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The Water Paradox: How the Most Abundant Substance on Earth is Also the Most Scarce
July 27, 2011 | By AJAY BADHWAR
Ajay Badhwar is strategic marketing manager/oil and gas at The Dow Chemical Company. He is also a board member of Pure Water for the World.
The 2011 International Year of Chemistry (IYC) provides a unique moment in time to focus our know-how, passion and innovations on addressing global challenges. Today, I’d like to focus on one of these challenges: access to clean drinking water. Earlier this summer, 60 experts gave 60 different perspectives on the future of water as part of The Future We Create virtual conference series, sparking a conversation that is important to continue. Lack of access to this life necessity affects one in eight people around the world. Many of us can’t fathom what it would be like to walk 6 kilometers a day for water – as many women and children do in developing nations.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and both the public and private sectors play a role in developing solutions to this challenge. Collaboration between these two sectors is a powerful strategy that I’ve had the opportunity to support, leveraging two issues of monumental importance to me. My job at Dow provides me with the opportunity to help make power generation cleaner, and outside of work I spend time working on water solutions to support healthier infant populations.
The majority of infant mortality is caused by poor quality water – something solvable with technology and education. There isn’t a single fix, but rather a combination of simple, complex, large-scale, and household technologies. As a board member for Pure Water for the World (PWW), I’ve seen first-hand how water purification technology, along with education, can save lives by setting up water purification systems in developing nations, working in remote and underserved communities that lack reliable supplies of safe drinking water. I have seen the innovative solutions made possible by the power of chemistry.
In order to tackle water issues, we must first understand how to define water stress. Most people think of water stress purely as a lack of water, such as an arid climate or a desert environment. However, the definition of water stress includes a lack of reliable drinking water supply on an ongoing basis. In fact, the biggest challenge, in terms of alleviating water stress, is making local water sources available for drinking. We need to be able to remove contaminants economically, and this is an area where technology plays a vital role.
Second, we must understand who is affected by water stress, and apply technology in innovative ways to reach these individuals. On January 12, 2010, Haiti suffered the region’s most devastating earthquake ever. In less than one minute, the country’s infrastructure was shattered, including water access instantly claiming 250,000 lives. In Haiti, canals, which are household water sources, were filled with litter and polluted by animals. These canals are breeding grounds for cholera, which affected more than 150,000 men, women and children by the end of the year. Over one year later, the challenges of clean drinking water and limiting the spread of disease persist.
Dow had the capability to pull together expertise from around the world to develop the hardware for two mobile water treatment units, bringing ultrafiltration reverse osmosis water treatment to Haiti. Pure Water for the World had people on the ground in Haiti, but equipment was either destroyed or could not be used on a disaster relief basis. Amid challenges stemming from a lack of infrastructure, volunteers from Dow traveled to Port Au Prince to get the systems in place and running. Using two technologies that Dow has developed, each mobile unit takes out bacteria, viruses and salts, and in seconds fills a bottle with clean, life-saving water. Each unit can supply 10,000 people per day with clean drinking water.
Finally, we must appreciate the personal nature of water scarcity. Honduras is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind Haiti. Barely half of the population has access to disinfected water, and 80 percent of illnesses in Honduras originate from water. In Choluteca and Trojes, where PWW provides education around how to manage water to ensure the health and well being of the users, understanding of water issues starts with individual community members.
In this part of the developing world, infant mortality rates are 25-50 percent – a horrifying statistic. I had the opportunity to visit Honduras and speak with a young mother of about 16 years, with two children and one more on the way. Do you have water close by? Yes, she said. Are your children sick? Yes, she said again. What she didn’t understand was that her children were consistently getting sick because of that water. At the beginning of the rainy season, detritus flowing from the surrounding land contaminated the water source, a problem solved with bio-sand filters. By educating this young mother and others like her, individuals in the developing world come to understand that they can control illnesses affecting their children through clean water and hygiene practices. As a result, children’s lives are saved.
Clean water requires the collaboration of many to save one life, one family and one community. Companies and technology play a major role in increasing access to water through infrastructure, purification technologies, and supporting education and training. The exciting thing is that the resources exist, as does hope and the willingness to take action.
Ultimately, it takes partnerships to solve these global challenges. Both Dow and PWW are working with organizations around the world. Cooperation allows each organization to leverage their strengths and bring their best to the table. Together, we can, we are, and we will continue to make a difference in the global water crisis.