New Solutions to Old Problems

Source: Pixabay

Never before in our modern society has water been such a priority for individuals, cities and nations, and it will only continue to grow in importance. However, even with such increased presence and general acknowledgement of the problems at hand, there seems to be a lack of public understanding of the issues at stake and what is (or isn’t) being done to address these issues. So in this blog post, I’ve set out on the daunting task to give a summary of the water-related problems our world is facing and the what is being done to address these problems. Water has been used for the functioning of societies ever since the rise of the agrarian life-style, and as such, has been viewed as a well-understood phenomenon and a natural process under the full control of human technology. We’ve learned how to produce drinkable water, drain and create entire lakes to grow food and even to divert or reverse the flow of rivers to prevent floods. Our mastery of water seems to be self-evident and there seems to be no need for improvement. But current issues prove that this is a false assumption resulting from technological hubris. There are still many advancements that can and must be made in regards to water – advancements that require not only political will and social education, but technological innovation. Technology still has a very large role to play in the search for water solutions, and the role of the environmental engineer is essential now more than ever.

The goal of this post is to give the everyday reader a basic but nuanced understanding of water issues and to explain why one should care about them. This post will explain the importance of engineering/technology in searching for and implementing solutions. Additionally, I will also talk about how water engineering is not some ancient, well-understood field that only requires by-the-book implementation of old technology, but one filled with state-of-the-art opportunities to expand knowledge and advance humanity.

The Problems

Water is involved in all aspects of daily life. Taking showers in our home, eating varied meals, and even wearing clothes are all made possible by our use of water. Because of its various roles, water has a complex relationship with our society, resulting in a myriad of rising issues. Some issues you may have heard since you were a small child, others you may just now be hearing for the first time in the news. But all of these issues prove that our understanding is far from masterful, and highlight the urgency for solutions.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (also known as WASH) are considered the basic necessities for basic living. However, in many countries in the global south, people still lack access to these services. Even while many of us in the global north have running water to bathe and brush our teeth with, the CDC estimates that 1.7 to 2.2 million people die from waterborne diseases each year as a result from inadequate water treatment, sanitation and hygiene. One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to address extreme poverty is to ensure environmental sustainability by increasing sustainable access to improved water sources and improved sanitation. While MDG statistics show an increase in access to WASH, one must understand that the definition of “improved water sources” simply means that the water provided comes out of a pipe (and could still be quite dirty) and that all statistics are self-reported – meaning there may be a tendency for countries to inflate statistics in an effort to look good on the global stage. Regardless, the need for sustainable WASH is still very much an issue in today’s seemingly progressive and equitable world.

For countries with well-established water infrastructure, the unstoppable progression of time has resulted in crumbling pipes and outdated water/wastewater treatment plants. In the United States, some water infrastructure in major cities is over 100 years old. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), an estimated 240,000 water main breaks occur per year and as much as 2 trillion gallons of treated water are lost per year. Aging and poorly managed infrastructure means a lot of water not reaching the end-user, and a lot of money being wasted.

The American west coast is notorious for suffering frequent droughts. Recently, California Governor Jerry Brown issued an historic executive order for water reductions of 25%, affecting 90% of residents. As one of the country’s main suppliers of major crops, California plays a huge role in the economic well-being of the country. But water scarcity is not just an issue that California faces. Many central plains states suffer from lack of groundwater resources, middle eastern countries such as Israel suffer from any drinkable water, and even countries like Brazil suffer from drought. Water is necessary for agriculture, industry, power generation, and everyday tasks. Despite being completely surrounded by water, 97% of the world’s water is unusable saltwater, meaning water resources management is crucial. If the world continues to use water in the same way we do now, demand for water will exceed viable resources by 40% by 2030.

Source: US EPA

On the flipside of drought, an excess of water can result in disastrous consequences. As the East Coast of the U.S. realized after Hurricane Sandy, extreme weather events can shut down entire societies for weeks. During storms, water that falls on cities is collected in underground storm sewers. In times of extreme flooding, storm sewers operate beyond capacity, and must release stormwater directly into nearby bodies of water without any wastewater treatment. Old cities operate with combined sewer systems, meaning that stormwater sewers and combined with human waste sewage in one tunnel. This means that during flooding, both human waste and stormwater is being ejected into water bodies without treatment. In relatively newly built cities, these storm sewers are separate from sewage so that when flooding occurs, the stormwater can be ejected directly into the water body while the sewage water can continue to be treated before ejection. Combined sewer overflows is such a problem, the federal government has required cities to invest more than $15 billion in new pipes, plants and equipment to update the stormwater infrastructure. Sewage water can disastrously pollute water bodies, water bodies which are often used as sources of drinking water downstream. Stormwater also possess and environmental and public health risk – as stormwater flows across impervious surfaces, it picks up fertilizers and other pollutants. Extreme flooding also results in property damage, reduced economic activity and even loss of life.

After use, water must be sent to wastewater treatment plants for proper treatment before release into the natural environment. Wastewater can be from municipal sources like cities and towns (often made up of human waste and things you flush down the toilet) or from industrial sources (factories and power plants). Agricultural wastewater, which is full of synthetic compounds such as fertilizer and pesticides, often go through minimal treatment, if any at all. Industrial wastewater treatment often occurs on-site, mostly because each company’s wastewater contains different chemicals and must be treated in a process specifically tailored to the wastewater. Municipal wastewater treatment is relatively the same in whatever city one visits, since the wastewater is made of the same ingredients. However, with the advent of medical advancements and pharmaceuticals, there is a rising concern about the potential health and environmental danger of small concentrations of pharmaceuticals disposed through our waste streams. Current wastewater treatment technology does not target pharmaceuticals (such miniscule concentrations makes it difficult to remove) and there are currently “no U.S. regulations for medical drugs under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and only a few for the residues from consumer products.” It may not seem like a huge number, but 3% of all North American electricity is devoted to wastewater treatment, meaning that wastewater treatment is a huge industry that requires many resources to conduct.

Is this a Technical Issue?

Water’s complex relationship with society means that these problems require a multidisciplinary approach. But there is a growing population of politicians, thought-leaders and other world-changers that the solution to these problems is not technical development, but rather political will and improved socio-economic capacity. In WASH and poverty reduction especially, people often believe because other nations have developed the technology to provide WASH services, addressing the need in the global south is more of a socio-economic and political problem. Regarding the problem of growing water scarcity, some believe that the solution must come from more stringent regulations and more reflective economic costs rather than additional engineering. A recent New York Times opinion article suggested that “the United States needs to move away from engineering solutions in favor of economic approaches.” In this day, when environmental consequences are more widely realized, there is a strong opposition to engineering solutions. Environmentalists hate it when another dam is built to increase water storage or prevent flooding, and politicians cringe when they need to allocate a large portion of the budget to build it. It’s not the environmental engineer’s job to solve the water problems – they’ve already done their part by providing the technological solutions – it’s now up to the economists and politicians to implement the solutions.

However, this kind of thinking is flawed. A professor of one of my undergraduate classes described it best. There are many resources involved in providing a solution – energy, education, money, governance, labor and technology. Each one is necessary for success. If a 1 represents success or adequate resources, then all these factors are multipliers. For instance, if you have adequate resources but lack money (say a 0.5 value for money), then 1x1x0.5x1x1x1 = 0.5 and the project does not succeed. So a lack of any one resource will prevent success. This is where continued technological innovation comes in. If a project only has ½ the required monetary resources, then if a technology that is twice as good as adequate (a value of 2, which may mean a cheaper solution, or a more efficient process) is developed, then the project is still successful (1x1x0.5x1x1x2 = 1). While having a strong political structure and proper social education is needed, technology still plays a very important part in addressing water problems. Obviously, countries vary in culture, beliefs, social/political structure and economic resources so a solution for one country may not be the solution for another.

Source: Weber-Shirk (2015),
Source: Weber-Shirk (2015), “State of the Planet”

The term “innovation” is thrown around a lot these days, almost to the point where it loses meaning (I am guilty of this). When I use this term, I mean that the solutions developed are completely different from the current paradigm, that these solutions are not more of the same. There is a point that traditional engineering approaches will not solve our problems (indeed, they may exacerbate them), but innovative engineering is still sorely needed, especially in the water sector. Innovative solutions is not simply optimizing plant performance, it is developing a new way of approaching the problem. This is what the water sector needs in order to address pressing problems.

This may shock many people, but the truth is, engineers do not know as much as everyone thinks they do. In environmental engineering – a field that many overlook because they believe it so well-understood with no more room for advancement – basic processes such as flocculation are still unknown (there are prevailing theories, but some engineers would disagree with these theories). In industry especially, one will find engineers who may not fully understand the fundamental concepts of their craft, but instead use standards and regulations to guide their designs without knowing “why” the standards are in place other than “because that’s how it’s always been done.” If regulations do not adequately address the problem, then technological innovation must pick up the slack. But technological innovations must arise from an understanding of the fundamentals as well as an appreciation and acknowledgement of natural processes. There is still a lot of knowledge out there to be uncovered. This should not scare us, but motivate us to continue our pursuit – and that doesn’t just hold true for engineering.

Some (Technical) Solutions

Engineering still has many opportunities to produce innovative technical solutions in the water sector. Below I’ve highlighted a few of the more popular solutions being pursued. These solutions range from low-tech approaches to the state-of-the-art. My point here is that the work of the engineer in producing new content is not over – this is an area that very much needs the best and brightest to change radically the way things are done.

Source: Wikimedia

 Green Infrastructure (AKA Low Impact Development or Ecosystem-based infrastructure), is the use of plants and other natural materials to address extreme stormwater events. By creating bioswales and other vegetative depressions, this increases the permeable area within a city and allows stormwater to soak into the soil – effectively slowing down the water and preventing large surges of stormwater into the sewer. Additionally, green infrastructure has been shown to naturally treat and filter pollutants and is being used throughout the collection of wastewater as a decentralized, “out-of-the-pipe” strategy to treating water. I’ve written about a few Green Infrastructure solutions in previous blog posts.

The rise of the information technology and big data has resulted in many new start-ups and industries. By applying these principles with the addition of sensors and water meters, some cities have or are adopting smart water grids. These water distribution systems are equipped with sensors that can detect leaks and water meters that monitor peak water usage so that energy can be efficiently distributed throughout the system, saving time and money. Sensors can also alert cities of potential areas of flooding. Sensors can also monitor water use in an agricultural setting, reducing the water used for irrigation. One such sensor, FloraPulse, a startup from Cornell University, monitors the water-stress of plants and save water. It’s success in the University’s Shark Tank competition also shows that investors see the value in such technologies in addressing water issues. Such solutions also improve water efficiency of household appliances. Replacing inefficient home water appliances can increase water and energy efficiency by 40 percent. Such savings can also translate to agricultural and industrial sectors. While not an environmental engineering solution, Smart Grids and Sensors offer an effective way at addressing infrastructure maintenance, water scarcity and flooding.

Desalination Plant. Source: Wikimedia

In areas with little freshwater resources but plenty of coastline, the use of desalination is almost a must. Desalination plants take in seawater and remove the salts, turning the seawater into useable freshwater. This is achieved through the process of Reverse Osmosis which essentially pushes the seawater through small filters called membranes. This process is quite expensive and energy intensive, and it is believed that there is little more advancement that can theoretically be made in this area. However, there is a large body of research still devoted to making more efficient desalination processes (after all, we have a lot of seawater). A growing field of research, known as Forward Osmosis, tries to use the physical properties of water to naturally separate impurities. For instance, the Danish company, Aquaporin has been manufacturing membranes that mimic human kidneys with positive results.

Full of an assortment of waste, wastewater is often a hassle for companies and cities to treat. But what many don’t realize, is that what we see as waste, can also be seen as a resource. Through a process known as anaerobic digestion, many wastewater treatment plants are able to break down the organic matter in the wastewater to produce methane gas which can be used as heating or electricity to run the plant itself. Phosphorus can be extracted from the urine which can be used as fertilizer and provide another source of revenue for the wastewater treatment operators. Perhaps even more surprisingly, a recent report concluded that “there’s as much as $13 million worth of metals in the sludge produced every year by a million-person city, including $2.6 million in gold and silver.” The trick is to develop economically feasible ways of implementing resource recovery from the wastewater. With additional research, it would not be surprising to extract other precious metals as well.

The Future of Funding

Much of the water sector uses what is considered “Mature Technology,” technology that has been well-established and at the height of efficiency. Because of this, many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists shy away from the water sector, believing that there are very few opportunities to make significant impacts. Like the transportation sector, the water sector not only deals with technological, but political, environmental, and socio-economic concerns. It becomes economically difficult to introduce anything new and discourages talent from entering the arena. But if someone like Elon Musk is willing to tackle the automotive and solar industry, then it doesn’t seem to far-fetched to believe that someone will eventually tackle the water sector as well.

Despite some innovative solutions mentioned, the water sector is still very much new to the start-up scene. The water innovation market “demands lessons sharing from one entrepreneur to another.” Success stories are “few and far between,” further discouraging entrepreneurs to tackle these problems. Even when Silicon Valley, a hub of some of the smartest people in the world, is experiencing a debilitating drought, there is still a lack of great minds to lead the charge.

However, even if entrepreneurs are hesitant, investment firms are beginning to realize the opportunity within solving these water problems. Infrastructure investment has been steadily gaining support from big-name investment companies. Within the water sector, investment firms have realized that “demand for pumps, pipes and valves is rising steadily at two to four percent a year globally; while demand in developing markets is rising by 10 percent to 15 percent.” Additionally, water companies have an estimated combined market capitalization of around $0.7 trillion.

Nations are also taking notice. China recently announced its plan to invest “$100 billion to secure the natural capital of river systems against urban flooding, loss of topsoil, desertification and to promote ecotourism.” The National Science Foundation is supporting research all over the country and even has a Research Center called ReNUWIt (Reinventing the Nation’s Urban Water Infrastructure). Clearly, the funding is there for anyone with an idea and brave enough to follow through. It won’t be easy, but there are plenty of opportunities to make an impact within the water sector.


There are numerous water problems that our world faces today, and they only continue to worsen. These problems are complex, and require multidisciplinary collaboration to solve, but the role of technology should not be underestimated. During the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu, Korea a conclusion was reached which concluded that “although we face major water challenges, we have huge opportunities to create water security through sustainability by using the latest science and technology to accelerate innovation.” Even with centuries of experience, our understanding of water is still lacking, and water engineering is by no means a mature field with no room for state-of-the-art advancement. While it may not be as glamorous as developing the next social media app, the water sector has plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs. There is a clear need for solutions and even a willingness to invest. These problems may be old, but they require new solutions and ways of thinking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s