We live in a world where some one billion people in 43 countries inhabit areas that are chronically short of water. Here in the United States, 36 states are expecting to experience some level of water scarcity in the coming year.
And the picture isn’t getting any better. Population growth, rapid industrialization and urbanization are placing increasing strains on the world’s water resources. We’ve just hit 7 billion as a global population, and we expect to reach 8 billion by 2025. As more people use more electricity, consumer goods, and, of course, food, we must find the water necessary to support this increased demand.
I point this out not to scare people or to wring hands and say, “woe is me.” Instead, I believe that we have a path to addressing our current and future water scarcity issues in a way that will also help protect the environment. A critically important part of this path is to reuse more wastewater than we are today. However, to maximize our use of this largely untapped resource, we’ll have to get our act together.
Every day, approximately 180 billion gallons of wastewater is created globally. This wastewater, when recycled, can be used to irrigate fields, sustain industrial activity and even create drinking water. Reuse can reduce the amount of freshwater required for these applications and decrease diversion of water from sensitive ecosystems. However, we estimate that only 3 to 4% of the world’s wastewater is being treated and reused today. Here in the US, we’re reusing about 6% of our wastewater. We can do better.
Happily, the technology exists today to effectively treat and reuse wastewater. For example, GE’s advanced membrane bioreactor (MBR) treatment technology is already being used in more than 800 sites around the world. We’re working every day with customers globally, from municipalities to oil and gas producers, food and beverage companies and electronics manufacturers, to develop and deploy even more water treatment technologies that enable efficient and affordable water reuse.
Several countries around the world provide great models for how the rest of us can reuse water more effectively. For example, Singapore has no significant fresh water resources of its own. In order to drive economic and societal growth, the island nation became a leader in water reuse. Today, Singapore reuses about 30% of all of its wastewater, and it is targeting meeting half of its public water demand with reused water. Israel is another example of how a country can tap into wastewater as a source of fresh water. Thanks to farseeing government policies, Israel is reusing more than 75% of its wastewater.
To help advance reuse here in the US, GE recently surveyed 3,000 consumers in the U.S., China and Singapore. Our survey reveals that even though Americans tend to be less knowledgeable about water issues than people in China and Singapore, Americans are nonetheless ready and willing to adopt reuse to help combat scarcity and drive economic competitiveness. More specifically, we found that 83 percent of Americans are concerned about the availability of clean water for the future. And despite talk of a psychological barrier that many consumers simply can’t overcome, we found that two thirds – or 66 percent – of Americans surveyed have positive feelings about water reuse. In fact, more than 80 percent were in favor of using recycled water for activities such as power generation, landscaping, industrial processing and manufacturing, toilet flushing, car washing and agricultural irrigation.
Armed with the results of our recent survey, we are working with governments, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and industry associations to promote greater reuse of water. Together, we can help ensure a more secure and environmentally sound future for all.
Jon Freedman is GE Water & Process Technologies’ Global Government Relations Leader based in Washington, DC.