Dripping tap in desert with city in background

Why the value of water is greater than you might think

Image credit: Adamico/Dreamstime

Billions of people still don’t have a reliable water supply. Energy-efficient technology is a vital part of addressing the global problem.

Monday 22 March is World Water Day, an annual event that celebrates water, raises awareness of the global water crisis and tracks progress towards achieving United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 – ‘water and sanitation for all by 2030’.

This year’s theme is ‘valuing water’: that is the value each of us places on water. Most of us probably take it for granted, rarely thinking about its supply or use. Imagine for a minute though, that you are one of the billions of people around the world for whom the supply of water is unreliable or non-existent. You’d quickly realise its importance to health and livelihood.

According to the United Nations, water stress affects more than 25 per cent of the world’s population, or two billion people, a number that is increasing due to rising temperatures and changing weather patterns. The UN estimates that by 2050, one in four of us will experience recurring water shortages.

The water-food-energy nexus is central to sustainable development, yet is facing increasing demands due to a rising global population, urbanisation and economic growth. This link means that if we pioneer innovation and drive energy efficiency, we can reduce water use, reduce energy consumption and lower our emissions. For example, although electric motors have been used for the past 150 years, it’s dramatic improvements in efficiency over the last decade that are enabling many countries to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Through innovation and technology, we can play an active role in reducing the number of people facing water shortages, the majority of whom are the ones most affected by climate change. By increasing the efficiency, reliability and accessibility of technology we can achieve more for communities by using less.

One example is in Telangana, a state in southern India where half the population of 35 million rely on agriculture to work and live. Farmers are contending with a shortened monsoon season and a virtually non-existent water table. The only option for providing water for agriculture and drinking is to pump from the Krishna River to a reservoir 300 metres above it – the height of the Eiffel Tower and a considerable feat of engineering.

Pumping water at thousands of litres per second requires huge motors – five ABB 30MW motors in fact – and to increase energy efficiency we’ve provided power-management solutions that ensure reliable power flow with minimum electrical surges. The Mahatma Gandhi Kalwakurthy Lift Irrigation Scheme – completed over 12 years – provides a dependable source of drinking water and irrigation of 137,000 hectares of agricultural land (an area the size of Los Angeles), helping support one of the largest sectors in the Indian economy.

This sort of water-irrigation technology is also being used in Egypt, where an area of desert more than 2,200 square kilometres is being reclaimed to give the country greater food security, increased employment and investment throughout the supply chain.

These highly technical solutions show the importance of water transportation, whether for direct consumption or for irrigation. One of the main issues is that this can consume a significant amount of energy. However, by increasing energy efficiency, communities benefit from more reliable solutions, lower emissions and greater energy savings – reducing the cost of ownership whilst protecting the environment.

The benefits of energy efficiency are far broader than the simple ability to provide more reliable, cost-effective solutions that use less energy and are less polluting. Indeed, greater efficiency helps contribute to environmental conservationism.

Since the start of the industrial age, improvements in efficiency have led directly to periods of economic expansion. With the latest technological advances we are embarking on an era in which greater efficiency contributes simultaneously to economic growth and environmental protection. For example, taking my own area of interest – industrial electric motors – it is estimated that if all the 300 million industrial electric-motor-driven systems currently in operation were replaced with optimised, high-efficiency equipment, global electricity consumption could be reduced by 10 per cent. The gains realised from improving energy efficiency in general are likely to account for a greater than 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Accelerating the adoption of energy-saving technologies is simply common sense.

Ultimately, the importance of water cannot be overestimated, and continued innovation in the water industry – from transportation to treatment and desalination – is vital to ensuring water security. But it isn’t just about today’s water supply, but about the future. When we look at, for example hydroelectricity, electrical storage and even the future of hydrogen fuel – the efficient and sustainable management of what could be argued is the world’s most valuable resource is critical.

This World Water Day, I want us all to think about water in a different way and think about how every industry can protect what we all need to see as the most valuable commodity available.

Heikki Vepsäläinen is division president, large motors and generators at ABB.

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