By Alex Rodriguez
AMAR, Israel — The Arava desert, a salty wasteland dotted with tufts of scrub, gets only about an inch of rain each year. And yet cows lazily low at dairy farms that collectively produce nearly eight million gallons of milk annually. Orange bell peppers flourish in a long swath of greenhouses that skirts the Jordanian border. Kibbutzim with vineyards somehow manage to churn out shiraz and sauvignon blanc, unfazed by the desert sun.
The clusters of farms and wineries in the Arava are a testament to Israel’s acumen in water technology. One of the most parched places on Earth has found a way to beat water woes once so severe that Israel’s national mood rose and fell with the changing level of the Sea of Galilee, one of their most critical water sources.
That expertise helps explain why the University of Chicago sought out Israel’s Ben-Gurion University to help tackle one of the world’s most worrisome problems — water scarcity.
In decades past, oil used to be the commodity that shaped geopolitics, and at times, ignited wars. In coming years, water will be the commodity with that kind of clout.
Water scarcity is a crisis that has begun to have palpable, disturbing implications for much of the globe. By 2030, nearly half of the world’s population will be living in regions saddled with severe water stress, the UN projects. During the last decade, the number of violent confrontations over water issues has risen fourfold, according to the Pacific Institute, a California think-tank that studies global water scarcity.
The University of Chicago is tackling water scarcity because it believes it has a novel approach to the problem — relying on engineering at a molecular level to produce breakthroughs.
“There are shortages of water from the First World to the Third World,” said Steve Sibener, one of the University of Chicago scientists leading the research. “If you look at California, it has been a particularly dry year, and you can see how the whole (U.S.) west and southwest can have boom and bust cycles that are likely to get worse. If you move onto the Middle East and Africa, you understand that water is precious — it’s like gold. It’s the issue of the day.”
In laboratories in Chicago and the Israeli desert, scientists are crafting radical new approaches that may one day rejuvenate the world’s water-starved regions. One project uses a common inkjet printer to apply layers of chemicals to a water filter to repel bacteria and keep the filter clog-free. Another turns radioactive isotopes into tracking devices to trace water movement through aquifers, a development that could lead to the discovery of vast new strata of groundwater. Still another effort strives to create filtering membranes that operate on a molecular level, using electrically charged, cilia-like hairs to repel filter-fouling microbes. The goal is to complete research by the latter part of 2015.
The University of Chicago brings to the collaboration its expertise in molecular engineering, while Ben-Gurion brings its experience of transforming water research into real-life applications in a water-starved nation.
Three-quarters of the world is covered by water, but less than three per cent is fresh water. More than 3.4 million people die each year of diseases related to the lack of safe drinking water such as diarrhea — nine out of 10 of those deaths occur in developing countries. Water scarcity affects at least 700 million people in 43 countries, UN figures show. By 2025, the number of people living in areas without enough water will rise to 1.8 billion people, the UN states. Areas with annual water supplies below 1,000 cubic metres per person are regarded as water-scarce.
The quest to ensure reliable sources of drinking water has stoked discord among nations for millennia — and still does today.
In the Nile Valley, tension has ramped up over a dam the Ethiopians are building that would dramatically cut back the amount of water Egypt gets from the Nile for irrigation and drinking water purposes. In South Asia, the Pakistani government for years has accused India of building hydroelectric dams in the Indus Valley that rob Pakistan of water it needs for farm fields and human consumption.
Water crises aren’t limited to Asia and Africa. In Brazil’s largest city, S£o Paulo, more than half of residents said last fall that they had been hit with water shortages. The drought gripping western U.S. states has robbed that region of 63 trillion gallons of water.
The point man for the University of Chicago is Matthew Tirrell, a professor and founding director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering, who in 2012 approached Ben-Gurion’s Moshe Gottlieb about collaborating on water research…
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