The bestselling author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, Charles Fishman, delivered this year's keynote speech at WQA Aquatech 2014 in Orlando, Fla.
Fishman began his speech by examining the technological advancements that have made industries such as medicine, agriculture and computer programming virtually unrecognizable compared to 50 years ago. These mass changes, he continued, have largely skipped the water industry.
“Water hasn't changed that much in the last 50 years,” he said. “Some of the conventional wisdom about water is wrong.”
But, according to Fishman, "The revolution … is finally coming to water,” as water crises around the world are making those inside and outside the industry understand the urgent need to change the way we think about our water and how it is used.
Traveling the world over the last five years, Fishman has observed the way different countries interact with, think about and use their water.
Fishman compared the U.S., where certain states have been crippled by drought in recent years, with Australia, a country that endured an impressive 10 years of drought. Perth, he said, was the first developed city to almost run out of water entirely.
“I wanted to see what water scarcity did to a country that looked just like ours,” he said. What he found was that drought was a pervasive force that essentially remade Australia’s economy and politics in the space of a decade.
Then, Fishman turned to India where, he said, there is more than enough water to go around, yet more than half the population doesn’t have access to clean, safe water.
An “international water crisis,” he says, doesn’t exist. Instead, there are vastly different, very specific water crises all over the world, each of which can and must be dealt with on a local level.
“Water problems are local and that’s where they need to be taken care of,” said Fishman. “Free is the wrong price for water.”
“We are very spoiled in the developed world when it comes to water,” he added. “Resources that are free are inevitably mismanaged.”
Fishman believes the developed world has been living in “a golden age of water” for the past 100 years, where water, its value, importance and path to our taps has become invisible. Now, he says, we are entering the age of “smart water,” where municipalities, industries, residences and businesses need to start thinking about how to get the most out of their water using the advanced technologies available today.
People need to see the value of water and understand that paying more for it will surely be a part of the “smart water” era, Fishman explained.
“It’s the quality of water that matters most,” Fishman emphasized. Water quality, he said, is the key to using it effectively.
Fishman detailed the difference between smart water use and water use that is not well thought out by using examples from around the world. A village in India where women carry water for miles on their heads, spilling much of it as they go, was not practicing smart water use. But, an IBM chip factory in the U.S. that has created its own water division has employed cutting-edge science to use as little water and reuse as much water as possible at their plant — a pioneer in smart water.
Mexico City has some of the most contaminated water in the world, unfit to even rinse your toothbrush in, as Fishman knows from personal experience. The city, however, is beginning to practice smart water by requiring all restaurants to serve filtered, purified tap water for free. This, said Fishman, is an example of people taking control of their water on the local level to solve their own water crisis.
“The hard part,” he said, “is the human part. Getting people to see water clearly and behave differently.”
“We can always fix the water,” he concluded.