Coming together to tackle global water challenges

Scarcity of clean water is a huge challenge in the world today. Three in ten people lack access to safe water at home, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, and as the global population continues to grow the problem is only set to get worse.

Population growth accelerates the trends of industrialisation, urbanisation and climate change, increasing the amount of water people need and the energy they consume. A kilo of beef takes 20,000 litres of water to produce, while a car requires 200,000 litres. As industrial output and food consumption increases, so does the need for more water.

Part of the challenge is awareness. Media coverage may highlight water scarcity issues, but it often fails to frame the discussion around a solution and translate accountability to the masses. The issue of plastic pollution has shown how powerful it can be when people feel empowered to make small consumption changes in their own lives.

The other challenge is one for industry, namely bringing different stakeholders together to strategically manage water. Industrial uses are squeezed on one side between agricultural use and drinking water in terms of availability, and on the other by tightening regulations. Industry is a contributor to the whole value chain.

“We can all do something about it, but we have to work together in ways we haven’t done before,” says Alexander Lane, commercial director at DuPont Water Solutions. “If you think about the Ganges drying up and power plants being unable to run because of insufficient cooling water availability, we’re already beginning to see this issue manifest itself.

We can do more about water scarcity by working together in ways we haven’t before

“We need more tightly knit water communities involving industry, municipalities and authorities to help manage supply in basins, looking at sources of reuse and quality for all concerned. Particularly in remote areas supplying a community or industrial production, from one or two sources, it’s important to manage it holistically rather than each stakeholder taking what they need without a view to the whole picture.”

DuPont, the global specialty products company, is taking a leading role in tackling the global water imbalance. As a manufacturer and supplier of purification and separation technologies, the innovation it develops is a core component to help make water cleaner, safer and more accessible. The combination of ultrafiltration, reverse osmosis and ion exchange, in particular, is a powerful proposition when it comes to purifying water from a wide array of sources, including ground water, surface water, sea water and even waste water.

However, technology is only one piece of the puzzle. The bigger challenge is the requirement for better awareness and industry collaboration. DuPont supports the Brave Blue World Foundation, a not-for-profit initiative that will release a documentary this year to shift thinking around solving water challenges globally and inspire greater urgency, as well as optimism.

To encourage collaboration, DuPont works to bring people together on every continent around the world. It has worked with communities in the United States, helped treat water for people in Kenya and participated in decentralised water projects in Egypt.

“The value chain of stakeholders for each one is very different and it’s important for us to work with each one of them effectively to be able to bring everyone together and bring a solution to bear, rather than just simply making a product sale,” says Mr Lane. “It’s vital that everybody is part of the conversation and we’re working globally to bring some thought leadership to markets, as well as our technical solutions.

“We’re very open collaborators and where we can we’re trying to refresh our messages and really drive the conversation. UN Sustainable Goal 6 is access to clean water and goal 17 is new partnerships that are required to form new ecosystems. This means new ways of looking at problems and different stakeholders than have historically been around the table to drive new conversations and implement new solutions.

“Banks, governments, industry, technology providers; there are numerous people who have to come together and really make some of these things happen. There needs to be political will, financing and regulation, as well as the right innovation in the places that need it most. Framing it holistically and bringing down silos is really important.”

Earth is 66 per cent water, which can give people the impression there is an abundance of water around. In reality, however, the supply situation is extremely fragile since only 2.5 per cent of this is fresh water. Over half of all global fresh water gets converted to waste water in the form of industrial, municipal and agricultural discharge.

Waste water reuse represents an affordable and sustainable source of water, energy, nutrients and other recoverable materials. Waste water is everywhere people are and in water-scarce regions it becomes a highly valuable resource.

In the context of innovation, enabling purification and reuse of waste water is a key focus area for DuPont. Minimal liquid discharge converts 95 per cent of waste water into a sustainable source of fresh water at a price point 60 per cent lower than conventional solutions. Such innovations promote a mindset that waste water should be perceived as a source of fresh water.

“It’s not just that we need a bit of rain and then everything will be good again,” adds Mr Lane. “Eighty per cent of the water that is produced is released back to the environment. That’s already a source of reasonably well-treated water that should be tapped, rather than just letting it go down the drain.

“We need to shift our thinking from linear to circular: reduce usage firstly, yes, but also then look at ways we can recycle and treat the water we have. Everyone is sitting down and talking around the doom, gloom and complexity, and somehow we have
to try to re-energise and simplify the discussion.”

As our planet is forced to sustain more and more people, there will be unprecedented demands on resources in the years ahead. Promoting the correct solutions to the issue and challenging historical behaviours are crucial to getting the world to a stage where everybody has access to clean drinking water. Creating a more circular economy means making things happen on a local, regional, national and global scale, and that can only happen with real collaboration across the board.

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