What to do about water?

As we saw in our first post, we are in the midst of a water crisis. A lack of water affects 4 in 10 people worldwide. 900 children under the age of five die every single day without access to clean, drinkable water. There has been a six-fold increase in water consumption in the last century alone. South Africa estimates a national deficit of 2 044 million cubic metres by 2025, under a decade away. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said,

“Science has spoken… Time is not on our side”.

So, what is being done about it today?

Water worth its salt

It seems simple enough. If 97% of the water on earth is salt water then desalinate it. Problem solved. There are currently 18 426 desalination plants in 150 different countries. More than 300 million people rely on this water for their daily needs. This answer seems especially obvious in a country like South Africa with 2 500 km of coastline. Indeed, many local municipalities have been debating desalination strategies over the last few years.

If only it were as easy as it sounds...


Desalination requires a tremendous amount of energy and thus, for the most part, comes with a colossal carbon footprint. So, use biofuels? Well, in this instance, that might even be worse. 1000 – 4000 litres of fresh water are needed to produce just ONE litre of biofuel. Water that we know we just don’t have. Secondly, it’s astronomically expensive. Desalination costs twice to three times as much as other methods of water re-purposing, like rainwater catchment or recycling waste water. Because salt and water particles form such tight chemical bonds, the technology and energy required to separate the two comes with a mammoth bill. And it’s not just the energy required for desalination. To then pump this water up from sea level is another challenge in and of itself.

More so than the monetary expense, the greatest cost is to our earth. Our cities simply weren’t designed for it. We have none of the necessary infrastructure, adding not only to the fiscal expense but also the ever-growing carbon costs. Vast tracts of land would need to be dedicated to tens of thousands of plants for desalination alone to be a viable solution. Furthermore, it entails the destruction or, at least, disruption of oceanic habitats. Small sea creatures, phytoplankton and all kinds of oceanic life (as well as pollution) get sucked into these plants upsetting underwater ecosystems. We simply cannot solve one environmental crisis by exacerbating another. In fact, water is critical for mitigating the effects of man-made climate change as many efforts to reduce carbon emissions rely on reliable access to water resources.


Saudi Arabia is the world leader in water desalination. Oil is cheap, money is rife and water is scarce. The USA takes second place for most of the same reasons. To give you an idea of scope, in San Diego, 2014, construction began on the largest desalination plant in the northern hemisphere for a grand total of $1 billion. Once it’s complete, the plant will take in 100 million gallons of water daily, producing 54 million gallons of fresh water. That is nearly 205 million litres. Startlingly, this equates to just a measly 10% of the USA’s water needs.

South African Minister for Water Affairs and Sanitation, Nomvula Mokonyane, said last year that, for us, it just isn’t viable; desalinated water would cost three times as much as the current R13.00 per cubic metre. As she said, quite simply, it “would make water unaffordable”, particularly for those who need it most.

Necessity: the mother of all invention

So, if desalination won’t quite do, then what else? An incredible amount of innovation has been taking place within this space. There is a plethora of intuitively designed, water-efficient products like this Eco Urinal. This two-in-one combo recycles the water used while washing your hands to flush the urinal, thereby nearly halving the amount of waste water produced in male bathrooms. One of the greatest challenges that water-wise innovation faces is that most water systems (and the products traditionally designed for them) can’t distinguish between drinkable water, greywater (not ‘dirty’ but not drinkable) and that which has been used for sanitation. A study conducted in 2010 found, alarmingly, that only 5% of clean, drinkable water in South Africa is consumed. The rest is flushed down toilets, sprinkled on lawns or dumped down drains. We are far from the exception to the rule.

Eco Urinal

Take a look here and here for more inventive, water-wise designs. While developments such as these are incredibly new, novel and exciting, that you’ve probably never seen or even heard of them exemplifies the primary problem. Water-efficient products - even the most ‘common’ like low-flow shower heads and dual flush toilets - have incredibly low levels of uptake worldwide. This is particularly so in the developing world. South Africa is a prime example. Research conducted by TNS (2009) found that not only did extremely few South African households - across income levels - have water-efficient devices, but few expressed any interest in ever installing them at all.

There are a number of reasons for this. Predominantly, people either aren’t aware of these products, they don’t see the need for them (globally or personally), or they are simply unable to afford it. Products like these, because so novel and new, are incredibly expensive to produce. They are thus out-priced by most traditional, water-wasting alternatives. Despite the fact that their installation would save money, water and our planet in the long-term – low-flow shower heads and dual flushers can reduce water consumption by around 20% each – our loss averse nature, coupled with the ‘pain of paying’, puts most people  off. We feel the immediate loss of a larger ‘than necessary’ price tag far more intensely than the long-term benefits it holds for ourselves and others.

And, as with most pro-environmental behaviours, we feel powerless to make a difference. The cruelest irony is our rationalisations that, even if we did shoulder the expense now, our efforts are just ‘a drop in the ocean’. We forget that, fundamentally, the ocean is just billions of ‘drops’.


While such water-wise devices are important, valuable and great cause for hope, they are not the answer to the water crisis. What we need are low-cost, scale-able and durable solutions to these seismic issues. We need innovative answers that are inexpensive and not technologically or labour intensive. To solve this global crisis we need to act immediately and with(in) what we’ve got - at least for the time being.

Traditional approaches to the water crisis

Traditionally, governments and municipalities have employed two methods: pecuniary and educational approaches. Pecuniary approaches entail monetary penalties like increasing tariffs and taxes, implementing fines and even water rationing. These, however, rarely do much to motivate water-saving. More often than not high-consumption households are high-income households. Fiscal penalties fail to have a significant effect as these consumers either fail to notice or to equate these price increases with the need to save water. Middle-income groups hold the greatest potential for water-saving because they tend to be more money conscious than high-income individuals, while low-income households rarely use much water anyway.

The ineffectual nature of pecuniary methods is also partly due to the fact that these price increases are not imposed at the ‘point of sale’; they are decoupled from actual water use. Just think how careful you’d be with water if you paid, per drop, every time you opened the tap.


Education-based campaigns, while valuable, also have little to no effect in the long-term. As soon as the ‘moment’ is over we revert back to our water-wasting ways. They can, at times, even have the opposite effect. Take Bogota, Colombia, for example. In 1997 one of the city’s main water pipes partially collapsed; if residents didn’t start conserving water rapidly 70% of the city would go without. The government launched an informative campaign conveying this. The result? Water consumption rapidly increased. Rather than saving water, residents started stockpiling it. This is scarcity effect in action.

As we discussed in the last post, the biggest issue is most often not a lack of knowledge, but the crisis our cognition; all of the behavioural biases and barriers impeding pro-environmental, pro-social behaviour change.

The most effective way to tackle the water crisis is at the root of the problem – the human.

Keep an eye out for our next post where we’ll discuss some low-cost, scale-able and durable ways to beat our biases with behavioural interventions.

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