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 Israeli dairy farms that collectively produce nearly 8 million gallons of milk annually.
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 U.N. projects. Over the past decade, the number of violent confrontations over water issues has risen fourfold, said the Pacific Institute, a California-based think tank.
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. The university opened its Institute of Molecular Engineering in 2011, and within a year talk began of putting water scarcity at the top of the institute’s agenda.
“There are shortages of water from the First World to the Third World,” said Steve Sibener, one of the University of Chicago scientists. “If you look at California, it has been a particularly dry year, and you can see how the whole 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,” Sibener said. “Hundreds of millions of people are at risk of [not] having enough water.”
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, cilialike hairs to repel filter-fouling microbes. The goal is to complete research by the latter part of 2015.
Every experiment has representation from both the University of Chicago and Ben-Gurion. The University of Chicago brings its expertise in molecular engineering, while Ben-Gurion brings its experience of transforming water research into real-life applications in a water-starved nation.
For both universities, the collaboration represents an opportunity to parlay their top-shelf know-how into potential solutions for one of mankind’s most pressing priorities.
But for Chicago, the partnership could provide a cornerstone in the city’s bid to dramatically ramp up its global profile. When Mayor Rahm Emanuel traveled to Israel in June 2013 to announce the two universities’ collaboration, he spoke of the partnership as a steppingstone to Chicago’s eventual evolution into a water technology hub.
“He said he would like to see Chicago grow into a center for water technology,” said Moshe Gottlieb, Ben-Gurion’s lead scientist for the collaboration. “I think this is a remarkable idea.”
If Chicago is serious, it will have to contend with Milwaukee, which has already forged a strong identity as a globally known magnet for water technology enterprise and research. The Milwaukee region is home to 150 water technology companies, as well as the nation’s first university-level freshwater sciences department, at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
“They’re exporting the creativity and solutions that those companies have to the rest of the world,” said Josh Ellis, a water policy expert at Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council. “They want to be this borderless global hub for ideas and innovation.”
Look for ‘game-changers’
Three quarters of the world is covered by water, but less than 3 percent is fresh water. More than 3.4 million people die each year of diseases related to lack of safe drinking water such as diarrhea — 9 out of 10 of those deaths occur in developing countries. Water scarcity affects at least 700 million people in 43 countries, the U.N. said. By 2025, the number of people living in areas without enough water will rise to 1.8 billion people, the U.N. states. Areas with annual water supplies below 1,000 cubic meters per person are regarded as water-scarce, according to the U.N.
The quest to ensure reliable sources of drinking water has stoked discord among nations for millennia — and still does.
From the start, the goal has been to nurture breakthroughs that can be global in scale.
“We need to look for things that are game-changers,” Gottlieb said. “We want to attack the issue at the molecular level. We want to take our expertise in nanotechnology, and put it to use in water-related problems.”