Water: A New Opportunity for Sustainable Innovation

By Michael Biediger.

The thought of going to Mars, or perhaps deeper in space, has captivated the minds of Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs alike. Becoming multi-planetary has been the ethos of SpaceX and Elon Musk’s primary goal. For Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, providing people an affordable flight into space is the next step in commercial travel.

But one sector which has received less attention and venture capital – water – is also responsible for giving space rockets flight. As Charles Fishman points out in The Big Thirst, water is shot out over the base of a launchpad at the rate of a million gallons a minute to suppress the sound of the rocket as it ignites and takes off. Without this sound suppressant, the sound waves from the rocket would tear apart the spacecraft before it ever even clears the launch tower.

The utility that water provides us extends beyond the rockets that blast off into space. Water is crucial to the very fabric of life, from creating the microchips in our smartphones and laptops to regulating our body’s temperature and cellular activity. And yet, how we source our water and where it goes once we’re done with it remains invisible to most of us. This is both the blessing and burden of the “golden age” of water we have come to enjoy, according to Fishman.

As such, water’s invisibility has also become its vulnerability. Out of sight is out of mind. But now that we are “running out” of water and facing changes in our climate and weather patterns, water is receiving increased media attention.

A recent article reported that a number of the world’s aquifers are in distress and within a decade of being completely tapped. Another article, on North Korea, highlighted the country’s ongoing drought and looming humanitarian crisis if the DPRK’s food production falls short of demand (which is looking to be the case). And if you’re in California, I’m sure you’re very much aware of the state’s severe drought conditions. Even Moby had some things to say about agriculture and its impact on California’s water supply. These are just a few of the global water crises that will continue to play out and worsen with climate change.

So the obvious question becomes, why aren’t we allocating more venture capital and human creativity into figuring out how to conserve and expand our water supplies, especially in Silicon Valley, whose surrounding geographic area has run dry, affecting countless farmers and California’s economy?

In his article Silicon Valley’s Water Conservation Conundrum, John Markoff speculates that the solutions to our water crisis “may have more to do with changing policy than technology breakthroughs at this stage.” Indeed, the lack of well-developed policies and economics around water have resulted from water’s perception of being abundant.

“It all comes down to the price of water. When it’s cheap, efficiency doesn’t pay.”
– Joel Makower, Chairman and Executive Director of the GreenBiz Group

This is poised to change however as we add more people to the planet and pursue greater economic development around the globe. Alluding to China and India’s whirling pace of modernization, Charles Fishman comments that “economic development requires rivers full of water,” noting that people desire more secure and abundant water as their incomes improve, and modern factories require huge volumes of it to conduct business.

Although water can not be created nor destroyed on Earth, it can be better managed and extracted in new sustainable ways. Like aerospace and energy – sectors once perceived untouchable – water too will undergo exciting innovation. If not, the golden age will come to a crashing end like the Mayans experienced centuries ago.

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