Action on improving poor water quality needs to come from government

GuardianWhile water scarcity is a serious global issue, water quality concerns are equally grave. With 780 million people lacking access to clean water, government and business need to step up

Water is at once the most global of issues and the most local. Access to clean water is seen as a universal human right, yet your view of water is completely different if you live in Scotland than if you live in the Sahara.

Because it is essential to every living thing, water is revered as a precious gift. One paradoxical result of this is that often water prices are so low that they encourage vast inefficiencies.

The facts are stark – more than 780 million people around the world lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion (one third of the world’s population) lack access to proper sanitation. More than 3.4 million people die annually from water quality-related diseases, almost all of them in the developing world.

“Every second hospital bed around the world is occupied by someone suffering from diseases associated with lack of access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene,” says Poul Madsen, vice-president of global water treatment at Grundfos, one of the world’s largest makers of pumps and other water treatment equipment. The company’s Oxiperm Pro disinfection system protects water supplies from hazards such as the legionella bacteria, which causes 2 million working days to be lost to sickness every year in Asia.

One of the challenges is that water is very badly distributed around the world. Some areas of the world are clearly more blessed with water resources than others – places such as Australia, North Africa, the Middle East, parts of China and the Western US have severe challenges related to water availability. But it is often overlooked that even where there is a sufficient quantity of water, there is no guarantee that it will be of high quality.

“For several decades there has been growing interest in water scarcity but without an appropriate level of concern about water quality,” says Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute in the US and one of the world’s leading authorities on water.

There are generally two causes for poor water quality – a failure to treat human waste and a failure to treat industrial waste. “Generally in wealthier industrial countries that have made more progress in dealing with human waste, the challenges of industrial waste are more prevalent,” he says. “The first world has invested pretty heavily in collecting and treating urban sewage and wastewater but our industrial wastes are often not well treated.”

Grundfos’ decentralised wastewater treatment system, Bio Booster, is helping to get to grips with this problem, for example at Arla Foods’ milk processing plant in Vimmerby, Sweden.

Water contaminated by chemicals such as the phosphates found in fertilisers is also a huge problem, one that Grundfos is tackling at source at a phosphate mine in Sicily.

In the city of Toledo, Ohio, half a million residents had to be given bottled water this summer after toxic algae were found in the city’s drinking water, which is sourced from Lake Erie. Every spring and summer the Gulf of Mexico sees an algal “dead zone” the size of the state of Connecticut, form off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas. It is caused by fertiliser and wastewater pollution carried to the sea by the Mississippi River. The algae suck the oxygen out of the water, killing marine life. A similar dead zone exists in the Baltic Sea in Northern Europe.

Meanwhile, in developing countries with very rapidly growing urban populations, sewage systems are often poorly functioning or just completely absent, says Gleick.

Lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene in countries such as India is the result of several intersecting political, economic and social factors, says Sara Ahmed, senior programme analyst, climate change and water at the International Development Research Centre. “There is a historical legacy of lack of political commitment, particularly on decentralised water management, inefficient systems, poor partnerships and cutting across these, social exclusion, based on gender, caste, etc.

“Water sources are used for multiple purposes and water being a flow resource, decisions upstream affect those downstream,” Ahmed adds. “Conflict is inevitable unless you have dialogue and multi-stakeholder representation.”

Pressure is growing on governments in these emerging markets to improve standards, says Marc-Olivier Buffle, a senior product specialist at Pictet Asset Management, which created the world’s first investment fund to focus specifically on water, in 2000. “Water is at the intersection of a number of megatrends including rising populations, increased urbanisation and the growth of the middle class in many emerging markets, who are increasingly concerned about pollution and health. As a result, there is huge pressure on governments to do something about it.”

But because access to water is a human right it is often under priced, giving domestic and business users no incentive to treat it like the scarce resource it is. “We put a very high value on water, but a very low cost,” says Mark Griffiths, vice-president for consumer goods at sustainability consultancy PE International. “Companies need to work out what they would do if there was no water. It would stop so many activities that companies take for granted, from cleaning machinery to cooling turbines to being a key component of many products.”

Some of the companies most vulnerable to water access and quality issues, including food and beverages groups such as Coca-Cola and Unilever, have put a lot of resources into improving the robustness of water supplies in the areas where they operate.

But there is a limit to what businesses can do on their own, especially when 85% of the world’s water utilities remain in public hands and “a very large proportion of these do not cover their costs because they keep the price of water down,” says Buffle. “It is politically sensitive because access to water is a human right, but that applies only to what you need to survive, which is about 10% of consumption. The problem is the other 90%.”

A growing number of utilities are using “ladder tariffs” where the amount of water needed to supply basic needs is cheap but any usage thereafter is more expensive.

Even so, governments are not spending as much on water infrastructure as they should be and this has created a number of opportunities, ranging from water treatment companies to companies involved in leak detection and repairs, all the way through to businesses that promote water efficiency. This is another area where Grundfos is active. In the city of Ploesti in Romania, the company cut water losses and energy consumption, both by around 7%, by installing a demand-driven pressure management system.

Ultimately, the key to improving water quality will be government action to encourage more water efficiency and re-use. “There are many industries where the amount of water used to produce goods is extremely high and where the water is simply disposed of without re-use,” says Madsen. But with the right rules and regulations, and products such as Bio Booster, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Proper pricing is only part of the story, says Gleick. “Pricing is important, but so is good management and the application of appropriate technology, good communication and education. We also need to put in place and enforce water quality regulations. There are many parts of the world where there are simply inadequate regulations and weak enforcement.”

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