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Blue: The New Green

Green has been the “in” color for the last couple of years.  It’s very popular to go green, or think green.  In fact, the company I work for just finished its green campaign.  Most notably, they added a “carbon calculator” and a “Green Tips” section to the intranet site.  They also changed the motto to add the words “a greener world”.  And they invested a bunch of money in “green energy”.  Conveniently, that should do well later on and get them lots of green.

The whole green campaign is getting pretty annoying, I mean green isn’t a favorite color of mine.  In fact, I hated that period in the mid 90’s where the most manufactured color for cars, trucks and vans was forest green.

Don’t get me wrong, the green campaign is accomplishing what it set out to.  To raise awareness about our impact on the environment.  It’s brought much needed worldwide attention to the climate change situation.  If nothing, it’s made people more aware of the role we play as a society and as individuals in the shaping of our environment.  It’s even brought us neat buzz words like “carbon footprint” and “carbon credits”.  And yes, to some extent it’s just a simple political campaign.  But I’ll let Penn & Teller tell you all about that in their next episode of Bullshit titled “Being Green” scheduled to air next week on Showtime.

But green is getting old, and must be replaced.  So green, allow me to introduce you to your replacement.  Green, meet Blue.

The cover story of the latest issue of Scientific American, written by Peter Rogers, is entitled “Running out of Water”.  It details the impending freshwater crisis.  It turns out that according an assessment made by the United Nations, by 2025 the freshwater resources of more than half the countries of the world will undergo either stress, or out-right shortages.

Currently there are about 1.1 billion people without adequate drinking water.  And 2.6 billion people without adequate water for sanitation such as waste water disposal.  Because of this, disease and death occur in people using contaminated water supplies.

So why is there a shortage of what, as estimates would put it, covers 70-71% of our planet?  Well there are a few types of water on earth, determined by their salinity.  The one we need is “fresh water”.  Fresh water is defined as water with less than 0.5 parts per thousand dissolved salts.   Of that 70-71%, only 3% of it is fresh water, and most of it is found in Lake Baikal in Russia and in our Great Lakes.  The other types of water on earth are brackish water, saline water and brine.  Saline (or salt) water making up about 98% of the water found on Earth.

There are many factors that contribute to this shortage.  The most obvious is the increased need due to the increase in population.  On average it is estimated (Falkenmark, 1989) that a person needs a minimum of 1000 cubic meters of water per year for drinking, hygiene and growing food for sustenance.  The equivalent to approximately two fifths of the volume of an Olympic-size swimming pool.  The ongoing trend in climate change is expected to contribute to droughts.  And supplying certain areas with potable water is troublesome especially in dry climates where the demand is high and the supply is low.

But the solution seems simple enough at first glance, desalinate our abundant supply of saline water.  However that comes at a cost.  By helping the blue campaign, you can potentially hurt the green.  Current desalination technology and processes cost money and a lot of energy, and of the countries that need it most, not many can even afford to desalinate water. Israel, China, India, Singapore, Australia and the US are among a small number of countries that currently desalinate water as part of their water supply.

There are potential technologies that would desalinate water at a reduced cost in resources.   Among those are solar desalination.  Solar desalination can be accomplished by humidification-dehumidification.  The thermal solar energy is used to evaporate water which is later condensed in a separate chamber seperating it from other substances, such as salt.  This technique is used in wilderness survival where one can make one’s own urine into drinkable water.

Other methods that are being looked into are the Passarell Process, geothermal desalination and using nanotube membranes.

Desalination is just one possible solution, however I expect the unavoidable “Blue” campaign will focus on more localized and individual efforts.  This problem isn’t a new blip on the radar either.  Water shortages have been occurring for a long time.  But I think this is the first time it could be looked at on a global scale.  This is a case, like global climate change, where politics will rule the outcome, but where the politics must be well informed by the science.

Now I’m not being an alarmist, I’ll still give the curtosy flush in a public washroom, and I’ll continue to use too much water for my needs.  After all, I live in a rich country where we can indulge.  But I know that just around the corner all the green posters, bus ads, TV commercials, websites, company policies will turn blue.   And that has me feeling…. well… blue.

11 comments to Blue: The New Green

  • Here in Oz we even have a political party that calls themselves “The Greens” (comically enough run by a bloke called Bob Brown). Their platform is all that greenie stuff we know so well.
    In a country as brown as Australia, we do need a Blue campaign.

  • I like your math although I suspect it’s just a typo – 98% salt water, 3% fresh…but alas.

    I trust United Nations estimates about as far as I can throw the United Nations global warming science. I suspect the UN wonks think everyone in the world needs as much water as a typical European or North American (the Olympic pool reference). They don’t – I suppose until everyone in the Yangste river gorge gets flush toilets and deluxe showers. Same with the Ganges and Nile delta dwellers.

    Further – are they factoring in how people wash and clean, then re-use the resulting ‘grey’ water to water crops etc?

    Forgive me all this – I’m a skeptic and I don’t see much skepticism in your posting questioning the validity of all the alarmist estimates in the first place. I’m also a fat and happy Canadian sitting on a great deal of fresh water so I apologize for my smugness

    The fact is – there are 1.3 billion people currently surviving in China. They have to be drinking something to survive. It may not be as pure as the driven snow but it seems to be working doesn’t it?

  • MoistenedBint… You may apologise for your smugness, but I sincerely doubt anyone is going to accept that apology.
    Just to pick one part of your horrible mess of a comment… “there are 1.3 billion people currently surviving in China”. Except, I presume, the ones who die. But hey, there are so many of them, who’s going to even notice if a few die? Also, I must have missed the part where China was the entire world (we all know there’s plenty of clean water everywhere in Africa). Or where survival was the highest goal we should aspire to, rather than a good standard of living.
    You seem to have confused being a skeptic with an excuse to dismiss problems you don’t want to have to deal with.
    How big is the problem of clean fresh water? I don’t know. But it’s damn well not a question of people in river valleys not having “flush toilets and deluxe showers”. Congratulations, you’ve managed to disgust me.

  • petrucio

    I think equating the blue problem with the green problem is to downplay the importance of the green problem – or not fully grasping it’s consequences.

    Yes, it’s important to be ‘blue aware’, and it’s costly to desalinate the seas – but it is doable. Yes, it will affect the poor more than the rich, but it will not severely affect the ENTIRE species (not to mention the greater impact the green problem has on other species).

  • Galadan – sorry to disgust you. As I suspect you are aware, that was not my intent.

    My comment is meant to challenge this whole scare tactic notion from the UN saying we’re going to run out of fresh water everywhere unless…something is done.

    My point is to question the validity of fuzzy ‘data’ that is used to ‘declare war’ on ‘Global Thirst’ or whatever. I say that while the water may not be to our particular taste or quality in China or India or Africa – there is water there. Enough for billions of people to survive, albeit with hardship of course. No question. I’ve seen the public service announcements about how many people have to walk for miles to get fresh water (and yes I know that is a patronizing comment).

    But is this a water crisis – or a population control crisis? Is it economics or meteorology or capitalism we need to worry about? Won’t an increase in standard of living bring with it (automatically) better living standards including…water?

    What I am trying to iterate (albeit it poorly) is – how much water is needed for everyone? Enough for everyone to be like us – able to shower each day and use automatic washing machines for cleaner, brighter whites? If that is what this ‘crisis’ is based upon then I don’t buy it.

  • dcardani

    Here’s a random blue/green question for you. I’ve read about using solar energy in a different way to generate electricity. Instead of using solar cells, some people are using it to heat a tube of oil to about 900 degrees (F, I think). It is then run through a pool of water, which it turns into steam to turn a turbine. Would it be possible to have that water be salt water, and distill the resulting steam (after it turned a turbine)? We could get electricity and desalination in 1 plant!

    I’m sure that’s a naive idea, but I wonder what the problems with it are?

  • Water needs are entirely a problem of infrastructure. As water demand increases, water delivery infrastructure will grow. Even desalinization, which is admittedly expensive, may become economically feasible once there is enough demand. We aren’t running out of water, it just may be more expensive as we have to draw it from less accessible sources. I don’t see the problem here.

  • DLC

    Mike: you passed over reverse osmosis, which not only takes the salt out, but also many impurities.

    Of all the water treatment systems discussed, I like the nanotube one best.

    dcardini: the problem with your scenario is that steam turbines don’t tolerate impurities well, and salt is corrosive. You’d have to build the thing entirely out of noble metals, and that just isn’t practical. Not a bad idea, in concept. Of course, they could also use residual heat from the process to carry out evaporative desalinization. It wouldn’t take too much to add such facilities to such a plant.

  • Scott R.

    “Would it be possible to have that water be salt water, and distill the resulting steam (after it turned a turbine)?”

    If only it were so. The problem with this approach is that the salt in the water would soon wreak havoc on the equipment. Corrosion of parts with close tolerances as well as salt build-up would most likely make this to costly. Also, much of the water used in steam generation can be condensed and re-used in the next cycle.
    Having said that, it might be possible to capture the latent heat of the steam with a heat transfer device in order to boil water in a partial vacuum. Maybe even a marriage of conventional steam tech with the Passarell Process, where the waste heat is harvested to assist with the process, lowering the cost of desalination even more. Of course solar can also contribute heat to the process, giving us several alternative configurations.

  • stonesean

    [quote] Would it be possible to have that water be salt water, and distill the resulting steam (after it turned a turbine)? We could get electricity and desalination in 1 plant!

    Actually D…. Something extremely similar exists already. It’s called a marine nuclear reactor.

    I lived on board USS Enterprise (CVN-65, no Star Trek joke, please) for 3 years directly above 8 Westinghouse nuclear reactors. One of the wonderful side effects of the nuclear power plant was that the waste heat provides an essentially unlimited supply of fresh hot water for use in the showers, laundry, scullery..etc….

  • Josh K


    The secondary steam plant heats the stills, which turn salt water into fresh water. Some of that water (probably a hefty majority on a carrier) goes to potable water, and then secondary steam is used to heat it, cool it, whatever needs to be done to it.

    Just pointing out that the secondary plant isn’t going directly to potable, so it isn’t *quite* a steam to turbine to fresh water kind of cycle.

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