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GE Power: These 4 policies could solve the world's water crisis

Yet here's what's holding water solutions back.

Less than a decade ago, mainstream discussion started to include predictions of a future where global demand for water exceeds supply. Today, water scarcity is an unfortunate reality in all too many places.

Despite a wet winter, California just entered the fifth year of its worst drought of the past 500 years. Taps recently have run dry in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Northern China is parched. Ten of India’s 29 states have declared droughts this year.

In developing countries, millions of people lack of access to clean, safe water. In other corners of the world, cities are dealing with failing infrastructure and are often unable to deliver water to residents in need.

Then there’s rapid population growth and economic development in regions such as the Middle East, where water resources are being pushed well beyond natural limits.

On this Earth Day, we must ask ourselves, "How do we preserve and sustain the water we do have for the long-term? How do we ensure our use, and reuse, of this invaluable resource as effectively and efficiently as possible?"

The good news is there is a lot we can do.

Conservation is one approach. California, for example, enacted historic new water conservation rules in 2015, mandating urban residents to reduce water use by 25 percent.

Desalination is another strategy, which is especially effective in coastal areas. But the process is expensive and energy-intensive.

Wastewater recovery and reuse, on the other hand, on average uses about half the energy of desalination, and costs about half as much. Yet, while the technology exists to recover a large percent of wastewater, the world today only reuses about 4 percent of its wastewater.

Seeking solutions

Yes, the world’s water challenge is great. But it’s also solvable. We must focus on fueling water reuse. There are countries around the world leading the way forward.

Israel, despite its desert terrain, meager rainfall and population growth, currently boasts a water surplus; it is reusing 85-90 percent of its wastewater. Saudi Arabia recently announced a plan to reuse 65 percent of its wastewater.

Then there’s Singapore. The island city-state is reusing 30 percent of its water — punching well above its weight in terms of water reuse policies and technologies.

Globally, water reuse is taking root. But much more can be done (PDF) to drive more rapid and widespread adoption of reuse technologies, and we can learn from the experiences of countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

Governments around the world can implement policies that will change today’s approach to water management, and they can do that in four main ways:

1. Education and outreach

This is critical to advancing water recycling, not only to encourage its use, but also to overcome any public concerns about the safety and quality of recycled water. Local communities raise awareness through various common techniques used by governments worldwide, such as recognition awards and certificate programs.

Additionally, information dissemination and reporting of water consumption, discharge and recycling data through such channels as brochures, websites and advertising are also effective approaches to encouraging education and elevating awareness.

2. Removing barriers to adoption of reuse technologies

Barriers to water recycling and water recycling systems come in many forms: technological; financial; and regulatory. One of the biggest barriers is a municipal, state or regional water code that does not recognize use of recycled water.

In this case, the first steps are to set specific quality standards for recycled water and to provide guidance on the use of the reclaimed water. Additionally, revising plumbing codes and alleviating stringent permitting and inspection requirements for recycled water allows companies and communities to meet obligations that were otherwise difficult to attain.

3. Incentives

Incentives, such as direct subsidies, reduce government payments for the reintroduction of recovered water and provide regulatory relief for recycled water users through structured pricing mechanisms.

Additional incentives for water recycling and reuse include government procurement of water recycling and reuse equipment, requirements that government buildings and operations maximize their recycling and reuse of water, and structuring of water rights to reduce use of potable water.

4. Mandates and regulations

The requirement of water recovery systems and recycled water for certain large volume activities (irrigation) — continue to reinforce these initiatives along with the strong need for government participation.

Through more creative, private-public partnerships among industries, communities, municipalities and government, we can protect and enhance performance and competitiveness, as well as protect one of our most important natural resources. Future success depends on our ability to work together.

New levels of efficiency must continually be encouraged through education, conservation, governance and incentives. Understanding the risks — and the opportunities — will place businesses and governments in a more competitive position to lead and succeed in a carbon and water-constrained economy, and ultimately secure a future of water sustainability.

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