Rethinking the Water Cycle

How moving to a circular economy can preserve our most vital resource

Three billion people will join the global consumer class over the next two decades, accelerating the degradation of natural resources and escalating competition for them. Nowhere is this growing imbalance playing out more acutely than the water sector. Already, scarcity is so pronounced that we cannot reach many of our desired economic, social, and environmental goals. If we continue business as usual, global demand for water will exceed viable resources by 40 percent by 2030.

Many experts have claimed that wasteful treatment of water results from dysfunctional political or economic systems and ill-defined markets. But the real issue is that water has been pushed into a linear model in which it becomes successively more polluted as it travels through the system, rendering future use impossible. This practice transforms our most valuable and universal resource into a worthless trickle, creating high costs for subsequent users and society at large. Since the linear model is economically and environmentally unsustainable, we must instead view water as part of a circular economy, where it retains full value after each use and eventually returns to the system. And rather than focus solely on purification, we should attempt to prevent contamination or create a system in which water circulates in closed loops, allowing repeated use. These shifts will require radical solutions grounded in a complete mind-set change, but they must happen immediately, given the urgency of the situation.

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