Clean water – a product everyone is thirsting for

Water is one of life's basic necessities. Without water, there would be no life on earth. Nevertheless, the world's water resources are limited, which is why access to water has become one of the key questions humankind must address within the next three decades. At LUT, clean water is one of the four strategic themes of research.

"We are highly motivated to find the right solutions," says Professor Mika Sillanpää.

The lack of water is real

Roughly 70 per cent of the world's surface is water. Only 2-3 per cent of that is fresh, or drinkable water. Further, only one percent of this amount is easily utilisable in rivers and lakes – the rest is in ice caps or glaciers. In other words, people are able to use only one per cent of the global water resources.

Out of that one per cent, agriculture and industry consume the majority; approximately nine tenths. Households are left with one tenth. If we think of the water resources available to humans as a bucket of 10 litres, 9 litres go to agriculture and industry, and only one litre can be shared by the people of the world.

The fresh water resources of the planet are shared by a population of nearly 7.5 billion. An estimated two billion are affected by the lack of clean water. The UN has assessed that by 2025, as many as two thirds of the world's population – a total of five billion – will suffer from a shortage of water.

Money talks

Global water consumption has increased sixfold over the past century. The consumption continues to increase, as the population growth, urbanisation and expanding industry heighten water consumption and pose challenges regarding the availability of water. The climate change produces floods and droughts, triggers changes in precipitation and moisture in the ground, and contributes to the melting of glaciers. 

"Moreover, the water resources are unevenly distributed: Africa, Asia and the Middle East have the least fresh water, whereas Scandinavia and Canada have it in abundance and have arranged its consumption in a sustainable way," Sillanpää points out.

Fresh water is a renewable natural resource, but it renews all too slowly compared to its consumption. Therefore, we must find ways to make sure there is enough fresh water to go around for the world's population.

The efficient use of fresh water is not sufficient on its own. We also need ways to recycle and reuse water and remove salt from sea water. In other words, a bioeconomy – an economy based on renewable resources – a circular economy and novel clean technology go hand in hand.

The technologies to solve the matter already exist. Nearly any water can be purified for drinking, but it comes with a price tag.

"The technologies to solve the matter already exist. Nearly any water can be purified for drinking, but it comes with a price tag. The greatest challenge is to guide the water into the right place at the right time. All other problems related to clean water stem from this issue," Sillanpää explains.

Indeed, there are more than a few problems: on the one hand, industrial sewage needs to be cleaned and recycled, and on the other, third-world sanitary issues easily spread diseases as feces pollute water resources. Pesticides and fertilizers in agriculture, mining, air pollution and different accidents also pollute waters.

Water – a motive for wars?

As there is less clean water to go around, the competition for the existing water resources intensifies. The management of the world's water resources and the availability of water are more frequently setting off conflicts between nations. Water shortages lead to conflicts especially in areas that depend on their neighbouring areas for water.

One reason is the climate change, which has already changed water circulation so that many formerly fertile farmlands are no longer as productive. The lack of water and food lead to disturbances, and as a result, people seek refuge in areas with better resources.

"In the future, we will encounter more migration resulting from climate change. Global migration related to the availability of clean water is likely to grow tenfold."

Sillanpää knows what he is talking about: he has explored areas in Africa and Asia, and for example leads a multinational research project in Tibet, studying the impacts of climate change on glaciers and water quality in the Himalayas. Asia's eight largest rivers originate from the Tibetan Plateau and influence a third of the world's population.

Is humanity condemned to suffer from the water it has polluted? No.

According to Sillanpää, the possibilities to find solutions to water shortages often depend on whether water is seen as a product or a fundamental right. The circular economy is one way to approach the issue.

The UN General Assembly declared clean water as a human right in 2010. In Sillanpää's opinion, considering clean water as a product provides a more direct solution. This dichotomy has awakened much debate in Finland and even globally.

I see water as a product. I believe it is the way to achieve better solutions and reach a more equitable outcome.

"I see water as a product. I believe it is the way to achieve better solutions and reach a more equitable outcome."

In other words, Sillanpää means that the position of water as one of the resources in a circular economy creates a better backdrop for solving the global water crisis than water regulation dictated from the top down. A circular economy reuses old products, recycles them and creates new products from existing raw materials and waste. This type of thinking should also be applied to water and its treatment.

However, the role of water in a circular economy is not evident: for example, in Finland the easy availability and low cost of clean water and the excessively low pricing of sewage hardly motivate companies to conserve water and clean wastewater where it originates. Here, the economic aspect plays a key role. In a circular economy, water should have the right position and price

Sillanpää heads the LUT Laboratory of Green Chemistry, which is part of Finland's largest academic water research cluster, operating at LUT. The laboratory's research focuses especially on the purification of chemical, forest, and mining industry sewage and water circulations. It also seeks solutions to water treatment in the food and pharmaceutical industries

Solutions include new separation and purification methods and ecological technologies. They help to reduce water consumption, produce fresh drinking water and clean wastewaters so that they do not pollute water systems.

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Mika Sillanpää, Professor in Green Chemistry, +358 400 205 215, firstname.lastname@lut.fi
Research Gate

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