To many of us in the United States, we see water as free, or nearly so.

Luckily, this misconception is being challenged by a growing number of articles in the general press as well as in “sustainability” circles. For example, three pieces of water news crossed my desk today. Each underscored the increasingly explicit relationship between water and money… and the possibility for us to either “get water right” or contribute to further global ecosystem devastation.

Awareness-raising is the main thrust of UNICEF’s dirty water vending machine. Got a buck? You can get a tasty bottle of water contaminated with typhoid, cholera, dysentery, or dengue!

Well no, not really. The CDC would certainly not approve… and yet those are some of the only water choices available to the more than 2 billion people who lack access to clean water. Lots of investment in infrastructure and education (read: MONEY!!) will be necessary to move the needle towards greater availability of safe drinking water globally.

Arguably, that would be money well spent. The scheme of Alaska Resource Management to ship potable water from Alaska to India is, in contrast, eye-popping in its hubris. Perhaps it is human nature to try to make a buck from dire circumstances. But to me, disrupting natural ecosystem dynamics on such a grand scale is pure short-sightedness in contrast to taking the more complicated route of actually rooting out water waste and inefficiency. I guess the projected $90 million in revenues is tough to resist.

And finally… more profits on the horizon for companies in the water treatment business. Environmental Leader trumpets the potential for the US corporate water treatment market to increase from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion from 2010 to 2015. With crumbling infrastructure fast becoming a fact of life in many US communities, and water scarcity in arid regions pointing to advanced treatment as a way to ease up on potable water supplies, this projection is not at all surprising.

And here’s a juicy stat: “It will take over $334.8 billion over the next twenty years to make the water system of the United States safe and reliable.” That’s a big chunk of change to ensure that we don’t end up selecting our drinks from the dirty water vending machine.

It’s high time the true costs of water became more apparent. What’s crucial is that the ecosystem impacts of water withdrawal, treatment, recycling, and reuse be properly accounted for… how’s that for a water challenge?

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