The answer to the question above boils down to numbers in the final analysis.
With more than half of the world's population already based in urban areas the additional demand for core services such as water is overtaxing capacities for water supply and disposal in many of the world's larger cities.
And the problem is only going to get worse. The proportion of the world's population that will be based in urban areas, particularly in developing economies, is set to grow even more over the next two decades.
Water quality in many of these urban areas is already suffering due to huge volumes of sewage and industrial and agricultural wastes (much of it untreated), that is being discharged into the available water systems. As well, it is estimated that upwards of 30 per cent of water supplies in many of the world's major cities is lost due to leakage.
Water Demand is growing faster than supply
Projections suggest that up to two thirds of the world's population may be affected by water stress over the next two decades and without massive improvements in water-use efficiency, countries such as India and China will have huge water deficits.
In flood-prone places, meanwhile, catastrophic flood events normally expected once a century - similar to those recently witnessed in Pakistan and Australia - can now be expected every 20 years instead.
Climate change is also a contributing factor to pending water shortages. Prolonged drought conditions consistent with the impacts of climate change are already evident in Beijing, Southwestern North America (i.e. Mexico City, Los Angeles, etc.) and in urban areas of Southeast Australia.
(See GLOBE-Net article 'How will climate change affect cities? New look at vulnerable waterways for key U.S. cities.')
As a result, many water-exposed companies are increasingly tracking their water consumption and where possible, cutting back on water needed for product manufacturing and distribution.
Smarter Water Management
Smarter water management has become the new imperative in terms of ensuring that available water supplies are used wisely and reused appropriately wherever possible.
Better water management has become particularly essential in the food and drink, chemicals and pharmaceutical sectors, not only to prevent contamination of area aquifers, but also to ensure the continued availability of clean water supplies.
All industries are affected in one way or another by increasing demands for water. Says Nicholas Parker, Chairman of Cleantech Group: 'What people don't often realize is how much water there is in everything we make and buy, from t-shirts to wine.'
'Virtual water' is a term that describes the volume of water 'embedded' in a product during its production. 'A desktop computer, for example, requires 1.5 tonnes (1,500 litres) of water; a pair of denim jeans up to 6 tonnes; a kilogram of wheat 1 tonne; a kilo of chicken 3 to 4 tonnes; a kilo of beef 15 to 30 tonnes.'
Smarter water management means that water systems are increasingly being instrumented, integrated and intelligent. It means that data is gathered constantly on such issues as water quality, leakages in the water distribution system, how water is being used, where water can be safely re-used, etc.
Such smarter water management is generating a fast-growing need for technologies and services to discover, manage, filter, disinfect and/or desalinate water, to improve infrastructure for water distribution, and to reduce water consumption by households, industry and agriculture, the biggest water user by far at 71% worldwide.
For the most part the water technology industry has outperformed most others over the past decade in part due to strong growth drivers, namely:
- The demand for fresh water is growing twice as fast as population growth;
- There is an increasing dependence on non-renewable aquifers for incremental supply;
- Accelerated industry consolidation is underway in key water-related sectors (regional water supply utilities, water treatment sectors, and suppliers of water conservation technologies);
- Aging infrastructure;
- Ongoing investment in conservation; and
- A growing recognition that water issues are a limiting factor for profitability and survival in a wide range of industries.
Businesses and investors have been drawn into the market by these factors as well as by population growth; rising water consumption per capita; aquifer depletion; increasing scarcity of supplies of fresh water; and climate change.
Putting a dollar value on the costs and potential profits associated with maintaining urban water systems is a speculative venture at best.
The Alliance for Water Efficiency pegs the size of the total global water market at US$360 billion, and forecasts it to rise to US$1.6 trillion in 10 years. Much of this market is concentrated in or near urban centers.
Within this macro estimate are numerous sub-markets for pumps, filters, purifiers, meters, and assorted treatment systems that span many markets and regions.
Changing cities to save water
One of the more profound implications of the growing scarcity of clean urban water is the impact it is having on urban form and governance.
The associated business opportunities involve wastewater treatment and transportation systems for domestic, industrial and municipal effluents and storm water; water treatment technologies, including wastewater reuse and recycling; water distribution systems; technologies that track water pollutants; hazardous wastes monitoring and control; and management systems that cover all aspects of water quality protection.
This brings us back to our original question: Who used your water yesterday? New systems for recycling wastewater from domestic activities such as laundry, dishwashing, and bathing are indeed becoming commonplace in many cities. Apartment builders and designers must adapt to new rules that reuse water for other on-site uses such as landscape irrigation or constructed wetlands.
Using reclaimed water that has been treated and recycled for use in agricultural or landscape irrigation, in industry and for non-drinking water purposes in urban areas is widespread in Europe. Such reclaimed water is also being released into rivers to boost water flows, which could help European rivers in water scarce areas achieve an improved ecological status.
Households and industrial consumers can look forward to increasingly expensive water and more restrictions on water use and reuse.
By and large, this will be a small price to pay for the certainty that the water one uses today is safe given that it was used by someone else yesterday.