Water Shortages are Coming. Why Aren't We Prepared? | Opinion

The water shortage crisis is set to be one of the greatest challenges presented by climate change. And while the shortage is getting worse in developing countries, those who live in rich nations must not be complacent. We are not immune, and our water supplies are far from guaranteed.

We need to act now, and fundamentally change the way we value this scarce resource. That means locally recycling it properly, efficiently and crucially. We need to value water as highly as oil or gold, and create effective marketplaces for it.

The water shortage crisis has been well documented in the developing world, with 1 out of 10 people in the world living without clean water. But water shortages are becoming more common in rich countries too.

Take the example of Flint, Mich. In 2014, the city switched its water supply from Detroit's system to the Flint River in order to save public funds. Inadequate treatment of the water resulted in a series of major health issues for residents, including rashes, hair loss and itchy skin. In some cases, the incident led to a doubling of blood lead levels in the city's children.

Flint is not a one-off. The U.S. government has recently declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, which is a source of clean water for millions of people across the Southwest.

The same problem is occurring in the U.K. The chair of the Environment Agency has warned that the U.K. could face water shortages by 2050 if immediate action is not taken to preserve supplies. An additional 12 million people in 2050 could increase demand on a potentially diminished water supply.

As temperatures rise, so does the need for water. Higher temperatures increase the use of domestic water as people water their gardens and fill their paddling pools. If we don't figure out how to recycle our water, cities like London or New York could find themselves in the same position as Flint, where the only drinking water available poisons our children. Water shortage is neither a global north nor a global south problem, it is simply a global problem.

This is not a problem that we need to solve in 2050, we need to solve it now. We already figured out that single-use plastics were damaging the environment so we started recycling. Similarly, the U.K. government offers Feed-in Tariffs for those with solar panel roofs, promoting a decentralized approach to energy. It's time we took the same approach with water.

A woman uses a public drinking fountain
A woman uses a public drinking fountain in Santa Fe, N.M. Robert Alexander/Getty Images

We don't take the same attitude to water because we assume it is infinite; it isn't. Other essential resources like oil go up in price when there is scarcity, just look at the rise of oil prices in the Gulf after fears of gasoline shortages in the U.S. With water, however, it seems the penny is yet to drop, and by the time the metal hits the ground it may well be too late.

Less than three tenths of 1 percent of total water use across the United States involves water recycling. This stands in stark contrast with Israel, who mandated that water be recycled, meaning that up to 90 percent of its water supply is recycled.

It's time to change our approach. At the moment, most cities in America and the U.K. rely on centralized water systems. Waste water is collected from waste water producers like households, industrial areas and institutions, and transported to centralized water treatment systems though expensive, energy intensive piping.

Not only is this wasteful, it means that municipal services are responsible for water treatment. Funding is scarce, and there is often little political will to reform water treatment systems. While President Joe Biden's historic proposal for $111 billion into water infrastructure investment is impressive, there is no mention of the level of investment in decentralized water treatment supplies, meaning that the problem of low water recycling will remain intact, but just with cleaner pipes.

The water treatment system is broken. If we are to tackle this water shortage crisis, the responsibility for waste treatment needs to lie with the producers of waste water, not the councils and governments who funnel it away. That's why it's time to decentralize water treatment.

By building cheap, localized, low energy water treatment plants close to the sources of wastewater themselves, we can eliminate the news of expensive pipelining to distant plants.

Long pipelines leading to distant plants often result in leakage. In 2017, England and Wales lost 3.1 billion liters of water per day from leaky pipes

Similarly, decentralized water shortage treatment centers are more portable than traditional plants, reducing the risk of white elephants, or plants that become obsolete before they are finished.

Decentralized water treatment infrastructure is the key to boosting our water recycling, and buffering ourselves against the impact of water shortage. It is by the right investments now that we can make sure that our children, and their children, have safe water to drink. The future of water treatment needs to be decentralized.

Riggs Eckelberry is the founding CEO of OriginClear, which aims to create "Airbnb for water" through "decentralized water wealth."

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.