29 Mar 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

Saving water one droplet at a time

You just woke up, and step into the shower, letting the water flow gently to wake you up and help you relax into the new day. Alas, your spa-like experience has a cost: you’ve just flushed 95 litres of drinking water straight down the drain.

We start and end our days wasting vast amounts of water, washing our face, teeth and bodies. With one shower of about 10 minutes a day, an average person consumes the equivalent of over 100,000 glasses of drinking water every year.

According to the United Nations World Water Development Report 2019, severe water scarcity affects about 4 billion people, or nearly two thirds of the world population, at least one month each year. Conserving water has never felt so urgent.

“Freshwater is a precious resource in many parts of the world, one that is increasingly under threat due to overconsumption, climate change and pollution,” says UN Environment’s freshwater expert Lis Mullin Bernhardt.

“At the same time, access to water is essential to just about everything that each of us does on a daily basis: producing food and energy, maintaining people’s health and well-being, and ensuring that ecosystems on land and at sea, and all the biodiversity that lives in them, are functional... Access to water touches most of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and is at the core of UN Environment’s work,” she adds. 

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Nebia’s innovation consists in nebulizing water, saving 65 per cent of the precious resource for every single shower. Photo by Nebia

Showering redefined

A California-based start-up has decided to address the problem by reinventing one of the devices that delivers that water: the showerhead. Through an innovative water nebulizing system, Nebia delivers showering that is as effective as with a traditional showerhead, while using 65 per cent less water.

“Our mission is to transform how people interact with water,” says Philip Winter, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Nebia.

By creating an object whose main goal is to save water while providing an enjoyable and innovative experience, Nebia co-founders Philip Winter, Carlos Gomez Andonaegui and Gabriel Parisi-Amon hope to raise awareness of the need to reduce water usage, and lead a society-wide behaviour change from wastefulness to conservation.

The attractiveness of the object’s design and its efficiency at rinsing are all part of the company’s business strategy.

“We wanted to create something so beautiful that people would really want to install it in their bathrooms. At the same time, we needed to create a pleasurable experience, so that by doing good for the planet, consumers would still be able to go about their daily lives without giving up anything.”

Among Nebia’s partners is the kitchen, bath and shower fixture giant Moen. Nebia’s customers have already saved an estimated 100 million gallons of water, and together with Moen the company plans to reach 1 billion gallons of water saved in the next two years. Faucets, toilets, water heaters, and the way water circulates and could potentially be reused within the house are all areas that Nebia will be looking into in the next five years.

“While there have been many improvements made in agriculture and industry technologies for saving and reusing water, there has been a massive underinvestment in innovation and engineering for delivering water to consumers,” says Winter. “There aren’t many options for people to proactively save water every day. That’s why we decided to start with a device that most people use daily: the shower. We also wanted to ensure that the design is attractive and that it enhances, rather than reduces, the experience of showering.”

Food production remains the heaviest user

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the largest share—69 per cent—of the world’s yearly consumption of water goes towards agriculture (which encompasses irrigation, livestock and aquaculture activities), while industry and households absorb the remaining 19 and 12 per cent respectively.

Winter agrees that consumer use of water is merely a drop in the ocean. “The biggest water savings will come from switching our diets and eating less meat,” Winter warns. Meat consumption is on the rise worldwide—an alarming trend, given that one average quarter pounder beef burger responsible for draining 1,695 litres of water.

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Aging water infrastructure and leaky pipes contribute to the loss of vast amounts of water. torbakhopper on Unsplash

Tackling city-wide leaks

Other companies are addressing the issue of water leakage in city pipes. Singapore is using acoustic technology to detect water leaks, while in Los Angeles, the Department of Water and Power has partnered with the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute to test the use of robots for patrolling the cities’ network of pipes. In the United States alone, aging water infrastructure and leaky pipes contribute to the loss of almost 8 trillion litres of water per year. In other countries, illegal pipe connections are a major culprit: as much as 40 per cent of water loss has been attributed to water theft.

No matter where the waste comes from, water scarcity impacts a growing number of people. In many parts of the world, water restrictions are becoming the new normal, as cities struggle to adapt to drier and hotter summers, and saltwater intrusion in low-lying aquifers, due to sea-level rise, threaten freshwater sources.

And while urban populations continue to expand and a growing number of people gain access to clean water for their daily needs, improvements in water efficiency by, for example, improving water distribution systems, combined with smart water delivery and metering technologies, will be essential.

As will our own contribution to saving every precious drop.

 

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