United Nations: Harvesting new water sources can benefit 'billions of people'

From rainwater, icebergs, and many more resources.
Brad Bergan
The United Nations (left), and fog harvesting of water (right).1, 2

Eventually, we all get thirsty.

That's why the United Nations and partners in water have made up their minds: It's time for the human race to tap Earth's more unconventional resources for water — where hundreds of thousands of cubic miles of water lie in deep-seabed and land-based aquifers, according to an embargoed release shared with IE.

There's also water hidden in fog, icebergs, and even the ballast holds of thousands of ships — and a new book called "Unconventional Water Resources" argues that this unusually diverse spectrum of potential water resources could help many of the 1 in 4 humans who are facing serious water shortages — for sanitation, drinking, agriculture, and economic development.

So drink up, if you can.

Water shortages are 'a top threat to human development and security'

The book serves as both a warning and a manual for citizens, scientists, and policymakers to expand their thinking on where water as a resource may be found. The book was written by experts at the U.N. University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU0-INWEH), in addition to the U.N.U. Institute for Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and of Resources (UNU-FLORES), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

It's possible to tap on- and offshore deep groundwater, in addition to reusing water, physically moving water to regions where it's scarce, and so on. "As climate change worsens and with populations rising worldwide, water shortages are a top threat to human development and security, making this authoritative analysis of unconventional water resources both timely and important," said Vladimir Smakhtin, director of UNI-INWEH, in the release.

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We could harvest water from thin air using cloud seeding, and fog collectors — since the atmosphere contains roughly 3,130 cubic miles (13,000 cubic km) of water vapor. And some of that can be nabbed via cloud seeding, in addition to fog and mist. For comparison, one cubic kilometer of water is roughly equivalent to the volume of 400,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Iceberg Water Extraction
A computer rendering of an iceberg extraction process. Source: United Nations University

Fog harvesting, desalination, and many more sites of water await

"Cloud seeding can enhance rainfall by up to 15% under the right conditions, and studies show that rain enhancement can work with reasonable cost-benefit ratios," read the embargoed release. "An increasing number of countries plan to carry out rain enhancement in response to water shortages and other societal needs."

If you can believe it, remote communities in South Africa, Morocco, and Chile have employed vertical mesh nets to harvest fog for more than a century — and similarly viable fog harvesting sites exist on every continent. Even Antarctica. And by fusing advanced materials science with indigenous knowledge of the landscape, scientists have developed highly productive, ecofriendly, and comparably low-cost means of gathering potable water. That's more than 5.2 gallons (20 liters) on a day of heavy fog for every 10.76 square feet (1 square meter) of mesh.

That translates to a cost of $23.23 per square foot ($250 per square meter) of mesh capable of lasting for more than one decade — or 75,000 liters per square meter produced at only 33 cents per liter.

There are many other promising unconventional sites and means for water procurement, like desalination, groundwater offshore and onshore, microscale capture of rainwater (before it evaporates), ballast water on ships worldwide, icebergs, and simply reusing wastewater. Suffice to say that in the event of a major water shortage — which is counterintuitive but likely considering the increased stresses put on infrastructural systems from climate change, supply shortages, and perpetual global crises — there are many alternative supplies just waiting for us to seek it out.

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