In this episode, we explore ways to provide more people with clean water in the future, including small-scale solar-powered desalination plants, sponge cities, and even extracting water from fog.
Episode length: 18:57 | September 6, 2019
The World to Come - Episode 3: The Power to Replenish Water
TESS VIGELAND: You’ve heard that proverb... “necessity is the mother of invention.”
HAYES BARNARD: Water is the most basic necessity and need every single person has before even a roof over their head or anything else. I believe that water will be the biggest issue in the world ten years from now.
TESS VIGELAND: Our existence, the sustainability of the planet… everything… relies on water. And people in a range of industries are working to increase water innovations… and encourage conservation.
HAYES BARNARD: This is why I get out of bed every day.
TESS VIGELAND: Coming up, what led an energy non-profit called GivePower to create a solar water farm that it now hopes to replicate around the world. We’ll spend time with the organization’s President, Hayes Barnard. And we’ll also hear from experts around the world about the water solutions they’re most excited about.
TESS VIGELAND: This is The World To Come, a podcast brought to you by Bank of America -- about life in the future, starting with the visionaries of today. Featuring clients and partners affiliated with Bank of America.
TESS VIGELAND: I’m Tess Vigeland. In this episode, the power to replenish water.
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: So just to give you a picture, everyone knows that 70-plus percent of the planet is covered by water. But the problem is that actually only 2.5% of that is actually fresh water and most of that is stuck in glaciers so we don’t actually have that much water for the population. I’m Lauma Kalns Timans and I work in the thematic investing team as a strategist for Bank of America.
TESS VIGELAND: Lauma is a Research Analyst from Bank of America Global Research, where she studies long-term trends that will have big impacts on the world. She says scientists estimate that four billion people already experience severe water scarcity at least one month a year.
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: It’s very misleading to just look at a globe and just say, great, it’s all blue, we’ve got loads of water.
TESS VIGELAND: When it comes to demand for freshwater -- how does that break down? It’s not just about how long we’re showering, or how much of it we’re drinking, right?
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: Well yeah, you’re absolutely right. So, we as households, as residents, as citizens, technically don’t use that much water. But 70-percent of water is used by agriculture. So 70-percent of water is used to produce food, to produce food that we feed animals with, to produce the animals that we eat.
TESS VIGELAND: And also, the U-N says that other industrial uses account for about 22-percent of global water use. So, doing the quick math, that means what we use in our homes is ... about ten percent. Of course, what industry and agriculture are producing… we’re consuming. And the population is expanding rapidly.
Lauma says that’s why farming techniques like hydroponics -- which we heard about in the previous episode -- are getting more attention now, in part because they use less water. She says agriculture technology companies are also developing ways to know precisely what plants need.
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: They’re monitoring the moisture levels and collecting the data and then from that you can really tell when you should be watering your plants, if they’re watered enough, so that you don’t have to use excess water. And on the other end what you have is other companies that are mapping the changes in elevation of various, sort of, fields and crop lands and from those elevations you can see where water might flood and kill your crops so from that you can tell where to make your ditches and optimize the sort of field drainage so that when you have too much water you’re also using that in an optimal way.
TESS VIGELAND: Lauma says urban centers are also employing new strategies for smarter water use.
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: So one of my favorites is actually the idea of a sponge city. So Singapore is a leading country for this. They’re this like, they’re this city/state, really. And they don’t have many water resources themselves. They’re so tiny that they don’t. So where are they going to get their water from? So what they’ve done is they’ve really looked to the sky and said well hey, there’s rain so we can collect our water that way. So they’ve got this run-off capture system that collects water for them from skyscrapers, permeable concrete, and things like that, on their pavements that allows them to collect the water and reuse it.
TESS VIGELAND: There are sponge city pilots happening in China as well, to help manage urban migration. The thinking is that along with adding to the water supply, the approach can be a defense against flooding.
And this gets us to an important point.
It’s not just the demands of a growing global population. Climate change and pollution are putting an enormous stress on the ecosystems that we need for freshwater. Flooding, droughts, and contamination all have an impact on access to basic drinking water.
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: Over 800 million people do not have access to basic drinking water.
TESS VIGELAND: This is one of the places where that’s happened… a community called Kiunga (ki EUHN ga) -- located on the coast of Kenya, near the country’s border with Somalia. Alex Migoya (mih GOY uh) lives here.
ALEX MIGOYA: These people are fishermen mostly and they don’t have any other source of income and 80 percent of the community live in the shanties. Its the area in Kenya that has the worst water problem.
TESS VIGELAND: Kiunga has been devastated by a multi-year drought. Alex says during the rainy season, villagers collect as much rain water as they can. When we met him… it was the middle of the dry season.
ALEX MIGOYA: They don't have any supply of water as we speak, because they’ve already used up their harvested water from the rains and now it’s all dry.
TESS VIGELAND: But things are different now. Villagers are able to purchase clean water from a solar-powered desalination plant. The plant removes salt and minerals from water that’s pumped out of the Indian Ocean. It was built by GivePower and Alex manages the facility.
ALEX MIGOYA: Right now I am the sole provider of fresh water in this community in case I fail, or in case one of the machines fail...
Then they do not have any supply of water.
TESS VIGELAND: Before the plant started operating in 2018 -- one of the few options was for people -- usually women and children -- to spend hours every day walking back and forth to a well a few miles away.
That’s something that struck GivePower’s founder, Hayes Barnard, who we heard at the beginning of the episode.
HAYES BARNARD: Even the water that they go fetch and they bring it back is contaminated and so you know even the water that they wash their clothes with is so contaminated, it's so brackish it has so much salt inside of it.
TESS VIGELAND: GivePower’s first big project was providing solar panels to schools around the world that didn’t have electricity. Then a friend, a local Kenyan, told Hayes about the specific challenges in Kiunga and said, hey, why don’t you use your expertise in solar and battery storage, and use it to bring clean, affordable water to this community?
HAYES BARNARD: We said this sounds like something we really want to do.
We'd like to really figure out desalination and how to power the system and so we put in a lot of time and energy. It took us about a year and a half to figure out the technology and how he'd be able to design the system in a way that would make sense from a cost perspective. And when you really look at the metrics for what you can produce the water for, for the communities.
TESS: What were your questions kind of in that moment as you were hearing this idea? What was going through your mind?
HAYES: Yeah the first thing you wonder is distribution. So if you if you have a team that's very strong in technology you wonder OK well who's going to maintain the systems… And so it was really an effort of OK you know we can build the Tech here in San Francisco, we can design this system, we can get it in containers we can ship it. We can do the engineering, procurement, construction, installation of the system but that's really only half of the job.
TESS VIGELAND: Alex had stepped forward to do the second part of the job -- managing the distribution. He was there when the plant opened for business.
ALEX MIGOYA: The first day that the plant started to work was the most amazing day... So this day we invited the community members, most of the community members -- the elders, the women, the kids, and when the first water was produced and everyone tasted it, it was amazing. It was the most amazing day.
TESS VIGELAND: The facility can process 70-thousand liters of water per day -- enough drinking water for about 35-thousand people.
GivePower is deploying another micro-grid desalination plant in Haiti. And Hayes wants to build plants in other areas. He says they’ve figured out how to counter some of the downsides of desalination. First, the price tag. By keeping their systems small, they can keep infrastructure costs down. Second, energy use. It takes a lot of energy to process the seawater but GivePower’s system can run from what’s generated by the solar panels on top of the facility. Finally, the environmental impact of the byproduct that desalination leaves behind. Hayes says that GivePower is producing a much lower level of brine compared to other plants.
HAYES BARNARD: So the very large scale systems produce a significant amount of brine and salt that you don't want to just redeploy back into the ocean. These systems are significantly smaller than that at this time. We just, we just cleanse the salt out of the system we can redeploy that salt back into the ocean in that area. And it's not at a magnitude anywhere close that would create any harm for the fish or any other animals in that area which is why we sized it this way.
TESS VIGELAND: The International Desalination Association estimates that about three hundred million people use desalinated water for all or part of their daily needs -- from San Diego County, to Saudi Arabia.
Water expert Lana Mezareh thinks that while desalination will remain part of the picture, going forward, other developments might be even more important. She’s a project leader with Boston Consulting Group. Lana worked in South Africa as the city of Capetown made its way through a historic drought… and avoided running out of water in 2018. Now she lives in Nairobi, where she’s worked with the World Wide Fund for Nature.
LANA MEZAREH: I think the future will see more environmentally friendly ways to get more water. I see the future of people who have higher awareness of the importance of this resource that they will decrease their demand before they think of increasing supply by desalination or anything else.
TESS VIGELAND: She’s been thinking about our relationship with water since she was a little girl. She grew up in Jordan, which is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. She recalls a childhood where water balloons were instead filled with baking flour, and when it was time to brush her teeth -- her parents watched closely.
LANA: We needed to turn off the tap. The minute we're not using the water we were not allowed to just open the tap and brush our teeth and take our time.
TESS VIGELAND: And now, as she looks to the future, she believes more of the world will come to rely on reclaimed water.
LANA MEZAREH: Wastewater treatments, water recycling has been massive in some countries whether it's Australia, Jordan, or Namibia but I think this is just gonna happen all over the world the circular economy in general whether it's by using plastic, glass, water, or whatever it is making sure our economy is circular. What we use we reuse and we re-recycle and use again is going to be the future. And I think this will be the biggest source of water in many countries.
TESS VIGELAND: You said something earlier about how people will have a higher awareness of how precious water is. How does that play out beyond say, taking shorter showers?
LANA MEZAREH: If I imagine the world in 20 or 25 years with the eyes of an optimist, because I am one, I think that the first thing I imagine is that consumers and investors are going to start looking differently at businesses. Investors are going to look at companies and not just look at their credit risk and their stock market. They're going to look at the environmental impact score.
I see a world, or future, of higher education of what does water mean for us, how valuable is this resource - but also not just for our own country but globally. We are all one planet. Each country will impact the other. A lack of water in one country will impact other countries by migration, by economic impacts. Many things. We’re all connected. So I see that education and awareness of the importance and value of water it will increase drastically. This will, in my optimist eyes, lead to much lower demand of water.
TESS VIGELAND: Scientist Dan Fernandez also believes in the power of education to inspire sustainability. He teaches his students at California State University in Monterey Bay not to take water for granted. And, this is really cool -- he also teaches them how to harvest water almost out of thin air.
DAN FERNANDEZ: See all the oak trees here. These are all the saplings, there's 45 of them. And 10 of them were selected to have fog collectors placed in front of them. This one looks like it's doing pretty well actually this sapling.
TESS VIGELAND: Dan is a fog specialist. His goal is to get as much water as he can out of fog and into a bucket.
DAN FERNANDEZ: And what you see next to it is the fog collector. It's about seven feet tall from the bottom part of the mesh to the top.
TESS VIGELAND: We’re standing in the middle of a grassy field, surrounded by what look like football goal posts covered in black mesh. These are the fog collectors he’s talking about. And at the bottom of each big mesh rectangle is a container slowly filling with water.
DAN FERNANDEZ: When the water drips down off the mesh it drips into the little rain gauge at the bottom. And the rain gauge measures the amount of water that passes through it.
TESS VIGELAND: These fog collectors are a kind of outdoor lab -- a classroom.
DAN FERNANDEZ: I see fog as a tool for really getting young people excited about the world around them. The enthusiasm that that engenders and the excitement that brings to people I think is wonderful and I’m hopeful that that could be one direction fog water can play in thinking about the future - in terms of just getting people excited and engaged. And then we can make positive changes that I haven't even considered.
TESS VIGELAND: While Dan wants his work to inspire new technologies, some countries already harvest fog to help with their water needs… and he says more areas should consider it.
DAN FERNANDEZ: There are places where fog water can be practical. Some villages, maybe some horse ranches, maybe even some farms.... It just probably is not going to be the magic solution to all of our water woes. However it can provide some source of water where there otherwise wouldn't be.
TESS VIGELAND: In areas that don’t have the humidity necessary for fog, scientists are experimenting with harvesting atmospheric water using nano-scale polymers.
Bank of America Analyst Lauma Kalns Timans says there isn’t just one magic solution for our future water needs. Everything has to be on the table… the water table… and she says the innovations already underway are exciting.
She says new technologies could transform our water use. As an example, she points to a shift that’s happened in the last two decades:
LAUMA KALNS TIMANS: In the past 16, 17 years water consumption in U.S. households has fallen by so people work in things like water efficient toilets, water efficient washing machines, showers and things like that. That means that actually we're already cutting back on our water use. Now this could be cut back further. People estimate that this could be cut by nearly by over a third even more so there is a long way to go in terms of that. But there are ways to cut things down.
TESS VIGELAND: This is what motivates Hayes Barnard -- knowing that there’s such an opportunity right now to innovate and make a difference. GivePower began with a focus on helping people around the world without electricity.
And using clean power to create clean water was a no-brainer.
HAYES BARNARD: If we can provide water we can grow vegetables. If we can provide water people live longer, they can learn and get educated.
This is where I'm finding the fuel and the wind in my sail to try to inspire other people to want to be a part of something great.
TESS VIGELAND: Everyone we spoke with agrees that it will take an array of solutions to maintain our global water supply, this incredibly precious resource. And they say... it’s doable. The power to make a difference -- requires action at all levels -- including the choices we make in our homes and daily lives
What would you like the power to do?
TESS VIGELAND: On the next episode of The World to Come…What would you rather do -- convince people to harness solar energy from space?
JOHN MANKINS: I prefer to keep the photovoltaic arrays fixed onboard the spacecraft and to redirect the sunlight using mirrors large mirrors
TESS VIGELAND: Or convince people to put solar panels on their roofs?
AGEMENMOM OTERO: We just literally just like not rolled up and we're like, Hi I live right around the corner and I was thinking what do you reckon. We put solar panels on your rooftop and I can honestly tell you that most people shut the door.
TESS VIGELAND: What will light the way in the future… that’s next time. This has been The World to Come. I’m Tess Vigeland.
TESS VIGELAND: BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research is research produced by BofA Securities, Inc. (“BofAS”) and/or one or more of its non-U.S. affiliates. BofAS is a registered broker-dealer, Member SIPC, and wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America Corporation. Any opinions or other information correspond to the date of this recording and are subject to change. This information discusses general market activity, industry or sector trends, or other broad-based economic, market or political conditions and should not be construed as research or investment advice.Hide Transcript
In this episode, we explore ways to provide more people with clean water in the future, including small-scale solar-powered desalination plants, sponge cities, and even extracting water from fog.
Water is essential for life, but did you know that only one percent of the world’s water is accessible freshwater? In this episode, we explore ways to provide more people with clean water in the future. We’ll meet Hayes Barnard, the Founder and CEO of Give Power who believes that “If we can provide water, we can grow vegetables. If we can provide water, people live longer, they can learn and get educated.” We’ll also hear from BofA Global Research Analyst Lauma Kalns Timans, who thinks that “the future will see more environmentally friendly ways to get more water… people who have higher awareness of the importance of this resource that they will decrease their demand before they think of increasing supply by desalination or anything else.” Join us as we explore everything from small-scale solar-powered desalination plants and sponge cities, to extracting water from fog.
A well-known voice for millions of American radio listeners, Tess spent 11 years as an anchor for public radio’s Marketplace. Over her career, she has received numerous national awards, including most recently a 2019 Gracie Award as Best Host/Anchor, and a 2019 National Murrow Award for Continuing Coverage.
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