It’s not that we didn’t see this coming. Forget the weather patterns you grew up with, the U.S. and the rest of the world are entering a new climatic pattern: water will be scarcer, rains shorter and more intense, snowfalls fewer, weather patterns more erratic.
These new weather patterns are no longer abnormal. According to a majority of the world’s climate scientists, they are the new normal.
Most important, we’re not going back. So how well prepared are we?
Impressive technologies are emerging to address shortages in water-deprived regions south of the Equator, where conservation is a way of life, but progress north of the Equator is emerging too slowly.
For example, companies like Forever Pure, IDE Technologies and GE’s AquaSel division are pursuing desalination. But desalination — removing salts and minerals from sea water to make it potable — only makes sense in extreme situations, such as Saudi Arabia’s need for fresh water. The technologies are costly and plagued by technical glitches, and demand so much energy that a consuming country would need to be a Saudi Arabia to supply the necessary fuel.
Elsewhere, there are a range of effective low-tech alternatives being implemented. Teams at the University of Washington and in South American countries are experimenting with harvesting fog. They’re testing materials on which fog and dew condense to see which materials catch and deliver the most water. On parts of Peru’s Pacific coast, where less than an inch of rain falls annually, villages collect hundreds of gallons of water daily by letting the heavy ocean fog settle on special collection screens set up like badminton nets along the shore.
As we adjust to permanent water scarcity, we’ll become accustomed to buildings plumbed with rainwater collection systems and storage tanks. We’ll also learn to appreciate graywater systems, which capture used water from sinks, tubs, and washing machines for re-use in toilets and outdoor watering.
But the real solution lies not with these types of new technologies, but in conservation and improved water systems in areas from crop irrigation to home plumbing. North of the equator, the emphasis should be on conservation. We simply must become more accustomed to living with shortages as the norm.