Sustainability is a concept associated with growth: in population, living standards, industry and economy. In terms of population growth, access to our basic needs — such as fresh water — must be made sustainable so that life can continue with respect to the environment, and without compromising the well-being of future generations.

Because the world’s population will continue to grow, the concept of sustainability has also been associated with survival. That is the context in which we typically look at sustainability. Regarding water, the conventional “take” on sustainability is: “no water, no life.”

We talk of producing water in a sustainable way, ideally at a low cost with a low carbon footprint, so we can accommodate the needs of a global population that is expected to double in the next 50 years.

Today, however, I would like to propose that we look at the sustainability of our water resources in a different way, one in which water is not a means to ensure survival, but rather a means to create abundance.

A world of abundance

A resource is abundant when its use does not involve any planning related to its potential depletion or the disruption of the environment.

Let us use the analogy of the way that plants and other organisms have, for millennia, prospered around the world. They create an abundance in the planet by converting light energy from the sun into chemical energy in terms of carbohydrates, such as sugars synthesised from carbon dioxide that is used to fuel the organisms’ activities.

For thousands of years, this energy has been continuously stored. Indeed, nature was such a buffer that, until less than a century ago, human growth did not have any impact on its abundance except on a very regional scale.

Similarly, water has always been abundant on the planet to sustain life of all kinds. Thanks to water that has enabled the proliferation of various botanical species, for example, the energy from the sun has been stored in the form of biomass in forests. Water has enabled the creation of the wealth of nature.

In this context, water plays a very essential role in terms of sustainability, beyond what we might typically think. We are used to thinking that ready access to a reliable, cheap, adequate and sustainable source of fresh water is essential to the well-being of growing populations and economies —whether in its elemental form or as a necessary “ingredient” in other forms of life.

In this regard, desalination — with its capacity to access unlimited seawater to produce fresh water — has proven an invaluable part of water management strategies.

However, a new angle that connects water to sustainability is identifying water not only as a means to survive for future generations, but also to regenerate the abundance of resources that were on the planet before humanity emerged.

Water is essential to convert, thanks to the photosynthesis of solar energy, into the chemical energy that is present in biomasses. Like oil resources, biomasses may be used by future generations for various uses, including as energy sources.

The late US president John F. Kennedy said, “No water resources programme is of greater long-range importance than our efforts to convert water from the world’s greatest and cheapest natural resources —our oceans — into water fit for our homes and industry. Such a breakthrough would end bitter struggles between neighbours, states and nations.”

This technological breakthrough has been achieved by the recent development of desalination technology. However, today the breakthrough has become more ambitious. We can dream and aim our technology towards producing water with such a low carbon footprint that we can grow forests with it and become CO2 negative throughout the entire process.

If this were possible, forests that we could grow with this water could sequestrate CO2 in the atmosphere and transform it into biomass and energy. They could restore the original abundance of resources and the beauty of the planet.

We often hear the word “livable” when we describe a sustainable future. I believe that this term also refers to an intangible quality of life beyond the role water plays in sustaining our existence. It goes without saying that the more water is present in a city (either directly in the form of fountains or pools, or indirectly in the form of trees and landscaping), the more the city brings us back to nature, and nature is what gave us life.

From a Middle East perspective, we passed from a situation where planning water resources was essential to make life possible (regardless of cost) to a situation in which planning water resources is now essential to make life pleasant as well. This is a simple consideration, but also a remarkable accomplishment.

The role of innovation

Achieving sustainability in our water resources entails many factors, from increased energy efficiency through technological advancements and the use of renewable sources, to increased emphasis on water reuse. I also believe that the awareness that water is recycled, treated and generated in a sustainable way elevates our sense of being responsible environmental stewards. By emphasising sustainability today, we ensure that we pass on a positive legacy to future generations.

Innovation is one key aspect of achieving a sustainable water supply, whether we speak of technological innovation or efforts toward increased energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.

The desalination industry has long sought to reduce the amount of energy needed to operate plants. In the past two decades alone, energy consumption has been reduced by nearly 50 per cent. Moreover, we continue to strive for even greater energy efficiency, whether through technology improvements or the development of new and potentially disruptive technologies that offer the prospect of much lower energy requirements. Efforts to utilise renewable energy also show great promise. Additionally, we have developed strategies and technologies aimed specifically at environmental responsibility.

Driven by innovation, all these efforts contribute to the goal of sustainability as it relates to desalination. Innovation is the solution we have today to achieve our goals tomorrow. There is no innovation without R&D, and therefore, this link is essential.

In the water industry, innovation and — particularly — R&D, are very often led by the corporate sector and directed towards development of products that increase the competitive edge. Of course, increasing energy efficiency and sustainability can offer this advantage, but regardless, it is important that those of us in the water treatment industry never lose sight of social responsibility when we speak of sustainability and energy efficiency.

Therefore, it is heartening to note that, in my opinion, we have moved forward to a generally more environmental and energy conscious approach to water. This will continue, along with a consistent effort to decrease water costs.

In October, I concluded my role as President of the International Desalination Association (IDA), the leading global organisation devoted to desalination and water reuse. IDA has put a lot of effort in the last six years toward achieving environmental, energy and social responsibility targets — initiatives that Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy company, mirrors from a corporate setting. IDA is pleased to support Masdar’s tremendous work in this regard, just as IDA once again is proud to be a knowledge partner for the International Water Summit as part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the largest gathering on sustainability in the history of the Middle East.

In closing, I once again invite you to consider a more holistic sense of “sustainability” when it comes to water, our most precious resource. I believe that water brings us all together in many ways. Certainly, the need to ensure a ready supply of water for the next generation’s health and well-being is a paramount concern, but we have the opportunity to create a more beautiful quality of life, a greater abundance in all that surrounds us, if we manage our water resources wisely.

The quest for sustainability must involve all stakeholders. It must be a shared effort in which all of us have a sense of “ownership”, not just for today, but also to ensure a bright future for those who will follow in our footsteps.

Dr Corrado Sommariva is Managing Director of ILF Consulting and Past President of the International Desalination Association (IDA), a Knowledge Partner of the International Water Summit.