sink, according to the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sinking land in the Central Valley is threatening roads, homes and other infrastructure, and reduces the amount of water some aquifers can hold.
“It’s not often that you find a ‘water windfall,’ but we just did,” said study co-author Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford University. “California’s already using an increasing amount of groundwater from deeper than 1,000 feet. Our goal was to estimate how much water is potentially available.”
Climate change is exposing the state to a greater threat of drought, reducing the amount of water available for farming and drinking as higher temperatures evaporate reservoirs. More precipitation is expected to fall as rain instead of snow in California as the world warms, forcing the state to find new ways to store rain water for municipal and agricultural use.
The provision of clean, safe drinking water in much of the world is one of the most significant public health achievements of the past century – and one of the foundation stones of a healthy society. In the developed world, most people are able to take this service for granted and pay very little for it.
But even if there is not a large economic cost, a global environmental cost is being paid for the luxury of this service. Water systems extract large quantities of water from the environment, require energy, chemicals and infrastructure to treat and pump water to our houses, then require more energy and infrastructure to remove waste, treat it, and return some of that water to the environment complete with contaminants (at low levels, but still present).
In the UK, water services are based on legacy infrastructure systems; the country lives off Victorian engineering. These systems are ageing and deteriorating and will require unprecedented investment to be fit for the future. Therefore the country needs to reimagine its water services to deliver water sustainably via systems that are affordable, adaptable and resilient.
Earth is old. The sun is old. But do you know what may be even older than both? Water.
It’s a mystery how the world became awash in it. But one prevailing theory says that water originated on our planet from ice specks floating in a cosmic cloud before our sun was set ablaze, more than 4.6 billion years ago.
As much as half of all the water on Earth may have come from that interstellar gas according to astrophysicists’ calculations. That means the same liquid we drink and that fills the oceans may be millions of years older than the solar system itself.
The thinking goes that some of the ancient ice survived the solar system’s chaotic creation and came to Earth. To demonstrate that, researchers analyzed water molecules in oceans for indicators of their ancient past.
The clue comes in the form of something known as “heavy water.” Water, as you know, is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. But some water molecules contain hydrogen’s chunky twin, deuterium. (It contains a neutron in its nucleus, whereas regular hydrogen does not.)
Next year, a 20-year-old inventor will begin trawling the world's oceans to try to clean up plastic garbage patches—the sprawling clumps where most of the world's 5 trillion pieces of plastic trash end up. But a new animation shows exactly how hard that task will be: As soon as some plastic is cleaned up, ocean currents will bring more to take its place.
The animation follows the general path that most trash—from tiny particles to buoys—takes in the ocean to land in one of a handful of patches.
Animators at NASA's Science Visualization Studio based the video on a model of the ocean's currents, which they'd already built into their system for another mesmerizing video called Perpetual Ocean.
The animators dropped some virtual particles into the model and watched what happened. "As a quick test, we distributed a bunch of particles evenly around the world and let the model’s time varying vector field move the particles around," says Greg Shirah, the lead animator. "After several years of simulated time, many of the particles began to clump into slower moving gyres—also called garbage patches."
Next, the team compared the virtual model to what happened in real life—not with ocean trash, because the scraps of garbage drift around untracked, but with buoys that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses to chart data like ocean temperature and salinity. Because the buoys are tracked by satellite, it was possible to compare where they ended up to the virtual particles. Everything eventually went to the same giant floating dumps (In the video, the buoys were all "released" at the same time, so it's easier to watch their progress; in real life, NOAA constantly adds new ones).
The animation doesn't exactly model what happens to the plastic bottles, old toothbrushes, and other plastic junk that ends up in the ocean, especially as the trash degrades into tiny pieces. "Small plastic particles likely respond differently to ocean currents than drifter buoys due to varying sizes and densities," says Shirah. But it's possible to see the general journey our trash takes—and how the problem will keep happening unless we figure out a better way to recycle waste.
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Billboards could do more than just advertise, if scientists at the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Peru have their way. While UTEC's earlier billboard produced drinkable water, its latest creation scrubs the air free of pollutants. According to the team, a single billboard can do the work of 1,200 trees, purifying 100,000 cubic meters (3.5 million cubic feet) of air daily in crowded cities.
The University has installed its first air-purifying billboard near a construction zone in Lima, a city that's famous for having the worst air quality in all of South America. The billboard works by combining polluted air with water, using basic thermodynamic principles to actively dissolve the pollutants (such as bacteria, dust and germs) in water to release fresh air.
The scientists claim that their billboard filtered around 500,000 cubic meters of air within one week in March, scrubbing it free of 99 percent of its airborne bacteria. The effects of the billboard can be experienced, the team says, within a 5-block radius, benefiting both construction workers and the area's residents. The extracted pollutants are held for analysis, presumably with a view to creating more effective billboards in the future.
The purifying process is continuous, uses 100 percent recyclable water and consumes little energy, the team says – roughly 2.5 kW (2,500 watts) per hour. Ad agency FCB Mayo is helping the University promote the billboard.
"We seek to demonstrate that engineering is behind it all," says Jessica Rúas, Director of Promotion at UTEC. "And what better way to also show that than through advertising that changes the world, helps the community and cares for the environment."
The Blue Diversion toilet recently won the title of Most Innovative Project (Europe/West Asia), as bestowed by the International Water Association. Two years ago, an off-grid closed-system toilet known as the Diversion won an award at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's "Reinventing the Toilet" fair. Created by the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) and now called the Blue Diversion, it recently also won the title of Most Innovative Project (Europe/West Asia), as bestowed by the International Water Association. So, what makes it so special? Well, for one thing, the same water that flushes it is subsequently used in its hand-washing sink.
In deciding how best to meet the world's growing needs for energy, the answers depend crucially on how the question is framed. Looking for the most cost-effective path provides one set of answers; including the need to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions gives a different picture. Adding the need to address looming shortages of fresh water, it turns out, leads to a very different set of choices.
That's one conclusion of a new study led by Mort Webster, an associate professor of engineering systems at MIT, published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The study, he says, makes clear that it is crucial to examine these needs together before making decisions about investments in new energy infrastructure, where choices made today could continue to affect the water and energy landscape for decades to come.
The intersection of these issues is particularly critical because of the strong contribution of the electricity-generation industry to overall greenhouse-gas emissions, and the strong dependence of most present-day generating systems on abundant supplies of water. Furthermore, while power plants are a strong contributor to climate change, one expected result of that climate change is a significant change of rainfall patterns, likely leading to regional droughts and water shortages.
Surprisingly, Webster says, this nexus is a virtually unexplored area of research. "When we started this work," he says, "we assumed that the basic work had been done, and we were going to do something more sophisticated. But then we realized nobody had done the simple, dumb thing"—that is, looking at the fundamental question of whether assessing the three issues in tandem would produce the same set of decisions as looking at them in isolation.
The answer, they found, was a resounding no. "Would you build the same things, the same mix of technologies, to get low carbon emissions and to get low water use?" Webster asks. "No, you wouldn't."
Dutch scientists have a use for all the carbon dioxide that pours from the chimneys of fossil fuel-burning power stations: Harvest it for even more electricity
Power-generating stations worldwide release 12 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year as they burn coal, oil or natural gas; home and commercial heating plantsrelease another 11 billion tons. A team of Dutch scientists has a use for it.
Power plants could, they argue, pump the carbon dioxide through water or other liquids and produce a flow of electrons – and therefore more electricity.
This would be enough, they argue, to create 1,750 terawatt hours of extra electricity annually – about 400 times the output of the Hoover Dam in the Nevada – and all without adding an extra gasp of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The exhaust from one cycle of electricity production could be used immediately to deliver another flow of power to the grid.
Global water demand is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050 - so what can we do to make sure there's enough to go round? Matthew Wall looks at tech to save water
Ever since Archimedes invented his screw for drawing water uphill and the Romans built their famous aqueducts, mankind has tried to manipulate the earth's most precious resource through the use of technology. Many have dreamed about making the deserts bloom.
Researchers combine an iPhone with optical filters to create a handheld analyzer for toxins, bacteria and other items of public health importance.
A virtual cottage industry has emerged around finding innovative uses for smartphones, well beyond basic calling, texting and Internet access. In particular, there’s been a lot of interest in turning iPhones into something like the <i>Star Trek</i> medical tricorder.
For example, University of Illinois researchers are developing an app and cradle-like device that makes the iPhone a biosensor. The key is the smartphone’s camera and processing power combined with the lenses and filters located in the cradle.
Just put a sample of what you want to study on a slide and insert it into the cradle. The iPhone screen indicates a shift in wavelength when the cradle’s photonic crystal detects toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses or other biological materials on the slide. The researchers published in the journal Lab on a Chip. [Dustin Gallegos et al., Label-free biodetection using a smartphone]
Imagine using a smartphone to tell if there are toxins in harvested corn and soybeans or pathogens in a water supply. That’s a handy tool that lowers the cost of medical fieldwork. Plus, when you’re done, it’s easy to call in the results.
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