The incredibile story of the blue gold, the evil tyrants that usurped it and the noble alchemists who wanted to protect it

It seems the title of a fairy tale, but this story is more real than ever. Its characters are all the citizens of the terrestrial planet, and especially those of the least developed countries; the fundamental resource of water, and the multinationals that exploit it; finally, some talented scientists, whose spectacular inventions resemble sometimes magic.

Once upon a time, water was unequivocally considered as a common good, non-rivalrous and non-excludable, and the idea that someone could make profits of it was just as if someone insisted on selling us the air we breathe (however, I am pretty sure that someone will consider this business, sooner or later).
These principles were even stated by the Council of Europe in 1968. This "Water Charter" also stressed the duty of not to waste this vital resource; a principle that everybody can agree on, but that proved ambiguous and dangerous. During the International conference of Mar del Plata (Argentina) in 1977, exactly because, according to some psychosocial liberist theories, individuals tend to waste it and because of demographic growth and water scarcity, water was declared to have an economic value. This was meant to make consumers aware of the importance of this good, and to rationalize its use (however, then and now, the water that we employ in our houses only amounts to about 8% of the total, while some 22% and 70% are respectively for industry and agriculture). The story, from conference to conference, is much longer than this, but you just need to know two further steps: the declaration of water as an economic good (Dublin, 1992) and the change of status from a human right, free from the law of markets, to a human need, that can therefore be regulated by demand and supply (L’Aja, 2000). Since then, water is still a vital and essential good, and at the same time a merchandise, whose value should be determined by production costs and the necessity to remunerate invested capital, as it was specified in the last above mentioned summit. Privatization was the rallying cry. 

The water multinationals portioned the market, and the international economic entities didn’t stay to watch. In some cases, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have granted loans to poor countries in exchange for the management of water services by private foreign companies. That is to say, "we give you the money, and in return we only take the exclusive management of the most important resource for living”. Such cases have occurred in 2000 in several African countries, but also in Bolivia. This is however a peculiar case. After one year from the privatization, the price of water had tripled, permits were needed to have access to the resource, licenses for the collection of rainwater and  55% of the population did not have access to it. This moved hundreds of thousands of people in Cochabamba against the government, that was forced to back down. A story with a happy ending we may say, but it is unfortunately more unique than rare.

Another controversial aspect is that of bottled mineral water. The reason why this market has been so successful -22 billion dollars a year- is the presumed guarantee of consuming higher quality drinking water. Even if the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has stated that bottled water is not better than tap water and even if in many countries the latter is subject to far stricter qualitative parameters. As a former Chairman of Perrier said: "Everything you have to do is bringing water to the surface, and then sell it at a greater price than wine, milk or even oil ". The conclusion of a study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is that at least one third of the 103 brands of bottled water that has been examined is contaminated, including residues of Escherichia coli and arsenic; a quarter of them contain water directly taken from the tap and then processed to some extent. Not to mention that producing bottled water means to produce enormous quantities of garbage –just think of the tons of plastic which bottles are made of. Maybe I’ve failed to convince you that buying mineral water is just a scam and a little-ecological squandering; if you are really attached to your favourite water brand, you’ll probably keep on purchasing it. The point is, be aware of your choices, ask yourself whether they make sense, what their impact and consequences are.

I have, however, positive news about recent discoveries and inventions that revolve around water and that you may have failed to notice.

The first is Warka Water by the architect Arturo Vittori. If you think that turning air into water is just alchemy, this will make you change idea. That’s just what this ingenious invention does, in an efficient and economical way. Warka Water is a 10 metres high tower, made outside of a case that allows air to pass, while inside a nylon mesh collects dewdrops. This process happens in absence of electricity, thanks to the temperature range between day and night. The cost of a tower is modest (about 360 euros) and its inventor estimates that in the desert every tower could collect about 90 litres of water a day. If the online crowd funding will be successful, and some 150000 dollars will be found, the first plant could be built in Ethiopia in 2015. This invention received few weeks ago the honours of national news on Repubblica.

Another interesting project is the one developed by the 17-year-old student Fabio Manzoni, with his device that desalinates sea water by means of microbial electrochemical cells. To keep it simple, in this process bacteria in the cells are fed with organic substances and release electrons during their digestion process; these negative atomic particles pass through saltwater and create a potential difference, which in turn diverts salt from water. Desalination is not something new (it was first discovered in 1920) and is currently used in some countries that suffer from chronic water scarcity. Many researches have been carried out to make the process economically viable, but its extensive use is still hindered by high costs. This last invention, which has the advantage of implying limited costs, is therefore the last step of a longer path that could lead to unexpected results. Just consider that seawater amounts to no less than 97% of total water on Earth, and an additional 2% of fresh water is unusable because trapped in glaciers and icecaps. A (relatively) small quantity is left to man: if we became able to exploit saltwater, maybe this could help to satisfy the needs of a growing population, which will exceed 9 billion in 2050 according to the UN.

Let us now talk about a less revolutionary innovation, but one that we could enjoy in our houses in the coming years. Why throwing away all the water we use to have a shower, when we could clean it and reuse it? This is the question that gave birth to “OrbSys shower” by a Swedish company in collaboration with NASA. “Why NASA?” you may be asking. The answer is that a similar system has been in use for decades on spaceships, where saving water is just vital to astronauts. Orbsys purifies the water that has just cleaned your body and sends it back to the shower, allowing to save 90% of water and 80% of Energy: just think that if it takes you 10 minutes to have your daily shower, you are wasting 150 litres of water a day. Orbsys only uses 15.

The last, and maybe the most sensational, regards the so called “nano water”, a discovery that could change the field of renewable Energy. But this invention deserves a whole article, and it would be a real pity to confine it here in few lines. In the mean time, if you cannot resist your curiosity, start reading this article on La Stampa

Valentina Rutigliano