Innovating for a Thirsty Planet

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Innovating for a Thirsty Planet

By Mark Turpin

By the year 2050, 9 billion people will inhabit our planet. If recent estimates by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are correct, 70 million people will be added to urban populations in the developing world alone each year for the next 20 years. This population growth will place significantly higher demands on water.

The International Energy Agency predicted in 2012 that global power consumption would increase by 85 percent through 2035, demanding 20 percent more freshwater withdrawals. Further, the FAO estimates that population growth through 2050 will place a 60-percent higher demand for agriculture, with a corresponding 15-percent increase in water withdrawals. Yet 783 million people in the world still lack clean drinking water, and another 2.5 billion people lack sanitation, according to Thirsty Energy, a June 2013 Water Paper published by the World Bank.

Statistics like these prompt a host of concerns about the carrying capacity of our planet. More specifically, for those of us in the water industry, the data raises questions about our ability to develop the technologies that this growth will demand.

Population growth, global trends toward urbanization and the emergence of a growing middle class in the developing world are poised to require freshwater at levels stretching our ability to support them - and perhaps our planet's resources as well. While it is obvious that we face a massive challenge, the industry will solve the issues mentioned here, and in the process, many companies will develop innovative solutions to address these emerging needs and will thrive as a result. In fact, we already have treatment processes that return much of the freshwater used for thermoelectric cooling to its source of origin. However, environmental offsets of generating power thermoelectrically have spawned new regulations in the United States that may require innovation from our industry.

We are also seeing growth in biofuels, which create even higher demands on water resources, as they must first be grown and processed before they are consumed for power generation. While power is important for economic growth, the fact is that food, clean drinking water and sanitation are critical to sustain life. Feeding this growing population will create water treatment needs throughout the food and beverage supply chain. Process water requirements for food and beverage plants and the strength of the waste that these plants generate will demand increased capacity and innovation. Combined water needs for energy, agriculture, clean and safe drinking water, and sanitation offer both a challenging and potentially rewarding future for our industry.

U.S. policy makers, local municipalities and agencies can help industry efforts to develop the technologies this growing population will require. Companies will gladly invest in research and development (R&D), new product introduction and continuous improvement when those activities are profitable.

Allowing and encouraging buyers to award bids based on total lifecycle cost and better performance will provide incentives to innovative companies for value creation. This approach would support R&D in several ways. First, it rewards buyers with lifecycle value that more than offsets any additional upfront capital costs, creating a desire to continue acquiring on the basis of quality and performance. Further, the approach promotes new product development by providing incentives for innovators. Finally and most importantly, it strengthens national industry, leaving it more globally competitive.

Policy makers can also support global competitiveness of U.S. companies through laws and international agreements that promote free and open trade. With these and other emerging opportunities in mind, WWEMA members from across our industry will gather for the WWEMA Washington Forum on April 15-17 in Washington, D.C., to work toward influencing a legislative agenda that supports free trade, openness to innovation and responsible regulation.

About the Author: Mark Turpin is Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer at Parkson Corporation and is a member of the WWEMA Board of Directors.

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