Water Primer, Water Primacy: The Nexus

Everything we do, wear, or eat needs water.

The biggest water user by sector is agriculture at 70%, followed by industry (including the energy industry) at 20%, and then finally, domestic use at 10%.

These numbers would suggest that the best way to conserve water would be to maximize the impact of water in agriculture, while minimizing the actual input. As the Water Brothers, Canadians Tyler and Alex Mifflin say in their TVO show, “more food, less water”.

In terms of energy, water is used in extraction of fossil fuels (mining, drilling) and it’s used in irrigation of alternative fuels (corn, sugar cane). These fuels are then used to heat our homes, run our cars and power our factories.

Most of the goods and services we consume require many litres of water. To produce one litre of bottled water, three litres of water are needed. To produce one cotton shirt, 2650 litres of water are needed.

Due to the interconnectedness of water with energy and food – the nexus as it’s called – what happens in the water industry affects the energy industry and the food industry.

A change in one causes a change in all three. By improving the sustainability, efficiency and quality of our “invisible utility”, we can simultaneously benefit the other two.

Typically, solutions to fixing the water industry focus on improving existing processes. While this enterprise has brought us to where we are today, the traditional methods are outdated and no longer have the capacity to meet the demand of a growing world.

The most direct way we can influence the water industry is by changing the way we treat water.

The Netherlands do not use chlorine in water disinfection. They prefer physical methods of treatment, favouring sedimentation, filtration and UV-disinfection, using ozone and peroxide if oxidization is required.

Chlorine, the traditional water treatment since about the 1910s has done great service, ending waterborne cholera and typhoid epidemics. While its importance cannot be dismissed in the scope of history, its place in the future should be re-evaluated.

It’s a known fact that chlorine, upon contact with organic material, breaks down into disinfection by-products (DBPs). One group of which are trihalomethanes (THMs), which are strictly regulated and may not exceed a certain level in drinking water.

There are 600 known DBPs, 11 are regulated, and eight are known carcinogens.

Past trends suggest looking for or modifying water treatments to reduce DBPs; instead we should be searching for treatments that don’t produce them at all.

By treating our water differently, it is possible to decrease the capital costs and ongoing operational costs of water treatment, while also extending the useful life of our infrastructure.

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