Can Lessons from the California Drought Help Conquer the Global Water Problem, asks Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute

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Caltech’s Resnick Sustainability Institute Proposes a three-point plan to ensure enough is done to address both the immediate problem and also treat the endemic issue for the long-term

Is it possible that lessons learned from addressing the California drought can lead to insights that will help water-starved locales around the world? Neil Fromer, Executive Director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech thinks it can, but only if we both solve the problems today and also create a generalizable solution to droughts in the future.

“We need to think of this drought as an acute flare-up of a chronic disease,” said Fromer. “Let’s treat the symptoms as aggressively and immediately as possible. But we must also understand the root causes, address them at their source, and create systems that will help us immunize against huge problems in the future.”

The California drought is an emergency condition that comes from a change in incoming rain and snowfall patterns. It’s not clear how long it will last and it’s important to make sure that citizens and businesses benefit from the relief effort. That’s the role of the emergency response.

However, the response is needed so urgently because the underlying system is reliant on aging infrastructure and outdated technology. Like strengthening the immune system, if systemic problems are addressed, future emergencies will be weathered better.

The water problem is worldwide and water shortages are often cited as one of the most pressing environmental issues facing the earth. Underscoring this are ongoing worries about drought conditions across the world. According to the Global Drought Information System:

“…Europe is experiencing dryness, generally through the central part of the continent. In Asia, drought continues to be focused in the eastern and especially southeastern parts of the continent while conditions have improved in the Indian sub-continent. In Taiwan, the worsening conditions have led to the implementation of water rationing in a number of cities and counties. In Africa, drought has intensified in the equatorial region and dry conditions persist in the South. Madagascar is experiencing severe crop failure that is estimated to impact over 200,000 people. In North America, drought intensified in the northern High Plains and Midwest of the U.S. while also expanding in the Maritime Provinces of Canada. In South America, drought remains entrenched in Brazil and the Southern Andes. Brazil has been experiencing an upswing in Dengue Fever cases tied to the drought and water storage containers. In Australia, drought conditions continue to intensify across the continent. In New South Wales, some areas have now gone three years without rain.”

Three Point Prescription Proposed    

Fromer believes that the prescription for this has several steps: “While we attempt to provide relief and stem the related humanitarian, economic, and socio-political crises that develop during severe drought, now is the time to envision a robust system that can provide resilience to drought and flood cycles.”

1.    Build infrastructure that enables the capture of most or all of the incoming precipitation and runoff; treat and reuse as much of the wastewater as possible; and make sure long-term groundwater is recharged to storage basins when water is plentiful. Some of the technology for this exists already, some needs improvement to reach cost-effectiveness, and some are still challenging science projects.

2.    Learn from the current transformation of the electricity sector and previously the telecommunications sector: as the infrastructure is updated and upgraded with these new technologies, install a smarter system with new sensing and measurement capabilities that can tell us exactly where the water is, what is being used and in what way, what the water quality is, and if there are weak points in the infrastructure.

3.    Develop tools that put this data together in real time to model the system as a whole and provide feedback. Create algorithms and smart infrastructure that can use the data and the models as feedback to ensure the system is as efficient as possible. This system will become adaptable and responsive as new capture, treatment, and storage options become available.

Concluded Fromer, “For millennia the development of sophisticated, engineered water infrastructure has gone hand in hand with increases in quality of life. However, today our water system is neglected and badly in need of attention.”

About The Resnick Sustainability Institute
The Resnick Institute is Caltech’s studio focused on the breakthroughs that will change the balance of the world’s sustainability. It marries bold creativity and deep scientific knowledge by encouraging original thinking and orthogonal ideas. The Resnick Institute works with some of the world’s top and emerging scientists – at the California Institute of Technology and beyond. Current projects at the Resnick Institute include research into energy generation, such as advanced photovoltaics, photoelectrochemical solar fuels, cellulosic biofuels, and wind energy system design; energy conversion work on batteries and fuel cells; and energy efficiency and management such as fuel efficient vehicles, green chemical synthesis, thermoelectric materials, and advanced research on electrical grid control and distribution.
For more information, visit http://resnick.caltech.edu.

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