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October 16, 2008

A Complex System

Singapore rests at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It is a 700 square kilometer island city-state that is blessed with a world-class shipping port, an industrious and innovative workforce, and absolutely no natural freshwater resources of any kind. None. Zero.

Yet somehow, despite a complete lack of this most basic resource, this tiny island nation has not only survived but thrived since it gained independence in 1963. In fact, it has been called the “hydro-hub” of the world, boasting some of the most sophisticated technologies and systems designed to collect, treat, and reuse water supplies.

Today, through a so-called “four-tap” approach, Singapore boasts sufficient water supplies for its more-than 4 million citizens and multi-billion-dollar industries. It uses a water catchment system that collects rainwater from nearly half the land area of the island, recycling facilities that produce NEWater (a branded product for both potable and industrial use), some of the largest desalination plants in the world, and a continuing but diminishing import strategy from its neighboring Malaysia.

That’s why the Global Innovation Outlook held simultaneous deep dives on both fresh and oceanic water systems yesterday. And the results were what you would expect from this hotbed of hydrology. The meetings drew from the considerable water expertise around Southeast Asia. Business, academic, and government leaders from Singapore, Vietnam, The Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, India, China and Indonesia were engaged in two different discussions on two seemingly different topics. But in the end, they both said the same thing.

“These are not separated systems,” said one participant. “We need to connect all the dots, and start treating these problems in a holistic way.” Indeed, though much of the scientific and academic communities have often approached the challenges of fresh and ocean water as two distinct areas of study, the feeling among this group was that those days are over.

The intricacies and interdependencies of the world’s water systems have come into shocking relief in just the last few decades. Rivers that are damned and drawn down never reach the sea, creating massive repercussions to oceanic ecosystems and impacting fisheries and food supplies. Runoff from agricultural and domestic land uses of freshwater remake entire coastal zones in a matter of years. Groundwater aquifers are invaded and spoiled by seawater in coastal municipalities, necessitating drastic and urgent action to protect the drinking supply.

The list goes on. Up to now, we had been calling these points of intersection between fresh and salt water systems “convergence.” But in truth, this is not the right word at all, for these systems were never divergent in the first place. They are, of course, all part of the same closed system, and any action taken against one will invariably have a major impact on the other.

Indeed, we must approach water issues in a holistic, integrated manner. In fact, many participants pointed to the fact that we cannot simply (or not so simply) try to address the challenges facing the world’s water systems. We must also understand the complex relationship water systems have on climate change, energy production, and agriculture. For example, desalination has allowed many water-strained cities to survive, but the process is excessively energy intensive, has major impacts on greenhouse gases, and increases the salinity of the adjacent sea water. As usual, there are no easy answers.

Water, food, energy, and climate. These are all complex, inextricably linked systems that require smarter management. Any attempt to address one cannot be taken seriously without taking each of them into account. And when viewed in this way, the challenge ahead of is undeniably daunting. But as one GIO participant reminded us: “You cannot try to swallow an elephant. You must eat it one bite at a time.”

Check back for more specific examples of which bites to take first. We had some fruitful discussions on sustainable agriculture, supplying water in developing countries, and advances that can be made in the global shipping industry. And next week we’ll visit Dubai, where desalination is king.

October 16, 2008 in Water and the Oceans | Permalink


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Nice post. Think of water as an ecological -- not engineered -- good.

Posted by: David Zetland | Nov 20, 2008 7:23:16 PM

wow! thanks for this informative post! this was just last 2007 and now its 2010 there were a lot of changes in the world today. wew!

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