1. Drinking From the Sea …
One obvious solution would be to drink ocean water. Converting seawater into freshwater by stripping out the salt—a process called desalination—offers several advantages. Roughly half the world’s population lives within 65 miles of an ocean, and saltwater accounts for about 97 percent of all water on Earth.
Still, desalination presents obstacles. Older plants that boil seawater and collect the vapors, as many of those in the Middle East do, use ungodly amounts of energy. Newer plants that use reverse osmosis—whereby seawater is forced through membranes at high pressure—are more efficient, but still expensive and energy-intensive. The process also produces a briny waste that can harm marine life if not disposed of properly.
We can nevertheless expect to see more desalination plants soon—thanks in part to Israel, which all but eliminated its chronic water shortages in the past decade by building four large reverse-osmosis plants, inspiring other countries to follow suit. A $1 billion plant operated by an Israeli company is about to open north of San Diego; it will be the largest in the Western Hemisphere, providing up to 50 million gallons of water a day to Californians.
2. … Or From the Toilet
Instead of desalination, some experts favor recycling wastewater—cleaning the water from showers, washing machines, and, yes, toilets—for human consumption.
Most water-recycling plants clean water in two basic ways. First, they force it through filters, some of which have holes hundreds of times narrower than a strand of human hair. These filters remove waste particles, organic chemicals, bacteria, viruses, and other dreck. Second, chemicals like hydrogen peroxide or ozone and pulses of ultraviolet light destroy any pathogens that have slipped through.
Water recycling is a proven technology: California recycles hundreds of millions of gallons each day for irrigation and other uses. So what’s stopping recycled wastewater from going directly to our taps? Human psychology. The very idea of drinking it disgusts many people. They view such water as irredeemably dirty, little better than toilet water.
In reality, recycled water is some of the cleanest drinking water around—as good as or better than the best bottled water. (Breweries in Oregon and California have plans to make beer with recycled water for this very reason—it’s so clean that it’s tasteless, a blank slate.) More to the point, recycled water is far purer than most tap water. By the time the water in the Mississippi reaches New Orleans, for instance, every drop has been used by cities along the river multiple times, and the treatment it gets before going through the taps is nowhere near as extensive as what a water-recycling plant provides.
Singapore and Namibia have recycled water for years with no adverse health effects, and NASA began recycling water on the International Space Station in 2008. (The Russian cosmonauts there don’t recycle their pee, but they give the Americans bags of it to recycle and then drink.) In the United States, a few parched towns in Texas and New Mexico drink recycled wastewater already, and last year the city of San Diego—which gets most of its water from rivers that are running dry—approved a $3 billion recycling plant that would provide one-third of its tap water, 83 million gallons a day, by 2035. San Diego had rejected essentially the same plan in 1998, but this time the city decided it had no other choice.