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Tech Solutions for Water Shortages

New water management, treatment and conservation methods will bolster water supplies and save money.

Mindful of potentially catastrophic water shortages in the next few years, public and private sector entities are hurrying to mitigate the consequences for people, farming, manufacturing and construction, as well as the political impact.

It’s not just a problem for perennially parched areas. By 2015 or so, 36 states and scores of cities will have trouble meeting daily freshwater needs. Metropolitan Boston, hardly a desert, is so chronically short of freshwater, it’s building a second water desalination plant even as the first is just starting production.

The whole world is getting thirstier in the face of global population growth and rising standards of living that boost demand for food, cars and better housing, among other things. Within about 20 years, China, India, South Africa and Brazil will account for 40% of the world’s water use, and unlike fossil fuels, water has no potential substitute.

Investment in water technology and innovation plus conservation are key to more efficient use of water. Several firms are working on a variety of solutions.


In the realm of water management, IBM’s Project Big Green is creating smart water grids with sensors to monitor consumption and watersheds. It also keeps tabs on pipes and other infrastructure to detect leaks and avert water main breaks. The technology promises to save water systems a lot of money -- it would cost about $350 billion to replace all of the nation’s leaky pipes.

“The system would see a huge improvement at fairly low cost because suppliers would get better at figuring out which pipes are most likely to break,” says Laura Shenkar, the principal of The Artemis Project, a company that advises firms on water use strategies.

Companies working to develop similar grid systems include SAP, a German software developer, and Aqleo, a start-up high-tech water management company in Bethesda, Md. TaKaDu, a start-up based in Israel, is rolling out a system that it says will predict when a small leak is about to rupture pipes. And Itron of Liberty Lake, Wash., is developing a meter to let suppliers judge consumption needs second by second and make consumers aware of how much water they’re using and its cost.

Getting a grip on water flow is paramount, since waterworks leak like sieves, with 40% of supplies dribbling away. In Illinois, the worst of the 50 states, about two-thirds of the water that leaves treatment plants never gets to faucets.


In wastewater treatment, the new emphasis is on recycling water on-site, at factories, office buildings, retail developments and other commercial facilities, rather than at huge water complexes run by cities and private firms. Systems being developed by Luxembourg’s Epuramat and Israel’s AqWise will convert nearly 100% of a factory’s wastewater on-site while slashing the energy needed to purify and transport water by as much as 80%. To prevent groundwater contamination, Veolia Water Solutions & Technologies of France is working on a way to remove metals and acids from industrial waste. Within a few years, look for the extraction of lithium from wastewater for use in car batteries.

Conservation innovations are also in the works. For example, HydroPoint Data Systems has a smart irrigation system for Santa Clarita, Calif. Sprinklers in parks, medians and so on will operate based on soil moisture readings, reducing the city’s water consumption by 40%.

Archer Daniels Midland, John Deere and Cargill are developing similar systems for farmers. Meanwhile, Monsanto, a leading seed producer, is developing crops that need less water than conventional ones plus crops that grow in brackish water. Another, Syngenta, is devising corn and wheat strains that need just sips of water.

Entrepreneurs are also pushing the envelope on seawater desalination. NanoH2O’s new technologies, for example, likely will boost water production by 70% and cut the cost of energy needed to make each gallon. Desalinated seawater is now 7% of the world’s daily supply, and the share will grow as costs drop.