Ever since the oil embargo in the 1970s, oil has been the all-dominant focus in the global debate on natural resources.
The embargo illustrated how resource shortages could cripple entire economies in a matter of days and weeks. Since then, the oil supply has been diversified geographically and alternatives to oil have been developed through technological breakthroughs.
But resource shortages still threaten economic development. One of the key challenges today is the emerging shortage of water in many parts of the world, including the United States. The ongoing water crisis in Atlanta is just one important example. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, a third of the counties in the United States will face high or extremely high risks of water shortages during the next four decades.
If we do not overcome these increasing water shortages, economic development will come to a sudden stop in many areas. Local economies will experience the same kind of shocks that the world economy experienced during the oil embargo.
For some people, the answer is to stop development altogether, but such a reactionary solution is neither sustainable nor desirable in a growing country like the United States. The rapid growth of cities such as Atlanta is a symptom of a growing and vibrant population armed with ever more innovative technology. Thanks to the Internet, we are freer to live where we want to live while still pursuing fulfilling professional careers. The United States has become less dependent on metropolises such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles while new powerhouses like Atlanta and creative hot spots like Savannah are growing rapidly.
We should embrace this new way of life rather than try to reverse it. But to keep up the pace, we need to overcome the increasing water problems in many of the most rapidly growing areas in America.
I see three fundamental problems in the way we currently manage our water resources. First of all, we pay too little attention to the intimate connection between water and energy. Delivery of water requires energy, and production of energy requires water. By 2030, the electric sector alone could consume as much water as the entire country’s domestic consumption in 1995, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Energy efficiency thus equals water efficiency.
Take the example of pumps. Pump systems currently account for 10 percent of the world’s electricity use. At Grundfos, we estimate that we could cut that figure in half with universal adoption of state-of-the art energy-efficient pump systems.
Secondly, there is no labeling system allowing American consumers to easily distinguish energy-efficient water systems from inefficient ones. That means that there is no real choice for consumers and developers who are not technical specialists. We should empower energy- and water-conscious architects, builders, homeowners and tenants to pick and choose between water systems based on efficiency.
Thirdly, there is no market-based price on water in the United States today. If consumers and developers had to pay the real cost of extracting, transporting and cleaning water, they would have a much stronger incentive to use more efficient products. Instead of relying on random rationing schemes and unpredictable decisions in a slow-moving judicial system, we need to develop sophisticated private-sector markets for water. A market-based distribution system is by far the best way to secure a steady and predictable supply of scarce resources.
When the oil embargo hit, we adapted and kept growing through innovation and greater efficiency. As oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens has put it, water is the new oil. It is time to adapt and innovate once again.