Everything you need to know about water in 500 words or less

Everything you need to know about water in 500 words or less
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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The Earth contains around 333 million cubic miles of water. Of that amount, 97% is in its oceans, seas, and bays, making it highly saline and unusable without costly desalination processes.

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow another two to three billion people. That explosive growth will place an already taxed water ecosystem under even greater stress. Water demand will increase by a third, and as many as 5.7 billion people may not have regular access to clean, safe water if current trends continue.

Water’s increased scarcity may contribute to geopolitical instability. Areas where water is a potential source of conflict (due to one country building dams and preventing water from flowing downstream to other nations) include:

  • The Nile basin, where Ethiopia is building dams and Sudan is selling riverfront land to China, diminishing the supply to Egypt.
  • The Mekong River delta, where Chinese dam-building activity is increasing and could threaten the water supplies of countries in Southeast Asia.
  • The Euphrates River, where Turkey is building dams that will restrict water flow to countries in the Middle East.
  • The Indus River, which is primarily under India’s control, but is responsible for 90% of Pakistan’s irrigated land.

Major infrastructure projects to bring more water to more people are underway around the world. Some of the biggest are:

  • The $48 billion South-to-North Water Diversion Project in China has built two canals bringing 25 billion tons of water a year nearly 900 miles from the water-rich south to Beijing and the parched agricultural lands of the north.
  • Houston, Texas’ $1.3 billion Northeast Water Purification Plant will draw up to 400 million gallons a day from Lake Houston when it’s completed in 2024.
  • Saudi Arabia has built the world’s largest seawater conversion plant in its capital of Riyadh. The $7.2 billion Ras Al Khair Desalination Plant produces 264 million gallons of fresh water a day for 3.5 million people.
  • In Orange County, California, wastewater and sewage is captured, purified to drinking-quality water, and then pumped back into the depleted aquifers below at the Groundwater Replenishment System. The $481 million plant generates 100 million gallons a day, enough for 850,000 residents.

Water is big business. Some of the largest players in the industry are:

  • France’s Veolia, which owns or manages some 8,500 water and sewage treatment plants or systems around the world, and supplies 96 million people with drinking water and 62 million people with wastewater service.
  • American Water Works, founded in 1886, owns or operates water utilities in 16 US states, and provides drinking water and wastewater services to a total of 15 million people in 47 states.
  • Suez, based in Paris has 90,000 employees and operates water treatment plants from Dhaka to Barcelona, as well as wastewater treatment in Amman and a complete water management solution for Bora Bora.
  • Thames Water is the UK’s largest water and wastewater services provider, serving 15 million customers.
  • Companhia de Saneamento Básico do Estado de São Paulo S.A. (Sabesp) supplies fresh water and collects and treats wastewater for 27.8 million users in Brazil’s Sao Paulo state. It’s half-owned by the Sao Paulo government.