March 13, 2013
“There are dozens and dozens of nanotechnologies currently in development that will impact water. And for every amazing nanotech solution, there are mirroring developments in biotech. For every biotech solution, there’s a wastewater recycling solution equally as exciting. But many believe the most promising line of development isn’t even in the water space; it’s in the metatechnologies surrounding this space.”
-Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance p. 95, 2012
The continued failure to meet basic human needs for water calls for the implementation of soft path water solutions. Freshwater management solutions can be categorized in two ways: the hard path and the soft path. The hard path focuses on the construction of large infrastructure, such as dams, aqueducts, pipelines, and centralized treatment plants to meet human demands. It has extreme economic and environmental costs that can be minimized by moving toward soft path solutions. Environmental impacts of the hard path include a decline in freshwater fauna organisms and a disruption of the hydrological cycle, which leads to multiple other problems (e.g., nutrient depletion and decline in wildlife populations). Moreover, the cost of water per year to meet basic human needs by hard path solutions is systematically higher than those for soft path solutions (Gleick).
The soft path takes into account both social and environmental concerns. (Gleick). While the hard path focuses largely on increasing water supply, the soft path heeds the importance of reducing the demand for water as well (Brooks). Furthermore, the hard path encourages the exploitation of natural resources through its narrow focus on extracting as much water as possible. In contrast, the soft path is a more holistic approach because it takes into account the effects of natural resource extraction, use and disposal on ecosystem health. The soft path allows for human water consumption to go hand in hand with environmentally sustainable and economic development through the utilization of “human ingenuity rather than resource-intensive inputs to improve natural resource use patterns” (Brooks).
Artificially low water prices have led to minimal integration of demand management as a component of water management solutions. However when looking at the opportunity costs, one can easily see that a reduction in water demand is a source of water in itself. In other words, more efficient freshwater use means more available freshwater. Furthermore, reducing water demand is much more time effective than any hard path solution (Brooks). Overall, the soft path complements centralized physical infrastructure with lower cost community-scale systems, decentralized and open decision-making, water markets and equitable pricing, application of efficient technology, and environmental protection (Gleick). Below, we discuss a few examples of the aforementioned components of soft path freshwater solutions.
Not only are surface sources and aquifers currently utilized above replenishment rates, but the problem persists that a billion people are living off of untreated water outside of cities and infrastructure. Fortunately, a variety of social forces are taking heed of claims that the Earth is entering an era of heightened water scarcity. The business model of social entrepreneurship is currently catching up with developing countries’ water crises. What began with a brand of ‘high-status’ Ethos water bottles in American coffee shops has helped create mentalities to inspire creativity where finance development costs were thought insurmountable. Starbucks revenues from Ethos are dramatically insufficient to address the world’s water problems (only $10 million), but thanks to its motivations, and those from entrepreneurs in areas like energy and agricultures, those historic impossibilities are being used as justification to renovate the entire water distribution paradigm.
In their 2012 book, Abundance, X Prize and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis, along with entrepreneur Steven Kotler, described a role for four key forces to produce orders of magnitude improvements in basic service industries like water. These are Moore’s Law, Do-it-Yourself Inventors, Technophilanthropists, and the “rising billion.” Economically, these forces translate into fantastic technical capabilities, a newly tapped pool of high-skilled workers, vast pools of tech-savy financing, and markets that have remained unsaturated for decades. It is a perfect storm for soft path water development. Moreover, Diamandis and Kotler are not alone in their forecasts. They are joined by economists like Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, and technologists like Ray Kurzweil, inventor of text-to-speech technology for the deaf.
A quintessential example is the Lifesaver bottle invented by Michael Pritchard. It employs a filtration membrane with pore only 15 nanometers thick and lasts for six thousand liters. At a cost of $0.05 per day, Pritchard has become famous for alleging that Millenium Development Goals for water might be met for only $8 billion. Buttressing his claims are a thriving global nanotechnology industry, which is estimating to encompass $1 trillion in investments by 2015 (Abundance, p. 93). Future iteration of Pritchard’s device could feature additional nanotech devices such as particles with affinity for heavy metals and arsenic. And, scaled-up versions of these nanotechnologies can become even more widely commercialized as desalination processes. NanoH2O is a Los Angeles company that is revamping the reverse osmosis with a stated goal of created 70% more water using 20% as much energy. With these deployed, the world would be unlikely to see desalination technology confined to energy-abundant regions like the Middle East.
It is easy to reframe the techno-optimistic paradigm as a mere few anecdotes, however Diamandis, Kotler, Rifkin, and Kurzweil envision a radical transformation of both technology and society as it grows to be more decentralized and more interconnected as the same time. “Smart grips” for water distribution to farmers have been implemented in Spain, while at the same time, they are being researched by giant technology corporations like Hewlett Packard (Abundance, p. 95). These stand in sharp contrast to the construct-at-all-costs mentality epitomized by Pat Brown’s campaign for the California Aqueduct. Social entrepreneurship, Moore’s Law, Do-It-Yourself invention, technophilanthropy, and demand from a rising billion people are not confined to working in a single industry or country. While ecologically-minded activist express concern for the standards of living of “future generations”, the world is well on its way to realizing massive efficiency and production gains within the lifespans of the current generation (Rifkin).
This post was authored by Sean Hernandez ’13 BA Economics and BA Environmental Studies, and Nazia Gangani ’13 BS Environmental Studies with a Minor in Business.
Brooks, David, and Susan Holtz. “Water Soft Path Analysis: From Principles to Practice.”Water International 34.2 (2009): 158-69. Web.
Diamandis, Peter, and Kotler, Steven, 12’ Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012): 90-98. Print.
Gleick, P. H. “Global Freshwater Resources: Soft-Path Solutions for the 21st Century.”Science 302.5650 (2003): 1524-528. Print.
Rifkin, Jeremy, et al. “The World in 2025: Ways to the Future.” European Business Forum 29 (Summer 2007): 15-27. Web.