Sites in emerging markets anticipate severe shortages of drinking water, but so do regions in Europe, South America and Australia. Nearly half of the hospital beds in the world host people with waterborne diseases. Meanwhile, water consumption continues to escalate.
To top it off, we waste a lot of water. Nearly 60 percent of the drinking water in Chicago never makes it to the tap. It leaks out first.
The crisis, however, has drawn the attention of several start-ups and large conglomerates such as Siemens and General Electric. Some of the solutions to the world's water problems sound both obvious and brilliant.
In India, for instance, some builders are erecting apartment buildings without pipes for drinking water--instead, residents will get water from mobile purification units. Researchers are also trying to improve desalination membranes to turn sea water into drinking water.
Jeff Fulgham, chief marketing officer for GE's Water and Process Technologies, sat down with CNET News.com recently in Palm Desert, Calif.--a desert that's been turned into an artificial garden through irrigation--to talk about how bad the water problem is. He discussed GE's water technology shared his views on how future communities will be organized to help solve the problem.
Q: How large is GE's water business, and what areas do you primarily concentrate on?
Fulgham: We're about at $2.5 billon in (annual) revenue and growing at a pretty high trajectory. (CEO) Jeff Immelt says he thinks we need to be a $10 billion business, but the timeline isn't tight on that.
GE got into this space in 1999 with the acquisition of Glegg, a small Canadian company, and actually, we weren't even that interested in getting in the water space in a big way. It was more as an adjunct to the energy business, the gas turbine business. It was making a lot of money and one of the necessary pieces of equipment was the water system. Glegg made pure-water systems for the power industry. Then we looked at the space, and we started thinking "Wow, this is an interesting place to be."
So the next acquisition, in 2002, was BetzDearborn. At the time, it was a $900 million to a billion-dollar business specializing in industrial water treatment. The key to that business was 25,000 highly educated engineers on the ground around the world.
The next acquisition was Osmonics, which is into specialty membranes. In the dairy industry, they use membranes to separate protein out of milk before cheese is made. It's used in mining to remove caustics. Then the next acquisition was Ionics in 2004, which got us into desalination in a big way.
Then we had one missing link, which was this new hollow-fiber technology. With hollow-fiber technology, you can purify water unlike anything else. You can prevent bacterium and other things from passing through this membrane. We have waste treatment plants now that are physically located in a 2,000-square-foot home in a subdivision. You'd never know the waste treatment plant is there, so it allows us to do some distributed water treatment that we were never able to do before.
Q: How bad is the world's water situation?
Fulgham: It's bad and getting worse. Right now, there are roughly a billion people around the world that have an inadequate supply of fresh water. By 2025, the total is projected to be over 3 billion from a combination of depleting sources of water, pollution and population growth. It's a really tough situation, and unfortunately, water scarcity is the worst in those areas of the world that can least afford to do something about it: sub-Saharan Africa, India, China.
Q: A lot of people assume the problem is confined to those countries, but the first world faces challenges too, correct?
Fulgham: Look around. We're sitting here, and there is green grass, a lake, trees. Palm Desert is the result only of water being sucked out of the ground and desalinated. This is not natural.
Q: You mentioned Sydney, Australia, earlier as one place where it's particularly bad.
Fulgham: Sydney--and Eastern Australia in general--is in a terrible situation. If you think about all the lakes, rivers and well water--all the fresh water, forget about ocean water--in and around Sydney as one big giant lake, that lake is at 38 percent of full pool.
They have not had the rain or runoff needed, so they are in a desperate situation. They know when they reach about 30 percent, that's where massive curtailment will start.
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