Water everywhere, and nowhere

It’s interesting, I didn’t realize it until they were published back-to-back, but two stories I wrote recently — one published Sunday and the other Monday — demonstrate the critical importance of water and how the world is filled with those who have lots of it and those who have little, if any.

The first was a first-person piece about an exclusive tour I had of the Niagara Tunnel Project, which is using the world’s largest hard-rock boring machine to crush through more than 10 kilometres of Silurian rock under the city of Niagara Falls. The purpose of the project is to divert more water from the Niagara river for electricity generation. Apparently, Canada — under a bilateral treaty with the United States — wasn’t using its fair share of the resource so the Ontario government decided there was no better time than now to put that water to good use. It reminded me how lucky Canadians are in having such a vast supply of fresh water. The Great Lakes alone represent a lion’s share, and this excludes the thousands and thousands of smaller lakes scattered throughout Canada.

My second piece highlighted the other extreme — the fact that 20 per cent of Asians have no access to fresh water and that one third of the world’s population is in some way affected by water scarcity. This situation, as company’s such as General Electric have pointed out, will be a trigger in the future for civil and cross-border wars, and indeed, is already the source of conflict in many Central Asian countries. It’s why water technologies are going to play an increasingly important role in the world, and why companies such as GE have been aggressively consolidating the industry — most recently with its purchase of Oakville, Ontario-based Zenon Technologies. On the innovation front, one company I mention in the piece is Toronto-based Mobile Cube Corp., which is attempting to commercialize “water supply for a village in a box.” Specifically, the product is a portable water-filtration system developed in Switzerland that’s powered by a small wind turbine and foldout solar panels. It weighs only 850 kilograms, can be transported on the back of a big pickup truck, and after a two-hour setup can start generating up to 20 kilowatt-hours a day of electricity — enough to produce up to 20,000 litres of pure drinking water from sewage or 3,000 litres from seawater through desalinization. At a cost of $50,000, it could be a low-cost way for some struggling villages to get access to clean water without the need to lay expensive infrastructure, such as pipelines and transmission.