News ID: 213708
Published: 0720 GMT April 22, 2018

Turning off the tap

Turning off the tap

In May 2018, South Africa's Cape Town may become the first city in the world to fully shut off its water.

The taps running dry for almost four million people would be a drastic consequence of population growth, uncontrolled water consumption and drought in recent years, wrote.

Residents would have to collect their small daily water allowances from distribution points.

And, if you believe the forecasts, there's much worse to come. Climate change and population growth will make water shortages more common all over the world.

Estimates said that by 2040, half of the global population will live in regions with severe water shortages.

Water is becoming blue gold. It already is like that in many countries. According to UNESCO, Saudi Arabia already uses 25 percent of the oil and gas it produces to power desalination facilities that turn seawater into potable water. The cost and the amount of emissions are enormous.

Water is a matter of life and death. One half of the world's hospital beds are taken by people who have fallen ill because of unclean drinking water. Water shortages drive people from their homes and lead to conflicts.

So why is it so difficult to solve the water crisis?


The issue of water relates to everything


If visitors from outer space were to examine the Earth, they might be surprised to hear that our blue planet suffers from water shortages. But the vast majority of the fluid that covers our ball of dirt is seawater, which isn't much use to us. Only three percent is freshwater, which can be drunk and used to irrigate crops.

Even this small percentage would be plenty for humanity if it were evenly distributed across the different regions, if the distribution network functioned effectively and reliably in all places, if rain fell on the fields in appropriate amounts and at the right times, if water were consumed sustainably without polluting reservoirs, and if efforts were also being taken to curb climate change, which makes droughts and storms worse.

That's a lot of ifs. The water question is difficult because it does not involve a single problem, which could be solved by, for example, adopting one new technology.

Instead, it consists of a bunch of different challenges associated with, among other things, population growth, climate conditions, ecosystem health, industrial and agricultural resource utilization as well as sanitation and hygiene.

Many of the world's major development trends also involve the issue of water.

China's eagerness to purchase land in Africa is partly driven by the goal of outsourcing food production as well as land and water use beyond its national boundaries. Control of limited water resources is also one way to prop up power structures.

Water is a key question in urban growth as well.

The world's growing population is flocking into cities, and this will lead to chaos unless functioning water and waste management processes are put in place. The construction of proper infrastructure calls for both capital and political will.


A chance to achieve real results


Olli Varis, professor of water resource management at Aalto University, said about his work, “There's been no shortage of motivation.”

Varis is an internationally recognized expert in the sustainable utilization of water resources and other global water issues.

For decades, he has engaged in practice-oriented research work especially in and around the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia.

Currently, Varis is taking part in, among other things, Aalto University's New Global project, which seeks to identify innovations that could tackle the world's major challenges.

His motivation is explained not only by the issue's importance, but also by the possibility of achieving real results.

Varis said, "In East and Southeast Asia, you get the feeling that your work brings added value and benefits.

“Societies have the capacity and also a burning desire to receive new knowledge. For a researcher, it is motivating to have someone listen to what you have to say.”

In Southeast Asia, it is quite evident that water shortages are about more than just a concrete sparsity of water.

The floods that afflict low-lying areas also lead to crises when polluted water mixes with cleaner water resources or when torrential downpours wash the fields of their nutrients.

It is easy to also see how big a role water plays in economic growth and urban development when examining East and Southeast Asia.

Varis added, "Societies differ quite markedly from one another in their exposure to problems.

“The biggest problem for the rapidly developing Asian countries is, in my opinion, how to not ruin their environment when economic growth is rapid and population densities preposterous.”


Research data aids administration


One way to solve water crises is to generate research data. Large data banks on, for example, the behavior, water quality and agricultural connections of the Mekong River as well as its impact on urban water supply have had a tangible positive impact on decision-making in various countries and areas.

Scientific knowledge, such as the modelling of a river's behavior, can help prevent crises.

The adverse effects of floods can be reduced with flood warning systems. Disputes regarding water use are easier to resolve when researched facts can be brought to the negotiation table.

Water flows without regard for national borders. The Mekong meanders through the territories of six countries.

The more populations grow and urbanization progresses, the harder the strain and use pressure on the world's water systems.

Whether a country is located at the headwaters or downstream of a river can easily become an issue of crucial importance.

Varis said to describe the complexity of disputes, "China and Laos are building lots of dams and hydropower in the upper reaches of the Mekong, which makes the countries lying downstream unhappy.

“And disputes are not limited to just the national level. Farmers in all countries can take one side and resist dams, while urban dwellers and industries that need affordable electricity will consider the building of dams quite desirable,"


Solar-powered desalination


The taps being turned off in Cape Town gives rise to the question: Where can we find more water now?

Espoo-based Solar Water Solutions is ready to provide one possible solution. The company has cooperated with Aalto University's Department of Energy Technology to develop water purification technology.

Drought-stricken South Africa is one target for the firm while it seeks out initial business opportunities.

CEO Antti Pohjola said that the devices manufactured by the company are the world's first to make seawater potable using only solar power.

There's lots of interest in solar power elsewhere, too, but it is difficult to create the steady pressure required for the treatment process with it, which is why the large desalination plants in the Middle East, for example, still burn fossil fuels.

At its Espoo facility, Solar Water Solutions manufactures smaller treatment devices suitable for producing 1–250 cubic meters of water per day.

The company makes larger, container-type devices that can supply drinking water for a village, school or hotel, for example, while its smaller consumer products can, among other things, be used to make potable water in the archipelago.


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