Water essays: #3.2, India observations

I’m over halfway through my water journey, and I wanted to post about some of the big problems I’ve seen and discussed while here. This is not an exhaustive list, but certainly some of the important things people are discussing.


Where – regional
Lack of information on where water is, where it’s flowing, and how much will be replenished by natural sources, either to the ground or from rainfall.

Where – last mile/infrastructure
Surprising lack of information on the actual physical location of water infrastructure. Instead of looking at civil engineering plans, the general MO is to just dig up the ground and see where the main is. Also, virtually no water metering except in advanced campuses or in pilot programs in cities.

Big problem around leaks and leak detection. Some estimates show Delhi losing 60% of its water in the city through leaks or theft. That’s a lot, but people don’t have a good system in place to a) detect those leaks and b) fix them.

Water quality testing happens on a piecemeal and intermittent basis, so there’s not always a reliable understanding of what sort of contaminants are in which water sources. Also, the information is somewhat unreliable, as some independent groups will come in and test a region for arsenic, while the government will deny there is actually arsenic there.

Both electricity and water are not available 24/7 in most places in India. As such, knowing when you will have either is a big problem. Companies like NextDrop are trying to tackle this problem.

Groundwater mapping is difficult in rural areas because famers don’t want to give up info and don’t want to subject themselves to monitoring by the government (there’s a similar problem in the US). Water and electricity is ostensibly free for irrigation, so why would farmers want to let anyone come in and monitor that?

How much is enough (for farmers)
Farmers either don’t understand how much water is the right amount for crop growing, or just leave the pumps turned on because they only get electricity for a few hours a day. Either way, it is likely that most farmers are overwatering their crops by a large margin.

The also are some perverse incentives in place that cause farmers to want to pull groundwater to grow rice/wheat when instead they could use rainwater to grow something like millet or sorghum. Chiefly, capital and a guaranteed buyer (the government) is available for groundwater/rice combo investments, but neither for the latter systems.

Usage (and prioritization)

Agriculture – overuse
The lion’s share of India’s water is used for irrigation. As such, groundwater levels in productive agricultural regions drop considerably during the dry months.

Water rights and prioritization
Urban areas get higher prioritization for water – they need more because they have sewage systems and need the water to keep things flowing. Even moreso, farmers often get priority for water because they are such a strong political force.

Regional flow and water management
Inter-state water flow has been a big source of internal conflict in India, where one state upstream will choose to build a dam or divert a large portion of a river’s water for their own economic advancement (factories, powerplants, irrigation), and the city downstream will be left dry, or with only highly polluted effluent from upstream. There doesn’t seem to be a great system in place to resolve these inter-state water management issues right now.


Contamination is relatively new…
An interesting revelation I made a few weeks ago – contamination, especially non-biological, is a relatively new phenomenon in India. Naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride are a product of tapping contaminated groundwater sources because the surface water is too contaminated with biological contamination. Other heavy metals and chemicals are a product of industrial waste. Nitrates are a product of fertilizer use.

Human pollution
The human waste factor is huge, especially with a nation full of open-defecation and open-sewage systems. The Ganges, near Varanasi, has levels of fecal-coliform levels sometimes 300,000 times higher than what is deemed safe by international standards. It’s estimated that almost 3 billion liters of human waste is discharged into the Ganges daily.

Building code in big cities like Delhi mandate that large commercial buildings or residencies have zero liquid waste discharge. This law is largely ignored/bypassed, save for a few shining examples like Infosys.

Ag runoff
A negative externality of the green revolution (that has helped provide food for India’s exploding population) is the fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide runoff into both surface water and ground water sources. Many areas have groundwater contaminated with unsafe levels of sulfates and nitrates from fertilizer. Rivers and lakes are similarly contaminated downstream.

Industrial pollution
All sorts of chemicals from untreated waste effluent enter the surface and ground water. High levels of chromium and other chemicals from industry turn some lakes vibrant colors. Waste water is legally regulated but there is little to no enforcement.

Overall poor potable water quality
For the wealthy, water from the municipality or from groundwater sources is treated with an in-home RO system; it’s generally considered unhealthy to drink. I measured the TDS from tap water in most places I visited and it ranged from 900ppm to over 2500ppm. Acc to the EPA, a TDS reading of 500ppm is considered unsafe for human consumption, and most tap water in the US is ~100-200ppm. What is in it? I don’t know entirely, but it’s a lot of salts, hardness (Ca+), minerals, and other contaminants mentioned before. In Kolkata, my skin was salty after taking a shower – as if I had jumped into the ocean.


Spatial and seasonal variability
India, as a whole, has plenty of water per-capita (though this is changing over time and won’t be the case in a few years). The problem in India is that there are large geographic variations in water resources (Rajasthan, desert, vs West Bengal, marsh). More than that, the rainfall comes in bursts in the monsoon season. As such, you get 3 or 4 months of heavy rain, then nothing the rest of the year. Rainwater harvesting seems to be a very attractive opportunity here, which is something I hadn’t really given much thought to in the US (since we don’t have a monsoon cycle).

Electronic city example
A few years ago in the Electronic City, outside Bangalore, the city was without water for a week. A week! So, major tech offices in the area like HP and Wipro had to shut down business for that whole week. The only place that remained open was the Infosys HQ – the campus had enough storage and waste recycling facilities to stay open without missing a step, even for the large population at that campus (~30,000). As such, businesses now see water (and energy) security as a business risk.

Dropping groundwater
Contaminated surface water has driven those who have the money to tap groundwater sources for fresh water. This wouldn’t be an issue if there were comparable recharge – but there is not. So, in big cities like Delhi and Bangalore, groundwater tables are dropping rapidly, down several hundred feet in some areas. Similarly, in highly productive arid regions like Rajasthan or Punjab, the same issue exists – overdrawing groundwater is making it more expensive, and dropping tables are allowing mineral seepage of arsenic and other dangerous chemicals. Some places are even tapping hard-rock aquifers, which is troublesome – hard rock aquifers are ancient underground sources that don’t get naturally replenished. It’s like drilling for oil – once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Rivers are drying up
It’s tragic, in a nation that literally worships the rivers, mismanagement is causing many of them to dry up and stop flowing.

Muni’s don’t have 24×7 water
According to a panel on municipal water in Delhi, not a single city in India has 24×7 continuous piped water. That really surprised me. Some cities are beginning pilots now in small districts, but it will be a long time before this is ubiquitous. As such, residents are forced to drill borewells (dropping groundwater levels) and have roof-top storage tanks.


Tech doesn’t make sense for india
I was speaking with a private company in Punjab selling treated water for a profit. We were discussing their financials, and he kept mentioning how electricity was their biggest cost component. Since they don’t need consistent electricity to power their system, I asked why they didn’t consider a solar-based solution, which would pay off over time and be cheaper than the local utility’s power. I didn’t expect his answer: “Because it will get stolen overnight.” Ah, right.

Another anecdote about solar – I was in a bus in UP and I saw a big solar array on the top of a government building. Unfortunately, it was covered by maybe a quarter-inch of dust and overgrown by a plant. I’d say the array, if functional at all, could produce at 5% its potential.

And yet, public perception is king. Lower-income people (who have some knowledge of their poor water quality) want RO treated water, even in places where it is unnecessary to treat with an RO system; they want it because that’s what rich people have in their homes. This drives up the cost of treated water in locations where it could be much cheaper.


Seems to be a bit of a gap in mid-level financing for water projects. Many people I spoke with pointed to lack of access to capital (at a $1k-100k level) as the reason why a project didn’t get off the ground. I am skeptical that capital was the primary reason, but it’s still an interesting perspective.

As with any emerging market, especially one as big as India, getting goods and services through to the last mile is notoriously hard. And yet, Coke and Nokia and Tata Sky (dish TV) are everywhere. Ask someone in a general store in a rural area (where they sell water filters and solar lanterns and books and food) what their largest seller is. It’s probably Garnier Fructis, because people want to look like bollywood stars. Distribution might be more of a push vs pull problem than a logistics problem, if you ask me.

Community engagement/management
For any rural water project to be successful, getting the community involved in the whole process is mandatory. I don’t have the data, but I’m sure one would be hard-pressed to find an example of any development project that was just dropped off in a rural village and ended up being successful. The villages I visited in Punjab, UP and WB all had great community engagement programs, with most of the water treatment facilities being managed directly by people using the systems.

Government enforcement and corruption
India actually has very good water regulations, but the enforcement is virtually non-existent (as with most of their laws). Many of these issues can be traced back to a local politician’s eternal pursuit of reelection. Or, a pursuit of lining one’s own pockets.

Education around health, water and sanitation is severely lacking in India. Most people don’t understand the root of disease – they think they get sick because of a change in weather, or because of some karmic backlash. Starting in schools and educating young people on bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins, etc – and what to do to keep from getting sick – should be a national priority.

Posted in Water

Water Essays: #3.1, Water in India update

Quick update from my first two weeks in India. (If you weren’t aware, I’m in India and China for Sept-Nov to study water issues on the ground and to talk with leaders in each country about how they plan on addressing their growing water scarcity).

First of all, everyone has an opinion on water. Most people know this is an issue, from the taxi drivers to tech entrepreneurs. And, as I’m constantly told, “it’s a state subject,” meaning it’s under the power of the state governments.


Dirty water

The most immediate problem India faces is more of a water quality and disease issue. 21% of India’s diseases are water related.

In 2010, only 31% of the country had access to “improved sanitation,” defined as one that hygenically separates human waste from human contact. This isn’t surprising, seeing as half of India, 626 million people, still practice open defecation.


There is enough water

There just isn’t water in the right places at the right time. India has a monsoon cycle, as well as wet and dry parts of the county. The result is some places having a ton of water sometimes, and other places not having enough water most of the time.

Part of the problem is that there is no good system in place to measure water quantity and quality throughout the country, so the central planners and managers couldn’t accurately do their job if they wanted to.

There was actually a crazy plan not too long ago to connect India’s rivers in the National River Linking Plan. They wanted to link up India’s rivers to increase capacity and storage for national water resources. This would obviously be very costly (>$140bn) and would take an incredible amount of energy to maintain (the water would have to be pumped uphill to get to Southern India) and would take a long time to build, not to mention the unknown ecological impacts of linking up an entire nation’s water supplies. Needless to say, the project hasn’t gotten started yet.


Storing water

Water storage on a national level seems to be a big area for improvement in India, in spite of the hundreds of dams that have already been built.

Water storage on an individual level is also quite common. Most buildings have rooftop water tanks that store water when they have access to it from the utility (because water doesn’t flow 24/7, and sometimes it doesn’t flow for days). This is frankly an issue I hadn’t even thought of, and presents a whole new set of challenges and opportunties.

There are some initiatives around rainwater harvesting that seem to be popular amongst the academic crowd, but I haven’t seen any systems in place yet. More on rainwater harvesting some other time.


Ag is the elephant in the room

Water for irrigation makes up the majority of water consumption in India. By some estimates, agriculture and livestock make up 90% of the water consumption in India, though it’s very hard to properly measure.

From conversations I’ve had with people, it seems that agriculture is consuming a tremendous amount of water for a few reasons.

First, there are just a lot of people in India, and so a lot of food needs to be produced (and some reports say that 40% of food rots between farm and market). Food and food security is an important political topic, especially now that the government is proposing very heavy food subsidies for India’s poor (conveniently enough just before the next election!).

Most farming is also done on the small scale – for better or worse, the large corporate farms that we have in the US haven’t quite caught on in India. This means that most farming is done by individuals or families, on a few acres. This is both inefficient and makes accountability a nightmare.

On top of that, farmers effectively get free water from the government, either from surface water canals or from groundwater that they can pump, without monitoring. Most pumping in the country is done with electric pumps, and the electricity provided for those pumps is, you guessed it, free. So, in a place like Rajasthan, a desert, you have great agricultural production because you have free water. And you have a rapidly dropping groundwater table, because everyone pumps from the ground with no limits and no measurement. Groundwater depletion is arguably the most pressing issue facing India today.

And, ag production is, as far as I can tell, not taxed.

Also, roughly 65% of the population is directly or indirectly in the agriculture or food processing business. So, politically it’s a landmine.


Government could, but doesn’t, solve the problem

Water is nominally the responsibility of the state goverments and the municipal corporations. The Indian government is well-equipped to be able to provide clean water to everyone in the nation – but it isn’t doing that. Why not?

I don’t have a great answer, and neither does anyone I’ve talked to. The obvious common response is that the government is inept and corrupt. I don’t have enough information to prove or disprove that, but it’s certainly a popular opinion.

I think the bigger issue is that water isn’t top of mind for the majority of the country that is most affected by it.


There is a lot of apathy and ignorance around water

This is something I hadn’t really thought much about, but makes total sense. ~75% of India’s population lives on less than $2.50/day, and people are more concerned about pulling themselves out of poverty than investing in water resources. Thus, policies prioritize economic growth, which is more popular amongst the lower classes.

Since rural Indians are such a political force, you would think that if they knew and cared about access to reliable clean water and sanitation, then the government would do something about it. But getting people to care about an issue they don’t understand is like pushing a rope.

Health, in general, is something that is profounding unsophisticated in India. People just don’t understand how they get sick (they think it’s a natural thing, or has to do with the weather, or the gods). So, it’s no wonder that 75% of Indians think they have clean water in their homes, while 75% of Indian villages and cities have contaminated water.


Contamination is a relatively new issue

Yes, there have been water born diseases in the past (though some would argue to a lesser extent), but now there are a multitude of new contaminants, largely from the idustrialization of India – human waste, agriculture waste products (nitrates), industrial chemicals, salt water intrution. Therefore, it’s not crazy to expect large swaths of the country to not understand why they shouldn’t drink the water.

And even the utilities don’t provide clean water to people. There are a multitude of water borne diseases present in the tap water, even in upscale New Delhi, and the salt and metal content is decidedly unsafe. I have been testing water around the city, and in the two nice places I’ve stayed in South Delhi, they have had a TDS reading of 750 and 920 ppm. For reference, tap water in SF is ~100 ppm, RO filtered water is around 40 ppm, and the EPA’s max contamination level for water is 500 ppm. Unfortunately, my little handheld conductivity tester didn’t tell me what was in the water, but it’s probably salts, metals, fluoride, etc. Stuff that I want to be drinking? No thank you.

Wealthy people have in-home water purifiers. They are $100-300, usually reverse osmosis treatment devices, but they are very wasteful (they usually only turn 25% of the water used into drinkable water, the rest is sent down the drain).


Privatization might be an option

Now, there are some people talking about privatization of water. This is a very controversial topic, with many examples worldwide of successful and unsuccessful privatizations. But, let’s at least look at what happened in Delhi with privatization of electricity. Delhi had nationally run electricity utilities, but there was very poor reliability (maybe 2 hrs/day of electricity) and sometimes long blackouts. But, it was cheap! Enter the private sector, who took over electricity distribution. Prices went up (maybe 200%) but reliability also increased dramatically. Now, you still have frequent power outages, but it’s not uncommon to have electricity 24hrs in a day.

Electricity and water are obviously different beasts, and water is an especially touchy subject in India (“it’s a state subject”), but perhaps some involvement by an accountable, profit-seeking private sector would be an improvement over the largely inept government.

And there are already private sector players moving in – the eHealth Point and Sarvajal companies are providing clean water through micro-utilities or “water ATMs.” They are providing a for-profit model that sells water at a higher price than goverment utilities, but it is reliable and clean, and people are willing to pay additional money for that security. I will get to see a few of these installations in my time here, and will report back on what I observe.


That’s all for now! Stay tuned.

Posted in Water

Water Essays: #2 Domestic Water Challenges


There are few large countries in the world that, as a whole, have better municipal water quality, infrastructure reach, and natural water resources than the US. 99% of the population has piped water access, the US is a net-exporter of water, and residential water prices are much lower than most developed countries.

The trouble is that the US is a huge country, and the fact that there are plentiful rainfall and groundwater reserves in the Northeast don’t mean that farmers and cities in the West and South can get access to that water. There are already a number of water stressed states, including the two most populous: California and Texas.

Furthermore, little of that vast infrastructure network has been updated in a long, long time. As the Boston Water Crisis of 2010 and again in late 2012 demonstrated, this infrastructure is in need of a refresh. As Upmanu Lall from Columbia Water Center said: “If you add up all the water infrastructure in the country, almost $1.5 trillion needs to be spent on water infrastructure in the next 20 years. We have made almost no investments in water infrastructure since the Reagan administration. Something needs to be done about it.”

So let’s talk about these issues and more. We’ll then look at the US water market and identify a few interesting challenges that will change the landscape over the next 10-50 years.


In 2005, the USGS put together a report on *extracted* water use in the US (note: this doesn’t include non-extracted water (rain, primarily), which makes up a large percentage of agricultural water use when available in wetter parts of the country). Almost half of the total extracted water is used for thermoelectric power production – water cooling for power plants (this is especially extreme in the Eastern states where they use less water for agriculture and have primarily thermoelectric power portfolios).Water consumption by state

The breakdown in consumption of water withdrawals looks like this:

  • Thermoelectric – 49%**
  • Irrigation (for ag) – 31%
  • Public Supply (58% of this is for domestic use, the rest is commercial, industrial and other uses) – 11%
  • Self-supply industrial – 4%
  • Lifestock and aquacultre – 3%
  • Self-supply domestic (14% of the US population gets its water from self-supply, nearly all of that is groundwater) – 1%
  • Mining – 1%

**An important note: the vast majority (92%) of the water used in thermoelectric systems is used for once-through cooling (in open-loop, water cooled plants, typically coal, nuclear, and natural gas combined cycle). That means the water is removed from a river or lake, passed through the power plant to cool it, and then put right back in the river or lake at a higher temperature, with usually only 1% of the water actually consumed in the process.

Many consumption reports remove open-loop thermoelectric consumption from their breakdown. Using the USGS data, we would get: 66% of water is used for irrigation, livestock and aquaculture; 15% is used for domestic; 19% is used for commercial, industrial and mining. I prefer to include open-loop system; while they don’t necessarily remove water from the ecosystem, the systems still require water for operation. This affects planning and capacity decisions for electric utilities, something we’ll discuss later in this post.

Where does that water come from? 80% of the total water was surface water (rivers and lakes), 20% was pulled from groundwater aquifers. Out of that, 85% was fresh water and 15% was salty water (most of the salty water extracted was for thermoelectric cooling – e.g. power plants on the coast).

On a per capita basis, the US withdraws ~1300 gal/day for every American. Americans directly use almost 100 gal/day in residential water use (think about that – that’s 100 1 gallon milk jugs you use every day in fresh water – imagine if you had to go to the store and buy that every day, like some Californians are forced to do). That consumption is also a bit more than most other developed nations.

Daily domestic water use

70% of direct residential use is indoors. As you can see in the graph below, that’s predominantly used in toilets, clothes washers, showers, faucets and leaks. According to the EPA, older toilets use between 3.5 and 7 gallons of water per flush, and a leaky toilet can waste about 200 gallons of water every day.

US Indoor water consumption

The good news is we’re much more water efficient than we used to be. According to the Pacific Institute’s analysis on these data from the 2005 USGS report:

  • Total water use in the U.S. in 2005 is lower than it was in 1975.
  • Per-capita water use in the U.S. in 2005 is lower than it has been since the mid-1950s.
  • U.S. water use, per person, peaked in 1975 at 1944 gallons per person per day and has now dropped to 1383 g/p/d.
  • Household water use is growing at the same rate as national population. Improvements in water-use efficiency in homes are being balanced by a shift in population to hotter, drier regions.
  • The economic productivity of water (dollars of Gross Domestic Product per unit of water used) is higher than it has ever been: it has nearly tripled since the 1970s, to $8.45 of GDP produced per hundred gallons used from only $3.18 in 1975 (in 2005 dollars).

US Per Capita Water Withdrawals Economic productivity of water

Regional water concerns

There are a variety of different water issues across the US. The industrial Northeast and Midwest dealt with water pollution in the past, and now they are dealing with controversial frack water contamination and aging infrastructure. The Southwest is a desert with a booming population. California has plenty of water up north but tries to grow food for all the nation in the arid central valley and has the vast majority of its population living in the south on imported water. Texas has lots of groundwater it the Ogallala aquifer but it’s depleting rapidly (and the booming parts of the state are outside the border of this aquifer), and the most recent record-breaking drought has rocked the country’s 2nd largest agricultural producer.

What’s truly surprising is that even in the typically water rich Northeast, water shortages are starting to reveal themselves. Boston, which typically gets 4 feet of rainfall a year, is starting to desalinate 4 million gallons of brackish water every day to supply the city. Even areas around the Great Lakes are starting to become concerned about water – the new Great Lakes Compact was formed to protect that watershed and prevent any exports out of the region. Some experts call this a new era of water scarcity in the US.

Regional stress

So how are different regions going to be affected? A few maps tell the story in different ways. The big takeaway – regions outside of the Pacific Northwest, along the Mississippi River, or Maine are in areas of current or future water stress.

The non-profit research group Ceres reported on the effect of water scarcity on the US natural gas industry:

US Water Map Ceres Hydraulic Fracturing Natural Gas

The two maps below show the regional impact of the two highest water use sectors overlaid on areas of water scarcity.

Water stress and irrigation US Water and power plants US

And this is how it’s going to look in the future with the added stress of climate change:

Water stress in the US by 2050

Another way to look at water stress is to look at specifically the historical climate record or a region. According to Lall, the areas that have the highest Normalized Deficit Cumulated (NDC) Index:

  • Washington DC metro area
  • New York metro area
  • California area, from San Diego to Santa Barbara and inland
  • Agricultural belt: Dakotas
  • Agricultural belt: Nebraska
  • Illinois
  • Lower Mississippi belt: Arkansas area
  • Agricultural belt: North Texas
  • Agricultural regions in Ohio
  • Agricultural regions in Minnesota

A great infographic showing this water stress by NDC can be found here.

An explanation of the Normalized Deficit Cumulated Index:

Two risk metrics were developed to capture the influence of within year dry periods (Normalized Deficit Index – NDI) and of drought across years (Normalized Deficit Cumulated – NDC). The NDI is computed as one number for each year using historical daily rainfall data for the area and current daily water needs. It measures the maximum cumulated water shortage each year during the dry period that needs to be provided for from ground water or from surface water storage or transfers from other areas.

The NDC is computed as one number over the historical climate record. It represents the largest cumulative deficit between renewable supply and water use over the entire period. Consequently, it reflects the stress associated with multi-year and within-year drought impacts at a location. Given that 60 years of historical climate data were used, the maximum of the NDI (i.e. the worst single year), and the NDC (i.e., the effect of a string of bad years) may have an average recurrence interval of approximately 60 years. The NDI data provides insights into other recurrence intervals as well.

Examples of Specific Challenges:

Let’s look in brief at some specific challenges faced domestically. There is a notable emphasis on Texas an California for several reasons: they are two of the most historically water stressed states with water-heavy industries, and they are the two most populous states (together making up 20% of the total US population) with the highest GDPs (together making up 22% of the total US GDP). This article from Yahoo Finance highlights some of the challenges that the biggest US cities face (and, not surprisingly, CA and TX are prominently featured).


Water issues start at the source – how to secure a reliable supply of fresh water. The US as a whole doesn’t have a water supply shortage; about 20% of the world’s fresh surface water is found in the Great Lakes – which make up about 95% of the fresh water in the US – but only a small percentage of the population has access to this water. Roughly 2/3 of Americans get their drinking water from surface water (reservoirs, rivers, lakes) and the other 1/3 get their water from groundwater.

  • Surface water shortages – Parts of the country are seeing diminished surface water from droughts, climate change and overuse. A classic example is what happened with Mono Lake and Owens Lake, both victims of overdrawing for LA’s booming population in the mid-20th century (Owens Lake is now the largest single source of dust pollution in the country).

    Then there’s the fight over the Colorado river, which is being overdrawn to the point that it no longer flows to Mexico, let alone to the ocean. Mexico is, understandably, not happy about this situation, and after years of international legal battles, the US and Mexico finally are working together to manage the Colorado River.

    The USGS has some great tools for tracking surface water conditions across the US. Learn more about stream flows, droughts and flood risks here.

    The University of Texas also did a nice recap on the devastating 2011 drought (which experts predict will last a few more years), with estimates of agricultural losses alone exceeding $7bn in 2011 alone.

  • Groundwater depletion – Much of the drinking water in the US is pulled from ground water aquifers, but the aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be naturally replenished. This doesn’t just impact the drinking water supplies. One of the biggest challenges with groundwater depletion is the insufficient metering and regulation of groundwater withdrawals – officials only know how much water is being withdrawn by measuring how much the water tables have dropped.
    US Groundwater Depletion
  • Groundwater contamination – Some groundwater sources are no longer drinkable without treatment. The main contaminants are nitrates from fertilizer runoff, naturally occurring arsenic, industrial contaminants (from all sorts of things, but on top of mind is natural gas “frack” fluid contamination), and salts.
    US Nitrogen Groundwater ContaminationUS Arsenic Groundwater ContaminationIn man-made groundwater contamination, one conservative estimate shows 126,000 contaminated sites, and the cost to “seal up” these contaminated groundwater supplies reaches over $110bn (once again, a conservative estimate). These are primarily “superfund” sites, mainly related to old military bases, and doesn’t include new issues like nitrate and “frack” fluid contamination. It’s estimated that 10% of these superfund sites affect drinking water sources.

    The topic of hydraulic fracturing for unconventional oil and gas extraction is under heated debate. The EPA is in the middle of doing a comprehensive, peer-reviewed study on the environmental impacts of “fracking,” with a report to be published by next year (they published a progress report in December that doesn’t say much), but they have come under fire for suggesting that Wyoming water was contaminated by “fracking.” The 2010 documentary Gasland incited a national debate about the effects of “fracking,” pitting environmentalist against the oil and gas companies in a familiar battle of accusations and finger-pointing.

    This blog post, while perhaps from a biased source, provides a fairly objective analysis of the facts behind groundwater contamination. The bottom line: we don’t know for sure the environmental impacts of “fracking,” but we should find out quickly, especially as the US starts to export this technology to the rest of the world.

  • Conveyance –  California is another great case study for the nation. The northern half of the state has plenty of water, and the southern half is desert. The solution? A giant aqueduct was constructed in the ’50s to pump water down from the Sacramento Bay Delta, through the Central Valley (where a majority of the water is delivered to farmers), over the Tehachapi Mountains, and into the LA basin. Southern California is fed water from the State Water Project’s CA Aqueduct, a second aqueduct from the north (the Central Valley Project), and an aqueduct from the Colorado River (the aptly named Colorado River Aqueduct).This is not only very energy intensive (pumping water across CA makes up ~3-4% of total statewide annual electricity consumption), and inefficient (due to evaporation), but it also presents a host of non-technical problems (resource management, pricing, regulation, etc). This problem is not only faced in California. Planners in Texas are trying to decide how to bring water to the increasingly populous and increasingly arid parts of the state.


  • Reliability – Assuming there is a source of reasonably priced water available and means by which to get it consumers, another challenge arises, most acutely experienced in San Diego (at the end of three major aqueducts). In years of light snowfall in the North, the amount of water available for everyone along the SWP, CVP and CRA is limited, so water is allocated based on seniority of water rights. This means that some farmers and some municipalities don’t get the water they expected from the state. A drought in 1998 in CA urged San Diego to commission a billion dollar sea water desalination system. The premium they are paying for reliability? Buying the water at $2000/AF for 30 years, over 2x the price they pay for state water today (and the city is financing ~80% of the project).


  • Storage – Like in the electricity business, storage remains a challenge. The two primary ways water is stored are in surface reservoirs and small municipal reservoirs (water towers, etc). Water is also stored naturally in ice pack and groundwater. Unfortunately, increasing temperatures are resulting in a faster snowmelt, which means more water for shorter periods of time.

Municipal Water

  • Infrastructure – A recent Black and Veach survey of the water utility industry shows an increasing concern in the industry around aging infrastructure and the costs of managing those assets into the future. In many parts of the country, especially the North East, aging infrastructure is starting to fail. This problem is only going to get more severe. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US a “D” in its drinking water report card, primarily because the infrastructure is so out of date, even though the quality of drinking water is high and there have been very few disease outbreaks related to drinking water.


  • Infrastructure investment needs – The US needs to spend between $500 billion (EPA), $1 trillion (CBO) and $1.5 trillion (Columbia Water Center) over the next 20 years to replace and upgrade this aging infrastructure, plus between $900 billion and $1.6 trillion in O&M costs over that same period. The American Water Works Association supports these numbers and calls to attention the hidden nature of water infrastructure. The economic impact of the aging infrastructure might be drastic. The American Society of Civil Engineers put together a Failure to Act report which points to additional annual costs of $20-100 billion to both residential and business customers due to unreliable water and wastewater infrastructure. They also show an average of $137 billion lost annually in GDP over the next 30 years due to the effects of declining infrastructure quality.


  • Maintenance – According to the USGS, 1.7 trillion gallons are lost to leaks every year, and the EPA said that treated water loss from leaks accounts for around 14% of annual consumption. The problem is that most muni’s don’t know how much water they’re losing or where they are losing it. Most maintenance is done when something catastrophically fails. There is, however, currently a big push to identify and fix leaks as they happen.


  • Water quality – The EPA sets rules and regulations to protect against certain contaminants in the public water supply. The list of contaminants grows every year as new chemicals are introduced in food, drink and medicine, and the EPA must prove the danger of certain chemicals before adding new regulations. Furthermore, most of this testing is done in a lab (in order to accurately test for certain contaminants) so there is typically a delay between testing and discovery. New technology might help speed up the testing process.


  • Forecasting/optimization – Predicting water supply and demand is still a challenge for water authorities and utilities, but there are opportunities to optimize allocation based on weather data or historical water use.


  • Domestic wastewater – The two big remaining challenges with domestic wastewater are a) how to deal with new contaminants, especially pharmaceuticals, and b) how to overcome public stigma around the quality of recycled water. The EPA is currently investigating the potential risk of pharmaceutical contamination of drinking water, with preliminary conclusions showing risk to be low for healthy adults.In Orange County, CA, the wastewater treatment plant outputs water that is cleaner than bottled water, but public opinion prevents direct reuse. The water has to be piped upstream and mixed with other surface water or used for irrigation.

High-use sectors

  • Power production – A surprising 49% of extracted water goes to cooling for thermoelectric power production. Most of this water (~99%) comes from surface water, as most power plants are located near bodies of water. The bulk of this consumption is also found on the east coast, where you have less renewable power generation and more coal plants.Water (access, quality, and pricing) is now becoming an increasingly important element in how electric utilities make decisions. According to an industry survey done by Black and Veach, access to fresh water supply is for the first time the #1 environmental concern of electricity utilities, and water management is the #1 “potential game changer” for the electric utilities.


  • Agriculture – Some large challenges in the agriculture industry include: 1) regulators don’t know how much groundwater is being used for irrigation because in many regions they can’t force farmers to even meter their pumps, let alone regulate the amount, 2) the agriculture lobby has historically been very strong, so how do regulators encourage farmers to actively conserve water without hurting their crop yield, and 3) what to do with fertilizer runoff?


  • Water for manufacturing, processing (industrial water) – Roughly tied for the 3rd largest consumer of withdrawn water (with residential water use), there is a tremendous amount of water used in processing of everything from gasoline to making automobiles.


  • Residential use – The biggest consumers of residential water are also the ones that don’t require clean drinking water. In arid regions, outdoor water use is a big consumer (watering lawns and filling pools), and nationwide the toilet is the biggest indoor consumer of clean water. Both water for plants and toilet flushing could be replaced by grey or recycled water from other household activities or rain water.


Politics and regulation are one of the areas that is simultaneously the most frustrating and perhaps has the highest potential to make an impact in the US, especially seeing as a lot of the afore-mentioned problems could be addressed with water policy reform. It’s interesting to note: there’s no federal Department of Water – several government agencies have a say in water policy and regulation, in particular the Department of the Interior and the EPA.

There’s a rich history here that I’ll only link to (check out the EPA website and all the information about the Clean Water Act of 1972).  The primary issues are: how to allocate water (inter and intra state and federal borders), how the water resources are managed (what goes in, how much can be taken out), and how we invest in water resources. The challenge, as with anything political, is how to fairly represent the voices of all stakeholders – it’s easy to only listen to groups that have the resources and financial motivation to lobby in congress. But, as we saw prior to the Clean Water Act, what was good for industry was not good for American citizens.

The Money

Water in the US is treated as a commodity and natural resources that is used for economic production. But how is water itself valued?

According to the Pacific Institute, in 2003 the US “water industry” had revenues of an impressive $96bn:

US Water Industry Revenues

Obviously this doesn’t include revenue from industries that are heavily dependent on water, like electric utilities, chemicals or Ag.

On a residential level, Americans spend on average $472/yr (~$40/mo) on water and sanitation utility bills (roughly 1% the median household income), but this varies widely across the nation. In 2007, residents of Chicago paid an average of $228/yr for combined water and sewage, while residents in Atlanta paid a whopping $1476/yr average. And water utility prices are some of the fastest growing cost of living expenses – the average annual increase in water and sewage bills between 2001 and 2009 was >5.3%.

Some water prices are rising more quickly than others – as much as 7% over the last year in 30 major US cities. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there is a strong correlation between high water prices and reduced water consumption. It is simply becoming more expensive to provide water to customers as supplies diminish and the cost of extraction and treatment increase.

So how are the broader financial markets reacting to water resources? The investment community has certainly taken note of this:

“Hoffmann forecasts that agriculture irrigation revenues will grow by almost 20% annually over the next 10 years.”
“By 2016, private sector water investments eventually will account for 30% of investments in drinking water and wastewater compared to 19% now, according to the independent Global Water Fund consultancy.”

And there have been an influx of new water investment opportunities, from ETFs to bonds and larger investment projects. Savvy investors, including Calvert, are investing in a sustainable water future, and some are looking to take advantage of the worldwide crisis.


So where does that leave us? It’s clear there are a variety of interesting problems that the domestic market faces. But how do they compare to water problems around the world? The next post will look into the similar and dissimilar problems that the rest of the world faces.


Posted in Water

Water Essays: #1, a Primer

This is the first in a series of essays on water. If you want to stay updated, please make a comment below.

I wrote in my last blog post about my new quest to “solve the world’s water problems.”

But what the heck does that mean? To try to answer that, I’m writing a series of thought pieces about water. An important note – these are not scientific papers, they are simply a written subset of my thoughts about water.

Why water? In short – I believe the way for me to make the most positive, sustaining impact on the world is to make sure everyone has access to affordable clean water.

My primary objective with this series of essays is to formulate my hypotheses and use them as a platform for higher-order discussions with domain experts. I’m looking for readers to say ‘your assumption is wrong because you didn’t’ consider X’, because then I will know about X in a way I didn’t before.

What water issues?

Let’s dig deeper: who is actually suffering here? What are the root problems? How does water stress differ from water scarcity or a water crisis?

According to our friends at Wikipedia: “water stress” = difficulty obtaining fresh water sources (defined as less than 1700 m^3/person of annual water supplies), “water scarcity” = country has less than 1000 m^3/person in annual water supplies, “water crisis” = regional fresh water supply is less than regional demand. There’s also the distinction between physical and economic water scarcity: is there just not enough water, versus is there not enough money for infrastructure or water treatment?

At a high level, around 1 billion people don’t have reliable access to safe drinking water. The UN FAO states that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with absolute water scarcity and 2/3 of the entire world’s population (over 5 billion people by that time)  could be under water stress conditions. Presently 3.4 million people die each year from water-related illnesses (many of them children). And yet, ~80% of the world’s population lives within 60mi of the ocean, a practically limitless supply of water.

Then there’s the water itself: 96.5% of the earth’s water is in the oceans (30,000-50,000 ppm salt), 1% is other salty water, 2.5% is freshwater. Out of that 2.5% of freshwater, 68.5% is locked up in glaciers and the ice caps, 30% is groundwater (only 45% of that groundwater is fresh water) and 1.3% is surface water. So, absent of glaciers, ice caps, ice and snow, ~0.009% of fresh water is in lakes and rivers, the atmosphere and living things.

See the chart below for a visualization of this. The big takeaway – the vast majority of the Earth’s water is not easily accessible or is too salty to be consumed by humans.

Simple chart for water breakdown

Simple chart for water breakdown


A brief scan of news headlines and earth systems textbooks will show you a wide variety of examples of water issues globally:


  • In Bangladesh (and many other parts of the world) people pull drinking water out of water supplies that other people openly defecate in, sometimes resulting in outbreaks of cholera or diarrhea. This problem is agitated by fertilizer runoff.
  • In response to the cholera epidemic and high infant mortality rate, Bangladesh dug 8 million wells to try to get fresh ground water, only to discover that ground water has Arsenic in it – 20% of the wells were contaminated.
  • China’s water pollution crisis exacerbated by their growing water scarcity.
  • And there was a day in China recently when ~16,000 dead and rotting pigs appeared out of nowhere in the Huangpu river, drinking water for Shanghai.
  • Finding water in the Middle East has a lot of negative externalities.
  • Saudi arabia and china are depleting their aquifers and Saudi is consequently phasing out domestic wheat production by 2016.
  • No Indian city has 24/7 water supply – even the wealthy often turn on the tap and nothing comes out.
  • Potable water is #2 on the list of top 10 needs for refugees.
  • charity:water estimates that in Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year walking to get water from typically unprotected or contaminated sources (getting water is also primarily the burden of women and children, and women often get sexually assaulted or attacked while getting water).
  • Brisbane, Australia almost ran out of water after a flood in January.
  • Disaster situations (Haiti earthquake, the Tsunamis, floods, etc) lead to water stress, and more problems in Haiti.
  • And the list goes on…

But we’re not without water issues in the US either… 

In the USA:

  • Lots of news lately about natural gas well “frack” water contamination.
  • California has a whole host of water issues dating back over 100 years. SoCal literally pipes water from the bay and the Colorado river (which takes up a ton of energy and has all sorts of other consequences).
  • And that water might not be any good after all (LA had to abandon 40 percent of its municipal wells in one area of the city because they were polluted with manufacturing solvents and toxins).
  • And San Diego is paying high dollar for reliable desalinated water.
  • Texas’s water supplies have been in danger due to the drought (if you look closely, that’s 29 districts of 76,800 people in danger of losing municipal water in the next 180 days!), and a major city’s water supplies could go dry this summer.
  • Aging infrastructure was to blame in the 2010 boston water emergency and the 2012 boston water emergency.
  • According to a 2000 United States Geological survey estimate, 6 billion gallons of municipal drinking water are lost in the United States each day. In addition, an estimated 30% of all water produced worldwide is leaking from the underground pipe network. That is approximately 8.5 trillion gallons of water globally each year.
  • US water scarcity may lead to difficulties for the energy sector.
  • And so on.

How does one begin to tackle such sweeping problems? Let’s start by categorizing where our water goes.

Consumption breakdown

To further understand the “water issues,” it’s important to understand how water is used. There are plenty of global water consumption reports out there, but here’s the quick summary. Worldwide, the vast majority of water is consumed by the agriculture sector. Consumption averages are this: 70% agricultural, 20% industrial, 10% municipal (drinking, washing, etc).

Worldwide consumption and extraction, by sector.

Worldwide consumption and extraction, by sector.


Water consumption by country, by use.

Water consumption by country, by use.

For a great visualization of water scarcity/supplies, go here.

Water is used in everything from natural gas extraction to making iPhones to raising beef – check out this neat tool from NatGeo that shows how much water is used to produce everyday food and items.


Next steps:

Next time, I’ll elaborate on the challenges specific water markets have, ranging from growing mega cities in China to farmers in CA.

Outline for the next 5 papers:

#2 Market analysis – Domestic Water Challenges

#3 Market analysis – Water Scarcity in the Rest of the World

#4 Technology review – water quality (salty water, polluted/dirty water, water quality sensors) – desal, filters, bio-neutralizers, sensors

#5 Technology review – water access (use, distribution, financing, economics) – big data, project finance, ag/irrigation technologies, conveyance

#6 Next steps – how you can help (what do i need to get things started)



What are you trying to do exactly?

My goal is to make as much of a positive impact as I can in the world in the brief time I have allotted here. I think that making a difference in clean water has the highest potential ROI of anything I can do (with maybe the exception of gender equality in the developing world, but there’s a strong link between access to clean water and improved gender balance). Archimedes said “give me a long enough lever and I can move the world” – I’m looking for the longest lever I can find.

Why are you doing this? 

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been doing consumer mobile for the past few years, and I found it profoundly unfulfilling. So, I’m doing a personal-pivot to the water sector, a place where I feel like I can devote all of my energy and actually make a real impact. I want to solve problems, save lives, make an impact. I want my kids to grow up in a world that doesn’t know water scarcity.

Why water?

Water is the only irreplaceable resource we know of (and if someone can figure out how to sustain life without water, then by all means, prove me wrong). Water directly impacts economies, health, and the environment. At the end of the day, I can’t think of anything that has such an immediate, pressing need in the world than clean water solutions. I also find it silly that there are still millions of people who die every year because of dirty water. If you need more convincing on the importance of water, there are a ton of other smart folks that have written about it: http://www.charitywater.org/whywater/http://thewaterproject.org/water_stats.php

Do you have a background in water? (or, Don’t you need to know something about water before you do something like this?)

I actually get asked the second question a lot.

I don’t have a background in water, per se. I studied Mechanical Engineering at Stanford, with a focus on energy, and one of my jobs after graduation was consulting for the CPUC on a water energy study (PPT overview, full paper and interactive online model). I spent six months creating a model that outputted the amount of energy “embedded” in every drop of water in California (i.e. how much energy was required to move that water across the state (it’s a lot, btw), and then how much energy was required to treat and distribute that water at the faucet level.

So, I spent a bit of time in this space, but more than anything, I have the enthusiasm, grit and determination to make a difference. No one knows anything until they learn it – I taught myself how to code iPhone apps on my own time after college and built a name for myself in that industry in just a few years. Sure, osmosis isn’t the same as objective-C, but I’m a big believer that naiveté and willingness to challenge assumptions usually leads to breakthroughs.

Posted in Water

Why I abandoned my startup

In October of last year, I was running engineering for a promising mobile commerce startup that I co-founded in 2011. By many Silicon Valley measures, we were doing well – seed funded, making revenue, ~20 person team, multiple launched products, etc. It was comfortable.

But one day I decided to abandon my startup, all because of one e-mail. This is that story.

The e-mail of note came from my girlfriend, and it set off a chain reaction of events that led to an abrupt series of personal relevations. It was an e-mail about a friend presenting a revolutionary technology at Google’s Solve for X (a showcase of change makers and moonshots). The e-mail itself was innocuous, but her rhetorical question is what struck me: “You could be there, presenting your world changing innovation. Why not?” That question left me sick to my stomach.

We met up later that night and talked about this. My immediate defensive reaction was to explain my 5 year plan, as I had rehearsed: “I’ll be at Solve for X soon enough. I just have to sell this mobile shopping company for $200M and then I can actually pursue my dream of solving the world’s water problems.” (This is, by the way, what Randy Komisar calls “the deferred life plan” – more on that later).

But my girlfriend challenged this: “How does selling a consumer app company help you disrupt the potable water market?” She was right, and I knew it.

It’s true – being a successful, proven entrepreneur helps your credibility. It helps you raise money, helps you build a team. But notice the verb I used: “help.” This was her point: sure, it’s nice if you have already shown you can return shareholder money (for her, selling her first company helped when she was starting her current company), but that’s far from required.

She went on: “If you have conviction and the right solution, you can get in front of anyone [to raise money, strike a partnership, build a team, etc], so what are you waiting for? You’ve already shown you can build a team and a product, you have the technical background to solve this problem. How does a liquidity event really make a big difference? Why continue being miserable?”

I went to bed that night with my head spinning. What was I doing?

The next morning in the shower, I had what alcoholics refer to as a “moment of clarity.” It all became clear – it was time to quit and go on my journey to solve the world’s water problems. I actually said out loud: “My name is Weston McBride, and I can do whatever I want to. I will approach this problem with enthusiasm unknown to mankind, and I feel sorry for anything that gets in my way.”

You see, for a while I had been living in what Tara Brach calls the “trance of fear.” Back in 2011, my first startup, an ed-tech startup, was doing OK, but we were running out of money, and I was afraid. I was afraid of failing – the cardinal sin of an entrepreneur.

So when I was approached by two successful (and famous) entrepreneurs to start this mobile commerce company together, I put aside my conviction for mission-driven startups and joined them. Why? The promise was a quick exit, the opportunity to make a name for myself, and to extend my runway with the liquidity event. I was afraid of failing, and this seemed like an easy and safe bet. I literally did the decision analysis to determine that this was the most likely path to a notable “TechCrunch” exit (just writing that makes me cringe) .

Any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you that if you want to make money, don’t start a company. You should start a company if you can’t sleep at night because there’s a problem you can’t stop thinking about. You should start a company if you’ve literally been brought to tears by talking to your customers. If you don’t have that level of empathy and commitment, why bother? How long do you expect to have energy to work on this problem?

Randy Komisar, who I mentioned earlier, writes extensively about this topic in The Monk and the Riddle.

“In Deferred Life Plan there will always be another prize to covet, another distraction, a new hunger to sate. You will forever come up short. Work hard, work passionately, but apply your most precious asset-time-to what is most meaningful to you. What are you willing to do for the rest of your life? That question would be absurd, given the inevitability of change. No, what the question really asks is, if your life were to end suddenly and unexpectedly tomorrow, would you be able to say you’ve been doing what you truly care about today? What would you be willing to do for the rest of you life? What would it take to do it right now? “

On top of that, it’s exponentially harder to start a company that you’re not truly passionate about. I imagine it’s like marrying someone you’re not in love with.

There’s a reason why many investment bankers hate their lives. They do their work for the money (I know from experience –  I spent six months as a banker and it is literally the main reason why most people are there). Doing work for money, especially when you have passions and interests in something bigger, is the most soul-sucking and demoralizing thing you can do. As Gary Vaynerchuck says in his phenomenal talk, “Do what you love, no excuses.”

Being stuck in this “trance of fear” meant that I couldn’t even identify the reason why I was so unhappy. I knew that I was powerfully unhappy, that something was wrong, but I was powerless to do anything about it.

It took a piercing question from my girlfriend to wake me from that trance. I knew I was working on a startup where I had no empathy for my users and had no passion for the space or the problems we were solving, and I knew that was wrong. But what I had to realize was that I didn’t need to do that.

That revelation liberated me. The next day, I talked with my co-founders and transitioned out of the company over the next 4 weeks.

Some people asked “What if the company gets bought? Don’t you feel like you’re giving up all that money?” The truth is, I wasn’t giving up anything – I was buying  my life back.


** Update: wow, pretty amazing response. This blog post received 19,000 new readers in just 36 hours and made it to the top 10 in Hacker News. More importantly, I have received dozens of personal messages from old and new friends thanking me for opening up about my experience and sharing their own. Looks like the message of being true to yourself and following your dreams has really struck a chord with some people.

Posted in Startups