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Is it time to talk about 'peak water'?

Worsened by growing demand, fresh water supplies are being stressed just like oil. Clean tech investment in water can play a part.

BOSTON--Water is the new oil--a resource where demand continues to rise but supply is limited.

Experts at the Ceres Conference here on Tuesday focused on the risks to businesses and communities that the "global water crisis" poses, one with economic, environmental, and human health impacts. Ceres is a network of environmentally oriented investors.

clean water

Availability of fresh water has long been a concern for countries that are water stressed. But water is a tangible concern to more parties, including corporations which are integrating water into their climate change strategies.

A nuclear power plant in Tennessee was derated last year because of a drought in the region. In another case, a huge brewery was shut down because of a lack of available water.

"What's different today is that the global business community is seeing water as a business risk and core to their operations," said Chris Williams, the director of water programs at the World Wildlife Fund.

In California, the electronics industry consumes 24 percent of available water. And rising temperatures from global warming are eating away at a source of water--the ice pack in the North Sierra mountains, Williams noted.

The statistics on availability of water are not encouraging: there are 1.1 billion people in the world who do not have access to safe water, a number that will more than double by 2020.

Fifty percent of the world's wetlands, which clean water and prevent flooding, have been destroyed. Seventy percent of water usage is used for agriculture, but about 50 percent of that is wasted from evaporation or inefficient use. California uses six and a half percent of its electricity to pump water.

GE ups focus on water
Conglomerates likes GE, Siemens, as well as start-ups are developing desalination technologies and other processes for developing waste water for agricultural or industrial use.

At the end of May, GE will mark the third anniversary of its Ecomagination campaign to develop clean technologies with a series of announcements on water led by CEO Jeffrey Immelt.

GE will call for more conservation of water and release tools to help its customers reduce consumption and benchmarks to compare usage within industries, said Jeffrey Connelly, vice president of water and process technologies at GE, who spoke on the panel.

GE will also commit to lowering its own use and advocate for more attention to policy with a position paper.

"The technology is there, the money is there to invest. There needs to be a groundswell of all parties to move the needle forward," Connelly said.

But despite Connelly's focus on technology-based approach to addressing this "growing crisis," different water technologies have serious roadblocks.

Desalination, where water is passed through a filtration membrane, demands a large amount of energy to operate.

The infrastructure for water delivery in many countries, including the U.S., needs to be upgraded (water is still delivered in part by wood pipes in New York). Yet municipalities don't have the money to spend on these expensive overhauls.

Putting a price on water
Key to driving more innovation in water technologies is to put a price on water, like other resources, panelists said.

For example, satellite imagery is being used so that fields are not irrigated when it's raining, noted Bruce Schlein, the vice president of environmental affairs at Citi.

He said Citi sees other business opportunities in desalination, pipeline development, waste water treatment, and bottled water.

If water had a price, like oil has, the billions of dollars of investment in biofuels would not make sense, said Heidi Paul, vice president of corporate affairs for Nestle Waters.

She said it takes 3,700 liters of water to make one liter of ethanol and 900 liters of water to make one liter of biodiesel.

"If water had a price that was even a fraction (of its cost), those things wouldn't be done. They're done because oil has a price and water does not," Paul said.