The world’s water cycles are under threat of severe pollution due to human use. Will modern water waste treatment provide a solution?

With over 840 million people lacking access to clean water, the world is experiencing a serious global water crisis.

Besides the rising pressure of human activities, water resources aren’t evenly distributed throughout the world.

Economic development, demographic growth, and climate change all affect the quantity and quality of water resources.

Rational water management is the basis on which many global powers are trying to achieve UN-backed Sustainable Development Goals, and will probably represent one of the biggest challenges of the current century.

To keep our modern society improving and progressing, we have to rethink our concept of sustainable development in regards to water.

We Can’t Afford to Waste Wastewater

In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, wastewater treatment systems are scarce or inefficient.

The result of using untreated wastewater for crop irrigation, especially near urban areas, is widespread water pollution.

In general, using untreated wastewater for irrigation is a short-sighted and dangerous practice.

An international research project led by the University of Birmingham analyzed wastewater samples from the irrigation canals of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The investigation identified “a wide range of antibiotic resistance genes”, which pose great risks for public health in the region with “the urban population in sub-Saharan Africa expected to rise from 400 million (2010) to 1.26 billion in 2050”.

We can’t just let wastewater vanish into nature. Yes, this is how the natural water cycle works, but wastewater still needs to be treated before it rejoins these cycles.

In recent years, wastewater recycling technologies have made many advances that allow for the reclamation of the majority of wastewater.

In this arena, Israel is the world leader by recycling about 90 percent of its wastewater to be used for its thriving agriculture sector.

Purifying almost all the wastewater to the potable level is a unique feat. Spain, the second place in this list, recycles only 20 percent of its wastewater.

However, desalination plants are not a viable option for all nations. Now, each country needs to be able to understand the abilities and resources available to them locally.

This is where new tools like hydroeconomic models will make a difference.

The Continental Hydroeconomic Model

Hydroelectric models (HEM) are economic analysis tools that have become indispensable in the optimization of water resources management.

HEMs make it possible to identify the economic value of the different uses of water and the measures to be taken to preserve resources.

But, until now, the scope of hydro-economic models has been limited to river basins.

Would it be possible to analyze the hydrological functioning of a larger area, say an entire continent, and help guide water management strategies on the continental level for utmost optimization?

Researchers from the non-profit International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria have done just that.

The team at IIASA’s Water Program developed what they call ECHO, or Extended Continental-scale Hydroeconomic Optimization.

ECHO is the first large-scale hydro-economic model “that integrates hydrological, environmental, economic, and institutional aspects.”

“ECHO can be used to simulate a variety of water management interventions including efficiency improvements, resource extractions, reservoir storage, interbasin transfers, and non-conventional water resources, among many others,”  said IIASA’s Taher Kahil.

With the use of hydroelectric models like ECHO, nations and organizations can begin to create more efficient long-term plans for water use and wastewater management.

Brackish Groundwater Desalination

Population and economic growth are putting huge pressure on water resources, and recurring and increasingly long drought spells are exacerbating the situation.

Brackish water buried in underground aquifers is a viable source of water for community supply needs, and also for industrial use, but it remains mostly an untapped resource.

Water desalination technologies have matured enough to ensure the efficiency and profitability of desalination plants.

The looming water crisis in Texas has forced local authorities to look for salty water hidden hundreds of feet deep underground.

In January 2017, the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) desalination plant, H20aks, began filtering up to 12 million gallons of water a day, enough to serve 53,000 households in San Antonio.

Read More: SAWS Brackish Water Desalination Project

When the three construction phases are complete in 2026, H20aks plant will reach its maximum capacity of 30 million gallons of water per day to become the largest inland facility in the U.S.

Even with H20aks added to the SAWS water resources portfolio, San Antonio authorities still had to impose drought restrictions last summer.

But now, thanks to the historic rainfall over the San Antonio area, the city-owned SAWS has lifted water restrictions, in place since last May, and announced the return to year-round rules.

The world is quickly running out of potable water. Hydroelectric models and new forms of water management will be vital in this century to ensure that the damage done to our planet remains at a minimum.

The only issue now is whether these hydroelectric models will be implemented in time.

How else can science and technology help us work around the water crisis, or end it for good?

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