How Biotechnology Is Addressing the World Water Crisis

Mark your calendars. March 22 is World Water Day. And this year the annual day of awareness promoting access to safe water and sanitation as a human right is going to be big.

That’s because between 25% and 50% of humans will not have access to safe water and sanitation at some point this year.

And because the water crisis is expected to get worse despite effective technologies, international cooperation, and heroic humanitarian efforts. The combined threats of rising water demands, aging water systems, and climate change leave experts predicting that by 2050 two thirds of the world may struggle to reliably access safe water.

Addressing all this requires equal parts awareness, action, and innovation. To this end, the UN is building this World Water Day to be a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to unite around the global water crisis. Count us in!

What is the Water and Sanitation Crisis?

Here’s the jarring 101. Last year 1.4 million people died, and 74 million people had their lives shortened by diseases related to unsafe water, sanitation, and hygiene. That’s because 2 billion people, 25% of the world, lack safe drinking water. (Safe drinking water is water that is on-premise, available when needed, and free of dangerous contaminations.) And 3.6 billion people, 50% of the world, lack safe sanitation. (Safe sanitation means a toilet that is not shared with other households and where human waste is safely disposed of.) Similarly, 1.8 billion people are treated at healthcare facilities where a safe water supply is more than 30 minutes away.

Collection of drinking water in coastal area of Bangladesh. Balaram Mahalder, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Incredible innovation over the last decade has created a diverse tool kit of effective, simple, and sustainable technologies that can provide safe water and sanitation to those who currently lack these two life essentials. Thanks to these ~21 million people gained access to safe water and ~23 million gained access to safe sanitation last year. Chances are good that in 2023 the numbers will be even higher. It’s estimated that every dollar invested in installing water and sanitation access technologies brings a $4.3 return. That’s because these installations pack a powerful punch. They rapidly improve human health (and reduced health care costs), reduced pollution, lower average sick days, improve school attendance, and generally amplify human safety and dignity.

Distribution of safe drinking water in Jackson Mississippi. Staff Sgt. Connie Jones, U.S. Army National Guard, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons .

However, despite these solutions and progressions the water crisis is predicted to worsen. Overall global water demand is projected to increase 55% by 2040 fueled largely by increasing demand for water for manufacturing and power plant cooling. At the same time, climate change has altered rain patterns making droughts more frequent, longer, and severe. Finally, many long-relied-upon water systems such as rivers, lakes, and aquifers are already struggling under the pressures of historic overuse, pollution, and aging infrastructure. In combination, these nefarious forces are likely to exacerbate the world’s water crisis.  

Hummingbird Time

Need a soul break after reading that last paragraph? Check out the famed environmentalist Wangari Maathai telling the hummingbird parable. (The hummingbird is the mascot for this year’s World Water Day.) Now read on.

What you can do. (With a definite biotech bias)

First, celebrate this upcoming March 22! The UN World Water Day Site has amazing resources to help you do this.

Second, teach and learn biotechnology! Biotechnology has and will continue to play a huge role in addressing the global water crisis. Alternative water treatment methods, dynamic water monitoring technologies, agricultural advances, manufacturing breakthroughs, and energy innovations are five ways that biotech is helping humans access safe water and they are just the tip of the iceberg.   

– Water treatment: Traditional methods of water treatment such as chlorination and sedimentation can remove many, but not all, dangerous contaminants. These methods can also produce dangerous by-products. Alternative purification technologies using enzymes, specialized microbes, and bio-based filters can help remove a wider variety of pollutants. Moreover, these technologies are often cost-effective and can work under a wider range of scales and settings.  

Well water testing. Oxfam East Africa, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

– Water quality monitoring: Water quality monitoring is the sampling and analysis of water constituents and conditions. These include pollutants like pesticides, metals, and forever chemicals. It also includes pathogenic microorganisms like LegionellaNaegleria fowleriVibrio spp., and Pfiesteria. Continued advancements in DNA detection technologies are making identifying the latter group affordable, rapid, and easy to use. This is saving lives.  

– Water conservation (agriculture): Biotechnology is being used to develop crops that are more efficient in their use of water. For example, genetic engineering can be used to modify root depth and pore size, which then improves a plant’s water uptake and retention. Such technologies may offer a lifeline to water-scarce regions which must balance the need for water conservation with the importance of farming both for people’s livelihood and food supply.

– Water conservating (manufacturing): Enzymes are biological catalysts that help to speed up chemical reactions. Enzyme technology continues to be used in manufacturing to create chemicals more efficiently – saving time, money, energy, and, most importantly for this post, water.

– Water conservation (energy): It takes a lot of water to make electricity, especially for thermoelectric power plants that use once-through cooling systems. How much? Around 133 billion gallons a day. In addition, the production of fuels like oil, natural gas, and even biogas also requires massive water input – about 3-6 gallons of water for every one gallon of fuel. As biotech helps us develop new energy sources it’s eye those that can be both carbon and water cutting.  

Ready to integrate water access into your curriculum, examine local water quality levels and bring hands-on, inquiry-based biotechnology into your classroom? Consider our Multiplex PCR water quality test profiled here. Don’t have a PCR machine? Try our chromogenic water testing experiment which requires only a long wave UV light and curious students.  

Title Image Attribution: DFID – UK Department for International Development, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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