Clean Water and Saving Energy

We often get into a tug of war about prioritizing any assistance we provide developing countries. We present choices as black and white–they can have energy (from fossil fuels) and the Utopia of energy availability it brings or condemn those in developing countries to candle light and kerosene. The reality is a bit more nuanced.

Probably the second biggest benefit we could provide many in the developing world is access to clean water. Believe it or not, that could for many be more important than access to electricity. Dirty water kills even more than indoor air pollution. The effects of water-borne illnesses are even more debilitating than the lack of power.

Water pollution India

If you don’t think it’s a current issue you are not paying attention. Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce site, has about 3,000 different types of water treatment plant for sale, most of them small scale but with some fairly high capacity units thrown in.

Of course, clean water costs money. The other problem is that clean water uses energy. A lot of it. In the developed world it can comprise 10% of a city’s municipal budget and 35% of the same city’s energy consumption.

Which is why it’s important to note that there is huge variation in energy consumption in water treatment facilities. The much-maligned EPA has a useful document for city managers about how to reduce energy consumption in water treatment here:

More importantly, perhaps we can spend some time talking about how we can make solutions for Problem A contribute to solving Problem B.

I would submit that starting with the point of view of the end-user (okay, my background screams at me to use terms like ‘consumer-centric’) and look at all the challenges they face.

A village in India has multiple needs. They are far from an electricity grid, so they aren’t going to get connected soon. Rural electrification can help them somewhat, but a few solar panels will not rocket them into the fourth dimension of modernity.

Low cost refrigeration can give that village vaccines and medicines that need cold storage. Low cost water treatment can prevent diarrhea and work to combat malnutrition. Solar power might not provide 24/7 access to electricity, but it can charge cheap batteries and help with food storage.

Perhaps USAID and Greenpeace wouldn’t be so hostile to funding a fossil fuel power plant for the developing world if it was combined with a state of the art, hyper efficient water treatment facility and the last mile of a Cold Chain that kept medicines at a proper temperature. Of course the more rabid environmentalists would look at that as a ploy worthy of tobacco executives, but the more rabid environmentalists are doing a fairly good job of marginalizing themselves right out of serious conversation.

And as Eli Rabett noted over at Rabett Run, low-power fans can be a quicker and more acceptable solution to indoor air pollution than over-engineered solar stoves and high tech ovens.

The old saw about hammer and nail can be pretty accurate (and pretty damning) when it comes to aid efforts for the developing world. A portfolio approach to addressing multiple needs might work better.

It’s worth a try.


One response to “Clean Water and Saving Energy

  1. 1st comment: There are cogeneration/water treatment plants.
    2nd: When I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, we were told that we had the cheapest clean water anywhere in the country. A 30 foot hand dug well would last all year and nobody ever complained bout the taste. The coal companies polluted a lot of surface water and we made a big fuss about it and the creeks are still cleaning themselves up. But now we’re destroying the ground water and for what.

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