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Fresh Water Out of Reach for Many Worldwide

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Fresh Water Out of Reach for Many Worldwide

Global Health

Fresh Water Out of Reach for Many Worldwide

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Tomorrow is World Water Day. That's the United Nations' effort to bring attention to the more than a billion people in the world who live without access to enough fresh drinking water. In this country, I would bet that most of us don't think very much about a shortage of drinking water. We turn on the tap, clean drinking water comes out.

But if you live in the Southwest, you worry about water for crops during this current drought. You worry about water for your home, which may not have any, water for feeding your cattle, for meat and milk production. And now, water for energy. Plants used to make ethanol, like corn, require a lot of water to grow.

And with our growing production of biofuels from food crops, the situation can only get worse. Now add global warming to the mix. In many parts of the world, fresh water comes from the seasonal melting of snowpack and glaciers. But climate change is changing that. Glaciers are disappearing. And with that comes changes in hydrology that could leave many more people in the world high and dry.

This hour, we're going to look at some of the challenges in providing fresh water. Can new technologies help? We'll also look at how energy use and water use are connected. If you'd like to get in on our conversation, we invite you to give us a call, our number is 1-800-989-8255. 1-800-989-TALK. Also you can go to Second Life and find SCIENCE FRIDAY's island there and join the conversation with other avatars and get a free SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirt.

Let me introduce my guests. Lester Brown is founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute in Washington. He joins us from our NPR studios there.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Lester.

LESTER BROWN: Ira, it's good to be here.

: You're welcome.

Mark Shannon is a professor and the director of the Center of Advanced Materials for the Purification of Water with Systems at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He joins from the studios there in the campus.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Shannon.

MARK SHANNON: Thank you very much.

: You're welcome.

SHANNON: Pleased to be here.

: Thank you.

Casey Brown is associate research scientist and water team leader at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, that's part of the institute at Columbia University.

Thank you for being with us today, Dr. Brown.

CASEY BROWN: Thank you. Thanks for the opportunity.

: You're welcome.

Paul Faeth is executive director of Global Water Challenge. That's a non-profit organization in Washington and he's also in our NPR studios.

Thank you for being with us today, Mr. Faeth.

PAUL FAETH: Glad to be here.

: You're welcome.

Michael Hightower is a distinguished member of the technical staff in the Energy Resources and Systems Analysis Center of Sandia National Laboratories, and he joins us from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thank you for being with us here.

MICHAEL HIGHTOWER: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

: A large group to talk about water - water, which is a large subject to talk about.

Mike Hightower, who uses most of the water in our country?

HIGHTOWER: It depends on how you define use. If we talk about withdrawal, irrigated agriculture and electric power are the two sectors in the country that withdraw the most water on a daily basis.

: I can understand agriculture but electric power?

HIGHTOWER: Yes, electric power requires water for cooling and most of the power plants in the United States that are thermal electric type plants whether those are coal, natural gas, fuel or nuclear generally use water for cooling. And in some cases they use a lot of water - they run the water through the power plants to cool the power plants.

Sometimes once-through, where the water comes in and goes out without much consumption of the water, but the water comes out at a little bit higher temperature. And in many plants recently built around the country, they use what we call evaporative cooling where they bring in water, they use it and cool the power plants and they evaporate the water just like you would with a swamp cooler in your home. And those plants consume a lot of water. But most of the plants in the United States still - are once-through cooling plants. They use a lot of water; they don't consume that much. But we're moving toward the situation where a number of the plants and most plants in the past 20 years that have been built are evaporative cool plants and the water consumption is going up.

: Mm-hmm. Mark Shannon, a big problem?

SHANNON: Oh, absolutely. And there's other moves afoot that - such as in terms of biofuels and refining, there's additional water that's being used. Again a lot of those are once-through systems, most of it's returned but there's evaporative losses there too.

So, you know, energy is one of those sectors that are really increasing the use of water in various different ways from - even in the mining and the processing and getting out, say, coal and such; there's a fair amount of water consumption.

But agriculture still consumes the most to produce food. And that's one of the reasons why the United States is such a big water user is because of - we're a big ag country, and we grow a lot of grain and grow a lot of crops.

: Mm-hmm. If we start using those crops to make fuel, do we move that to a different ledger or does that still come under agriculture?

SHANNON: Well, it would still probably come under agriculture but the overall use would certainly go up because we have to start planting more acres and so, you'll say, well, if it's mostly rainfall, but that once you start planting if it goes - if it gets evaporated and goes into the biological fuel itself, I mean, you have to make water and CO2 to make the fuel. Water use will go up and can go up considerably.

: Lester Brown, you've written a lot about water shortages, really talking about a food shortage.

BROWN: Well, I think most of those listening today sense that we're looking at a future of water shortages in many parts of the world. What not everyone has done yet is sort of connect the dots and realize that because 70 percent of all the water we use in the world is for irrigation, that if we're facing a future of water shortages, we're also facing a future of food shortages.

And we now see a situation where half the world's people live in countries where water tables are falling and that includes the big three grain producers, importantly China and India, which depends still heavily on irrigated agriculture, and also the U.S. which substantially depends on irrigated agriculture but not nearly as much as China and India.

: Mm-hmm. And I mentioned before that added to the mix now is global climate change, something you were talking about this week and in terms of glacier melt.

BROWN: Well, one of the most alarming developments on the climate front is the acceleration in the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau. It is the ice melt from these glaciers that feeds the rivers - the major rivers of Asia during the dry season and keeps them flowing.

And this is a critical time, of course, the first half of the summer before the monsoon comes in India, for example, where this water plays a central role. What I don't think we've realized yet is that all the scientists have reported the data on how fast the glaciers are going. Many of those in the Himalayas could be gone by 2035, and the Chinese report that two-thirds of the glaciers on the Tibetan plateau could be gone by 2060.

: Mm-hmm. Okay, I'm sorry, go ahead.

BROWN: Just keep in mind that China and India are the world's leading wheat producers. China number one, India number two, the U.S. is actually number three. And with rice, China and India are one and two, and they produce half of the world's rice crop. So what happens with these rivers that irrigate the wheat and rice crops of Asia is concern not only to those living in India and China, but also of concern to us. I mean, in a sense, those glaciers are our glaciers, too, because they produce such a large part of the world food supply on which we all depend.

: Mm-hmm. Casey Brown, what about the arid areas of the world?

BROWN: Well, I think that the arid areas of the world already face a lot of major water challenges, a lot of major climate challenges, and that this is where rainfall is most variable both within seasons and between years. And so, really in all these cases, what we've realized is that the way we currently manage the water isn't nearly as efficient as it could be.

Now though we do see a lot of major concerns coming our way when we look towards the future, there's also a great deal of possibility, of potential of improving the way we manage the water. Part of that is through a better understanding of the climate and of rainfall and how it will change in the future.

: Paul Faeth, your organization who is working to bring fresh water to some of the billion people who don't have it. How do you begin to tackle such a big problem?

FAETH: Well, a lot of where the people live who don't have water are in the rural and more remote areas of - particularly Africa, but also Southeast Asia, and even Latin America. So a lot of the issue has to do with bringing clean water, clean drinking water to people and finding ways of putting in wells and purifying water in very inexpensive ways that can be technologically simple so that the average person in these places can use it.

: Mm-hmm. Is there a technological fix for this or - Mark Shannon, or is this something that's going to be more than just any simple answer?

SHANNON: Well, I mean, it's definitely more than any simple answer. Technology has a place, and has a place certainly in particularly what you've - was just being said in terms of how can you disinfect and how can you decontaminate point sources of water so that people throughout the world can get access to it.

I mean, really when people say, well, when they think of water purification for potable water for cities, they're really thinking of sort of the large water plants that are known in the west and that environmental engineers and civil engineers have developed very successfully over the last, you know, 100 years. But most of those methodologies are not applicable for five out of six people on the face of the earth. They - you need large chemical plants, you need energy, you need transit, transportation, distribution systems, those types of things that just aren't available.

So getting to those point source, point of use type of methodologies and technologies can have a big impact if they can be robust and simple as previously described. So it can have an impact. It's not certainly the answer for everything, there's not a technological solution for everything. But the point that the climate change is the game changer here in terms of these melting glaciers, this is the thing that should everybody on the face of the earth should be paying really close attention to, and their hair should be standing up on the back of their neck. And technology has a play but it's certainly not the only solution.

: All right, we're going to take a short break. It's a big problem; we have lots of guests to talk about it. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Send in your questions. We'll be back talking more about water - water everywhere but not a drop to drink - so stay with us for this message.



: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

BROWN: Lester Brown, the founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, author of "Plan B 3 dot 0" - 3 point 0, excuse me; Mark Shannon is a professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Casey Brown, associate research scientist at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society; Paul Faeth, executive director of Global Water Challenge; and Michael Hightower, distinguished member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

: by the time this water got to her mouth, it was pure water. And this was a device, an invention that someone had come up with that was supposed to be revolutionary. Can we come up with enough of those kinds of devices?

HIGHTOWER: Well, I think Mark Shannon mentioned it earlier, the fact that, I think, water treatment is going to be a big issue in the future. The question is many of the water-treatment technologies require significant amount of energy. So if we're trying to apply new technologies to make things like seawater available for use or brackish groundwater available for use or even wastewater available for use in the future, such that we can maximize the use of our total water resources - our total water capital, if you will, that we're going to have to look at, improving technologies that can treat the water to the level that we need but are also energy efficient.

Today, the desalination is five to 10 times more energy intensive than traditional water-treatment processes. So as we look at using these nontraditional waters in the future, we're going to have to look at the energy associated with that and bring the energy down such that we can use those technologies and create additional water supplies.

: Mark Shannon?

SHANNON: Well, absolutely, you can bring new technologies to bear. The example of the woman sucking water through a straw, I mean, the energy she's supplying is her ability to suck on straws. And interestingly, certainly, the Department of Defense has looked at these types of technologies to clean up water, and it takes a huge amount of work on the part of the individual which makes it for a brief period of time possible, but not to maintain life for a long period of time, unless there are some new breakthroughs.

And there are breakthroughs coming down the line. I mean, there's all sorts of technologies that are based on nanotechnology, which lots of people have heard about, that can really be a game changer. We don't quite have them here yet, we don't have them ready to implement. There's certainly a lot more research that's needed to be done, and a lot more technological development. But there are things that can happen. We don't - we just have to think outside the box. We can't keep thinking about...

: Well, give us some ideas...

SHANNON: we done it.

: ...of that kind of thinking.

SHANNON: Well, one example would be - one of the greatest health hazards that's hit the world really is the arsenic poisoning in wells that are in the Bengal region of Bangladesh in east India. There are people who are working on technologies that can combine biological bacteria that can, with sulfates, bind arsenic up into arsenic sulfide, and make it very insoluble. And then take and pull that arsenic out in a way that might be relatively low cost and efficient, and provide new fresh water because this issue of contamination is an important one. We've also been contaminating our water supplies more and more, which is reducing our water supplies than we used to have. We're requiring more water treatment.

So there's other ways of using sunlight to disinfect with particles of mixed oxides that can actually do a very effective job of disinfecting from viruses which cause so many diarrheal diseases around the world. And if one can get this low enough cost, it can be distributed to people throughout the world.

: Mm-hmm.

SHANNON: And there's techniques that, you know, in terms of desalination that could predict - that draw people with the energy use and the chemical use for desalination, and perhaps the capital cost as well. There's all these aspects that come into play where new technologies are being developed.

: Mm-hmm. Paul Faeth, your organization is sponsoring a contest, right, to look for new technologies that would provide fresh water?

FAETH: Well, we're actually looking for behavioral changes and entrepreneurial aspects in this issue. One of the things that we think is certainly while technology is absolutely necessary, as Mark Shannon's paper points out, that we also think that behavioral changes are needed and different economic models and financial models for how to approach the problem.

As you mentioned with 1.1 billion people around the world not having water, it's a real problem but how do you reach them? So we are doing a contest, it's called - with the Ashoka Group, called the And what we're doing is we're offering some prizes for people to put up proposals to - from groups that are working in communities in poor countries to - they're doing a variety of things from applying technology to figuring out different ways of financing water, to putting in toilets and things like that.

And we actually have a $1 million grant from the Coca-Cola Company, to then actually fund some of those activities. And what we're looking for really, I said, is behavioral changes. I think, in addition to the science, we need to do behavioral science and...

: Such as? What would be...

FAETH: Well, for example, one of the things that we don't understand, and we're talking about water. One of things that makes people sick in the developing world is that they don't have good hygiene. And one of the things that we see is that, you know, there isn't really a good understanding among those folks about germ theory, and so it's okay when you're living in an area that's not very dense but then when you start getting higher density populations, you start getting real problems.

And so, you know, the way that they behave is an important element in terms of themselves getting sick. So looking at those kinds of things and different financial models where how can you bring private capital into this space, where most of the money that's been spent for clean water and sanitation to keep water clean, comes from governments and from aid and philanthropy. There's almost no commercial capital in this space. How can you develop incentives so that that can happen, and help a lot more people?

: Lester Brown, you pointed out that 80 percent of the water we use is used in agriculture. How do we go about - that's a huge chunk of water? Do you have suggestions to give us how we might go back changing that?

BROWN: Yeah, it's about 70 percent for irrigation but if you include all agricultural uses then it gets up close to 80 percent. By the way, Ira, you mentioned the new book "Plan B 3.0" - chapter four, and that is the water chapter, and it's available for downloading free of charge from It contains almost everything I know about the water situation.

In looking at agriculture and irrigation specifically, the use of water efficiency can vary by as much as two to one from country to country. The least efficient water, use of water for irrigation is surface irrigation, then an improvement on that is furrow irrigation. Then you come to overhead sprinklers which are what we see in the west when you fly over the western Great Plains and see the crop circles. Those are overhead sprinklers.

And the most efficient of all is drip irrigation. And the disadvantage with drip irrigation is that it's more labor intensive and costly. But in a lot of developing countries like India, for example, where you have small holdings, a lot of labor and not very much water, this is really the way to go - and indeed both India and China, among the major countries - there's a number of smaller countries, are moving in this direction. It's a real water saver.

: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. To the phones, Lee(ph) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LEE: Hi there. How are you doing?

: Hi.

LEE: One thing, thanks for addressing this situation. I'm from the Midwest, and we are currently, actually, under a lot of flood watch. And I also help down in New Orleans and saw a lot of flood there. So I'm wondering as far as behavioral changes, number one, can we jump on the solar bandwagon? I mean, I know that we are trying a little bit here and a little bit there to push that technology but if you really start using it, then there's your energy.

Secondly, if you take all of these areas that flood consistently, we know they're going to flood - every year we see it coming - and start taking that water and pumping it or funneling it or gravity-feed it to the areas that need it. We have it everywhere. There's too much water and it just runs away and nobody does anything with it, so that's an awesome source for water right there.

And third, as far as behavior, if ethanol is using agriculture to grow for fuel - just stop. And like out in the Southwest - I used to live in Phoenix - they're growing corn - no, this doesn't need be done. Why are we growing crops in places where they just - it takes too much water? They need to go back - instead of building a lawn out in the middle of the desert then just use their escaping. And those kind of behavioral challenges, I think, are what we need to address. But mainly, you know, is there a way that we can use this run-off water from flood areas?

: Yeah.

LEE: We have it every year and there's an abundant.

: People are also - yeah. Let me see if I can ask - Casey Brown, you want to wade in on that one?

BROWN: Sure, I think it's an excellent question. And traditionally, really, we've tried very hard to control our hydrology through infrastructure investments and - that's done a very good job but it's had limitations. And we've been experiencing these limitations recently with flooding events and with droughts as well. So I think more and more in the future, we have to realize that since the climate is changing and often in ways that we don't really understand, we need to build in a lot of flexibility in our water systems since - so we need to realize that to extend beyond just the infrastructure and also to the management systems so that we have flexibility to deal with the surprises of drought and to deal with the surprises of floods.

And in the future, I think, with the loss of snowpack that will accompany warming, we're going to lose a lot of natural storage, and so there will be need or there will be perceived need for new storage. The question is, will we do that in sort of the old-fashioned, the old technology way of dams or can we find some new ways to do that?

: All right. Okay.

LEE: Or pipe, if you will, natural gas across the country or cable or anything else.

: Well, she also said...

LEE: Eventually...

: Yeah.

LEE: ...if we were to go solar, then we're going to have a lot of old gas lines and old lines that are not going to be even used anymore, are those possibilities that we could use those. That infrastructure is already in place. With amazing entrepreneurial activity that we can start to explore and it just - it seemed like...

: Well, but, Lee, what would you do in the seasons when it's not raining with all that pipe work?

LEE: I'm sorry, what?

: What would you do in the season when you're not having the floods and people still need all that water?

LEE: Well, there's going to be places everywhere that flood. I mean, it comes from everywhere or you can route it, and the desalination, you can run water. I mean, it doesn't mean that it has to go from point A to point B. You can set these lines up so that they can go many places. They can interchange like a railroad track, you know, switch it off here and switch it on there or...

: Okay.

LEE: ...if there's nothing in it, there's nothing in it, you know?

: Okay, All right. Thanks for the thoughts.

TALK OF THE NATION: 1-800-989-8255. We're talking about water this hour in TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Let me ask any of my guests. Is it feasible to move the water around that way or any way? She was talking a bit about the solar energy, we talked about the agriculture, and I guess, which is equaling water as much as, I guess, Einstein calling energy is equal to mass; agriculture is equal to water.

BROWN: Yeah, Ira, I think if we look at some examples that there are some examples of moving water around like that such as the California Water Bank that's been set up. And there is not from necessary flood seasons to dry seasons but just from people who value the water very highly, to people who can go without the water and can take money instead. And so I think there is a need for that sort of system and whether it involves a lot of new pipe work, I'm not so sure. But there's also - it's important to realize we move a lot of water around as agricultural products as well and this whole trade of virtual water and that this can be manipulated in sort of a strategic way as well, to meet some of our water challenges.

: Mm-hmm.

FAETH: Ira, this is Paul, if I can take on that one.

: Sure, go ahead.

FAETH: One of the things that we see with water is that it's drastically underpriced and is often given away at very, very low cost that don't reflect its true value. So one of the things, I think, is necessary is to get sort of from reverse, at least, into neutral by fixing the water subsidies that we have all over the world. You know there's the - in the west, the irrigation water that goes to farmers goes for a small share of the cost of providing it, when there are higher value use is in the cities. In places like India, the water is provided nearly free of charge and so, you know, as Lester is talking about with the irrigation water, the cost of electricity for pumping water for example is a very small share of its true cost.

So one of the things, I think, we need to do, first of all, is to you know, get people to pay what it costs and value water appropriately so that it gets used efficiently. And if we can do that, that will get us a long way towards helping and to fix some of these problems that we're facing.

: Lester, you agree with that?

BROWN: I do. The pricing of water is one of the keys to increasing the efficiency of water use around the world. One of the interesting things that's happening - I think Casey may have just referred to it - is that water is now beginning to move around the world in the form of agricultural commodities.

If you look at North Africa and the Middle East for example, say, Morocco all the way across through Iran, every country in that region is pushing against the limits of its water supplies. So when they need more water for cities, they take the irrigation water from agriculture. In Israel, for example, the irrigation we just banned now because it takes so much water, which they no longer have.

So when countries lose grain production capacity as a result of diverting water to cities, they then import grain to offset that loss. And the reason for importing grain is because it takes a thousand tons of water to produce one ton of grain. So the most efficient way to import water is in the form of grain. And in effect, world grain markets are now, in some sense, world water markets. This is how water moves from surplus areas to deficit areas.

: Mm-hmm. So that...

BROWN: Trading in grain futures now is, in a sense, trading in water futures.

: So water - yeah. So water has become an economic and a political issue again?

BROWN: No question about that. And as with water tables falling in half the world's countries now, we're going to see this reflected in the demand for imported grain especially in countries like China and India, as we're already seeing in the - in all the smaller countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Some of these countries import over half their grain now like Egypt, for example, and Israel is close to 90 percent.

So water is going to become a major factor in the world food situation, and as water resources are depleting and they are being depleted, the World Bank estimates, for example, that 175 million people in India depend on overpumping, which by definition is a short-term phenomenon. So when those aquifers are depleted and the wells go dry, there are going to be some tough adjustments coming down the road.

: All right. We're going to tap to - adjust to a station break here. We'll be gone just a short while, so stay with us. We'll come back, take your questions, talk more about water, so don't go away, we'll be right back.



: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

BROWN: 1-800-989-8255.

Let's, in a short time we have left, talk about actions that people can take.

Lester, your book is subtitled "Mobilizing to Save Civilization." You talked about how much water is involved in irrigation and agriculture, should we stop eating? I mean, we talked about how much water it takes to make a pound of meat, how much it takes for a glass of milk. Is food consumption changing our eating habits? Is that a huge area to save water?

BROWN: Well, one of the reasons that food prices are going up is the growing shortage - spreading water shortages around the world, importantly in both India and China, two of the big three grain producers. As things begin to tighten up, one of the ways that, particularly people in a country like ours can lighten water supplies is simply to move down the food chain and eat less livestock products and more fruits and vegetables and other foods.

I don't have the water numbers, but I can quickly tell you the energy numbers. If you move from having a diet rich in red meat in the United states, somewhat, above the average U.S. diet down to a plant-based diet, the energy saving is equivalent to switching from a large SUV to a Prius. So the savings are very substantial if we move down the food chain. That's one way of lightening pressure. And for most Americans moving down the food chain would be a healthy thing to do as well. And then to that, this is all in "Plan B 3.0" online at, free of charge.

: Any of my other guests would like to - any suggestions you'd make for...

BROWN: One thing I would like to point out is we've mentioned how irrigated agriculture is the largest user of water in the world. And by some estimates, the largest irrigated crop in the United States is lawns - people's green grass - and so one way that we can make a difference in this country is by reducing the watering of our lawns, making it more efficient, maybe allowing some of the area to be less green.

: Hmm. Interesting suggestion.

FAETH: I think...

: Yeah.

FAETH: Well, this is Paul. One of the things that - if people are interested in helping those who are, you know, less fortunate than us, to people in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, one wonderful thing that happened this year was that the Water for the Poor Act in Congress was just passed and the money from the U.S. government for bilateral aid went from 30 million to $300 million a year. And that's still a small amount of what's needed but from a political point of view, people could encourage their congressmen or legislators to actually to support funding for water for those billion people who don't have it.

: It's interesting. It is really a touchy political topic even in the United States. I'm recalling - just a side comment - that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said about, hey, why don't we just pipe some of this water from the Great Lakes down to the Southwest. And he had to retract that statement; it caused such a concern around the Great Lake area.

SHANNON: Well, there's some good technical - this is Mark Shannon.

: Yeah.

SHANNON: There's some good technical reasons besides just, you know, people worried about their own personal water supply. It takes a huge amount of money to build these pipelines. The volumes that are needed are - most people have a hard idea of - hard time conceiving of the type of size of these pipes that people are talking about and the amount of energy.

I just did a quick estimate of, in terms of the flood versus people who are in parched. We would have to - just for using in people's homes, we would have to move over seven trillion gallons of water from one area to another, and it would cost over $10 billion in energy cost alone to move that water - not even talking about the size of the pipelines and such. Up to 15 percent of the energy in California is spent moving water.

So moving water is a really difficult thing. It's hard on the environment. It's very expensive to build these carriageways to, you know, from pipes to canals. So it's - although it's certainly something that people feel and have done lots for the Erie Canal to which was really for moving commerce. But from the canal and water in California to carry water, it's always a political issue, but it doesn't make a lot of sense technically either because it's going to be really hard on the environment, very expensive and use a lot of energy.

: I think the rebuilding of the dams, dikes in New Orleans gave everybody an idea of how strong water is, and how much it takes and how expensive it is - the levees - to build these things.

Let's go to the phones to Mike(ph) in Denver.

Hi, Mike.

MIKE: Howdy.

: Hi there.

MIKE: My question - well, let me try first by saying I'm beginning graduate school, I'm looking in a career in water science and I'm very interested in desalination. I'll be seeing Lester Brown speak in Aspen next week. But my question is, is it truly going to be economically unfeasible and if you, sir, could desalinate and pipe water into the Midwest?

SHANNON: Well, can I weigh in on this one?

: Sure, go ahead.

SHANNON: This is Mark Shannon. This is, sort of, what we do in our center. And I'm really encouraged to hear that you want to move into water science. We need far more people to do this. There's different ways of desalinating. You can desalinate and then you would have to pipe water in from the sea to desalinate and pipe it in, which is - comes to the same problem I was just talking about, it's large amounts of water, it takes a lot of energy to do that.

: But couldn't we - let me just jump in here because I've heard Lester say it and you say it, talking about the energy. But we have energy sources where the seas are, that could we not have solar power and wind power and those kinds of renewable energies at those locations where we need to construct the desalination plant?

SHANNON: We could, I mean, we could do those types of things. But desalination currently as practiced is expensive even if the energy was free. I always go around saying that, you know, that Saudi Arabia isn't - it's still flaring off natural gas. It's free and it's still expensive the way it's currently practiced. The equipment, the capital is expensive. They use lots of chemicals, and chemical energy is usually not considered when people think about the chemical energy needed. And so - and then there's the operation costs, it's - so there's still a large amount of expenses there to desalinate.

But my point, what I wanted to say, and this actually came out of Sandia, out of Michael Hightower's group. There are lots and lots of saline water that's just right underneath most of the United States. You can - that's brackish type water - it's hard water. It's different than seawater. But it's there and it's copious in quantities, far larger than the freshwater. And so, if there was ways that we - we currently don't know how to desalinate that well and how to get rid of the residuals. There's some real technical problems that have to be solved. But it is possible, then you wouldn't have to build big pipelines and you can build it where people are and more people could use this.

: So you might be able to flush your toilets with that water, but not drink it.

SHANNON: Oh, you can, not only flush your water but you might be, if you could desalinate, you could actually drink it, you could use it, so it would be desalinated water - it's brackish water. But you - and actually we have lots of wells already there, we call them oil wells. And there's a large amount of water for every barrel of oil that's pumped up. Currently, there's one to 300 barrels of water that come up that we have to do something with, currently, and we spend money to inject it back down into the ground. So it's - there are things that one can do and, indeed, there's a lot of research that's yet to be done in desalination that could make it more affordable.

: Interesting.

MIKE: The second part is what do we do with the highly concentrated saline? What are the environmental impacts?

SHANNON: Absolutely, that is a huge issue. And the concentrated saline in the inland areas - we call that residuals - that is an open problem that still has to be resolved. You know, in the arid Southwest, you could put it out on the land and let the sun evaporate it. But then that uses up land and it actually concentrates toxins, toxic compounds as well.

So there are things that one can do and we have research that's going on to try to figure out if we could get it all the way to a solid without spending a huge amount of energy and cost to do this; it actually has some economic value, these salts, that are left over. But that is an open question. In the sea, you dilute with more seawater. And the seas are absolutely enormous and huge, and there's plenty of seawater.

: All right, Mike, thanks for calling. Good luck to you.

MIKE: Thank you.

BROWN: Ira, could I ask...

: Sure.

BROWN: This is Les Brown - one quick point. In looking at desalting seawater, in the Middle East, there are a few hundred desalting plants, almost all that is for household use, for drinking water, and so forth. When you look at agriculture, we'd probably have to reduce the cost of desalting seawater by a factor of 10 to make it economic to produce grain, for example, so its cost is, as was just mentioned, a big factor here.

: Mm-hmm, but...

SHANNON: Absolutely.

: I'm intrigued by this idea of the brackish water because we haven't talked much about that. So there's a lot of brackish water that's available that we're not making use of? Is that basically...


: ...what you're saying? And we should find ways to pump it out or as you say, it's coming out for nothing out of the oil wells.

SHANNON: I mean, there's a lot amount of water there but these are saline aquifers and they're deeper. And actually, whether people realize it or not, it's slowly but surely happening. All of these communities that was mentioned earlier that we keep pumping deeper and deeper, and they keep dropping their wells deeper and deeper, my parents have done it, most people I knew were on well water who are in impacted areas are having to drill their wells deeper.

As they get deeper it gets saltier and if you get deep enough, it turns into this brackish saltwater. So communities are already facing this when they're having to drill their wells deeper. So then they're trying to find freshwater, fresh sources to blend with. So there is a real need to be able to - even just for potable use for inside homes and businesses to desalt this brackish water. Currently, to do agriculture like it was mentioned, it would take dropping the price considerably before that would become viable.

: Mm-hmm.

FAETH: Ira, you mentioned toilets. The Toto Company in Japan has actually invented a toilet that uses the water from draining sinks and from showers to actually flush the toilet. And in a lot of places, there are technologies that are being used. In my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida, for example, where the wastewater is being used to water lawns. So there are opportunities for reuse and for using water that otherwise isn't suitable for, you know, for drinking, but that can be used for other purposes, you know, gray water can be usee for a lot of different things to increase the efficiency of water use all over the place before we go to things like, you know, moving it across the country.

: Yeah.


How much do all - there's all this plastic bottled water add up to extra water? I was told that every bottle of bottled water takes four bottles of water, including the bottle itself, of the water to make.

BROWN: Well, we've been doing some research on this. And certainly in this country, the bottled water industry is an industry that's really played on the fears of people. And as mayors of many cities have said in the last year or so that tap water is on average, probably cleaner and safer than bottled water. In fact, a lot of bottled water simply, taken from taps, and put in bottles with fancy labels and sold at a price a thousand times that of tap water. And it's interesting that people complain about the rising price of gasoline, how much it costs, but the amount we spend on a gallon of bottled water is really rather amazing.

The big thing here, Ira, is not the additional water use but the extraordinary amount of energy use it takes to haul water and trucks around when it could be coming very efficiently through pipes and public water systems.

: Mm-hmm. And the petroleum products that makes - it takes to make the plastic which gets recycled, I guess, but it's still, usually, a lot of it gets thrown out, I would imagine.

BROWN: In fact, probably 80 percent do not get recycled, they end up in landfills. And the amount of oil used each year for manufacturing the bottles and transporting the water, actually, adds up to a very substantial amount, which in this country is all imported, of course, at a very high price from other countries.

: We've been talking about a carbon tax to make people aware of how much carbon there is and to try not to use as much carbon for the CO2 emission. Should we be talking about - you talked about how low price water is relatively to what it cost to get it out of the ground or move it around? Should we have a higher water tax or some, sort of, way of rewarding people? Let's look at it the other way, rewarding people who save water.

BROWN: Well, a carbon tax would raise the price of water because of bottled water because it is so energy intensive. Some communities, I think, the city of Chicago may be one, is actually imposing a water tax, as I recall, on bottled water, not on tap water, to discourage it. But a carbon tax would help raise the price of bottled water to the point were consumption would begin to drop substantially.

: Well, I'm not talking just about bottled water, but water of - all kind of uses for it, you get repaid if you conserve water, somehow, in whatever you do.

SHANNON: Well, you can do if you think about what you're mentioning, Ira, is the tax. One of the things that is the - a negative of impact of not paying a high enough price for water is that our water infrastructure is degrading. And our water infrastructure, and not just United States, but all over the world, is actually very leaky.

: Mm-hmm.

SHANNON: And some systems lose as much as 40 percent of the water going through but by the time they leave the plant to clean the water to get to the home, 40 percent of the water might be lost. So by the fact that we're paying these, you know, low prices for water, there isn't money for operation, maintenance of systems. The U.S. is way behind not just for water systems but also for sanitation systems. And it's true all over the world, with that these low prices are affecting the infrastructures we've already put in place and we can't maintain it so we're experiencing huge loses of what is already in the system, and that's already been cleaned up.

: Some of these pipes I know here in New York, we hear stories that some of these pipes, being 150 years old.

SHANNON: Yeah, every American doesn't realize it yet. Every American owes, currently, $550 on just to keep up with the crumbling infrastructure that we currently have. And this number is not even including the impact that the population growth is going to have. I think the - with respect to the carbon footprint, I think we need to start talking about a water footprint that each person has, and what impact it's going to have. The population growth in the United States alone, if we - every American uses 50 percent less water in their homes, we use 30 percent less energy per capita than we're currently using. If we use 20 percent less water for agriculture for every person in the United States. With the current population growth by 2030, we need to grow our entire water supply by 30 percent. If we don't do this, we have to grow it by 60 percent, and we just simply don't have that. And we're not even talking about the cost.

: Hmm. All right, you have the last word there. Let me thank all of you; Michael Hightower, distinguished member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories; Paul Faeth, executive director of Global Water Challenge; Casey Brown, associate research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia; Mark Shannon, professor, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.

Thank you, all, for taking time to be with us today.

If you'd like to write to us, send your letters to SCIENCE FRIDAY, 4 West, 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 10036. Surf over to our Web site at we're podcasting and blogging. We'll see you next week.

And I'm Flatow in New York.

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