Water: Too Much, Too Little, Not Clean

Water: Too Much, Too Little, Not Clean

This is a guest blog post by Microsoft’s Adam J. Hecktman, Director of Technology and Civic Innovation for Chicago. To hear more of Adam’s perspective, come meet him at our World Water Day Summit on March 22nd.

There is a spotlight on water.  No other natural resource is as critical to life, while being ironically threatening to it. Issues around water are complex, ranging from not enough, to too much, to inaccessibility of clean water sources. Widening that spotlight, urban migration, climate change, and industrialization have combined to create a situation that threatens huge populations. Water quality, scarcity, and flooding rise to the top of the agenda of researchers and government leaders at every level who seek to study the problem and devise solutions.

Issues of water quality and water scarcity are tightly intertwined. As Karen Piper points out in her study of global water issues, The Price of Thirst, water quality is tied to water quantity in the sense that there is actually not a shortage of water on the planet — rather, there is actually the exact same amount of water on the planet as there was billions of years ago.  There is, however, a dramatically shrinking supply of clean water.

Only 1% of the planet’s water supply is fresh water to begin with. Industrialization and population growth drive incredibly high demands on that supply. Current methods of water treatment don’t sufficiently scale. At the same time, urbanization (the migration of populations to urban areas) is simultaneously increasing demands for clean water while decreasing the natural systems needed to clean contaminated water.

Quite simply, as population and industrial development increase, our drinkable water supply becomes undrinkable at an alarming rate.  At some point, the situation becomes existential. As Piper notes, economists are fond of saying that the economic value of water is greater than that of oil. Putting an economic value on water may be a nuanced and controversial discussion, but the underlying fact is simple: while you can find substitutes for other resources (e.g., renewable energy for fossil fuels), what is the substitute for water? Life cannot exist without it, and we are not doing a good job of managing the existing supply.

Flooding is a third modern water issue. It is ironically tied to scarcity and quality. Urban flooding is becoming far more common and costly than ever. The sources of the flooding issue are some of the same sources of the issues of scarcity and quality. Sprawling cities have led to the reduction of green spaces (soil, grass, other vegetation) in favor of impermeable roads and concrete structures. The more you replace green spaces with impermeable material, the less ability you have to recharge groundwater.

Asphalt roads are nothing more than man-made rivers that channel rainwater into a sewer, as opposed to the soil. You might think that sewers would be sufficient to handle that water. However, most city sewer systems were built 100 to 150 years ago, before climate change truly showed its impact. Today, storms are more frequent, shorter in duration, more intense and more localized than they were a hundred years ago. The sewers simply cannot handle the demands of that much water that quickly. As cities expand, and reduce the permeable space, the problem gets that much more acute.

Industry leaders, government leaders, academics, and civic technologists are coming together to discuss the risks of water scarcity, quality and flooding. For example, City Digital’s Smart Green Infrastructure Monitoring is a project that brings together those players to address the issue of urban flooding. The project seeks to study what happens when you re-introduce green elements into the built environment.

The built environment under study is the City of Chicago’s infrastructure. The City Digital consortium is placing green elements, such as bioswales and permeable materials, across the city, and testing new embedded sensing technology for monitoring green infrastructure performance. This is just one example out of many launched by these key players.

To commemorate World Water Day 2017 on March 22nd, West Monroe Partners will convene a diverse group of industry leaders to discuss these and other complex issues related to water scarcity, quality, and flooding. The business world has a special role regarding water issues, being both dependent on freshwater resources, while simultaneously impacting its quantity and quality. This discussion is timely.

I encourage you to join us at the World Water Day Summit to discuss the strategic risks and opportunities for change.

Click here to register and look forward to seeing you there!

1 Comment

  • Peter Mulvaney March 14, 2017 3:23 pm

    Thanks Adam. You picked a great City for your case study – Chicago has some amazing infrastructure but is in need of modernization.

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