Water scarcity is a problem that already affects many regions around the world. It can be said that every single country in each of the continents has to deal with this issue, with different levels of urgency.
Many regions of the world are relatively used to water demand exceeding supply, but not in Latin America, and much less in countries like Brazil which has abundant water resources and frequent rains. Nevertheless, something very close to water scarcity is happening here right now. Recently, those of us living in some of the largest Brazilian cities experienced living and working under water rationing or with water rationing as an imminent possibility.
Not a few voices from different sectors in Brazil attributed this temporary situation to the prioritized attention of the government to the simultaneous energy crisis. Others attribute the problem to climate change and its effects on rainfall, and others to an historical series of “bad political and economic decisions.”
Most likely, the cause of the problem is a combination of all those factors as well as others not included.
Water and energy have a symbiotic relationship. We need energy for water treatment and transportation, and we need water to generate any form of energy. That is especially true in Brazil, a country that is highly dependent on hydro energy generation to support the growth of industry and population.
In a constantly developing world, changes in one of these two sectors can dramatically affect the other, and not necessarily in a negative form. In Brazil, we are analyzing both energy and water applications while also recognizing that the two are inextricably connected.
In this way, the reduction of total consumption and water reuse are, probably, the only realistic route currently existing to make sustainable some technologies of energy production, the operation of key industries and the sustainability of certain cities, at least, as we know them today.
However, nowadays that can be difficult and expensive. For comparison: energy consumption to obtain clean water from conventional surface water is around 0.37 kWh/m3 (and 40% more from groundwater), between 0.66 and 0.87 kWh/m3 from wastewater, and 2.6 to 4.36 kWh/m3 from seawater by desalination (Webber, 2008). In a simplest form, this means that if surface water sources are either not available or getting water from them would cost more and have more environmental, political and economic restrictions, the key alternative for industries and cities should be reducing consumption and reusing water.
Technological research plays an important role in helping to solve this kind of problem. Membrane technology, for example, is a key part of water reuse and could be an important player in the solution to global water issues. In order to apply this technology in a broader way, we need to continue with advanced developments and cost reduction. Then, Microfiltration, Ultrafiltration (Including MBR, AnMBR, etc.), Reverse Osmosis, Forward Osmosis, Membrane Distillation, Electro-dialysis and others, could represent a crucial part of water sustainability in industries and municipalities.
As one of the most important membrane players in the world, GE is leading global research efforts, including at GE’s Global Research Center in Brazil where we are investigating the various existing membrane technologies and looking for ways to develop new ones to optimize energy consumption and guarantee efficiency in water reuse. Our research is looking for new and more economic ways of producing clean water or special treated waters adapted to industrial needs using membranes, even in the most extreme conditions and from a variety of sources.
Important challenges related to both energy and water will need to be faced in this and the coming decades, and most of those challenges are interrelated. However, new developments by GE that could be incorporated as an option in a relatively short time will have undoubtedly a positive impact on the global problems of water scarcity, water availability, water cost, and also on the energy market.
Addressing challenges in water and energy simultaneously could help to reduce complexity and give more efficiency and consistency to every action taken in relation to water and energy, be they technical, environmental, economic or political.