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Water We Doing to the Planet?

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By Pierre-Louis Godin

· 5 min read

Opening the floodgates for important conversations

I've wanted to write about water for a long time. My first prompt was seeing a woman outside of Whole Foods giving bottled Fiji water to her dog. You really can't make this up.

Most recently, I spent the summer in France where many regions faced water restrictions due to droughts. It was saddening to see the Loire at such low levels, reflecting France's worst drought recorded since 1958.

As the physical impacts of climate change increasingly affect humans, you could hope it will influence us to focus on climate change mitigation and adaptation. Maybe I see the glass as half full!

While earth is 70% water, only 2.5% of that share is freshwater. Someone once said climate change is already here, although it is not equally distributed. I find it a strong quote to share with people who downplay the climate crisis.

Water itself is not equally distributed as over 2 billion people live in water-stressed countries, and 771 million people do not have access to clean water close to their homes.

This socio-economic and environmental issue is at risk of being exacerbated by climate change as melting glaciers and aquifer contaminations become more frequent, reducing the world's access to freshwater.

As I read more about climate change, I'm walking a fine line between cautious optimism and defeatism. However, the latter can never be an option, as every fraction of a degree makes it more challenging for vulnerable communities to escape cycles of poverty.

Water footprints are no drop in the ocean

Globally, water use, distribution and treatment, or lack thereof, contribute to 10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. This is partially due to the high energy demand at each stage of the industry:

  1. Water sourcing: Water is collected from rivers or pumped from aquifers. Infrastructure such as canals and aqueducts must be built.
  1. Water treatment: Once sourced, water must be brought to potable standards, requiring desalination, disinfection and filtration.
  1. Water distribution: Water is pumped circularly through pipelines from treatment plants to households & businesses.
  1. Water consumption: If consumers desire hot water, this leads to energy consumption from boilers, most often powered by fossil fuels.
  1. Wastewater treatment: Sewage emits greenhouse gases from the aerobic decomposition of organic matter and its biological treatment.

Given that we expect the world population to grow to 9.7 billion in 2050, the challenge is then to increase the number of people with access to clean water while decoupling this growth in access from the rise in greenhouse gas emissions.

Drowning in solutions

This requires reducing both the environmental impact of the water industry and water consumption wherever possible. Starting with decarbonization, many opportunities arise:

  1. As water infrastructure requires construction and maintenance, the water industry should consider the environmental stewardship of suppliers throughout the procurement process. For example, firms can reward vendors for having set Science-Based Targets.
  1. Plants can procure renewable energy by entering Purchasing Power Agreements with energy firms, ensuring the provision of reliable green energy at stable rates. Solar panels and wind turbines can be installed on-site, or firms can leverage the hydraulic flow in distribution networks to generate clean energy.
  1. Energy can be recovered as wastewater if treated through anaerobic digestion, ensuring that organic waste such as sludge can be converted into biogas which can then be reused to produce electricity or heat.

Beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating renewable energy in the water industry, we should focus on reducing water consumption.

As companies, by:

  1. Measuring water consumption and setting targets at a company and location level, empowering teams to find cost-saving solutions.
  1. Investing time to detect leakages in pipes or equipment and resources to ensure maintenance teams fix them.
  1. Installing rainwater harvesting systems on-site reduces the emissions of sourcing and transporting water.

As individuals, we can:

  1. Reduce our intake of foods with a high water footprint, such as meats and dairy.
  1. Ensure that our washing machines only run on full loads and use colour-catchers to avoid running separate machines for our clothes.
  1. Upgrade our household equipment for water-efficient models, such as installing low-flow faucets and showerheads.

There are thousands of solutions to reduce water consumption, varying by industry and with the constraints faced by individuals wishing to implement them.

More importantly, conversations we have about water with our governments, companies and close ones can create ripple effects of climate action.

Full steam ahead for people and the planet

The world needs solutions to decarbonize the water industry and provide water to communities lacking access. This is where Source comes in with its mission to ensure that people in all geographies and of any economic status have access to the same high-quality drinking water.

Source manufactures solar-powered hydropanels that provide drinking water to homes, schools or hospitals without the need for complex infrastructure.

The panel collect water vapour from filtered air and converts it to liquid water with the heat from the sun. The water is then mineralized for taste while sensors monitor that the water meets quality standards.

“Source panels run independently of any other source of energy to create distilled water that is treated with calcium and magnesium, making drinkable water where it may be a scarce resource.”

From an environmental point of view, groundwater reserves are untouched, no pipes or energy are required to transport the water, and water bottles are displaced. Source estimates that one panel removes 54,000 plastic bottles throughout its 15-year lifetime.

One of the benefits of being off-grid and not requiring water or electricity infrastructure is that through renewable energy, water can be provided to remote communities.

The perfect example of how Source supports people is the Binta't Karis community in the Philippines, living 5 hours away from the nearest major city. People had to dig into river banks for water, a task complexified in the summer when the river dries up.

More than 100 members of the community lacked access to a clean and reliable water source, with dehydration endangering the health of individuals. In partnership with an NGO, 40 Source hydropanels were installed, providing 40,000 litres of water to the community.

As a Certified B Corporation, Source is leading the way in demonstrating how companies can tackle global challenges to benefit both people and the planet. In my eyes, it doesn't get much better than that.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Pierre-Louis Godin is a Customer Success & Sustainability Manager at Emitwise where he focuses on carbon management. He is also a LSE graduate with a bachelor's in management.

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