Water for the World

New program strives to provide safe drinking water for 1.7 billion people who lack it

6 October 2008

The world isn’t short of water, but it’s a scarce resource for many people. Water covers more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface, with still more underground and in the atmosphere. But much of it is unusable—salty, polluted, or too far from the people, farms, forests, and industry that need it. This is why we need to know where best to plant water-hungry crops and locate water-dependent industries. We know where the people are but not where all the water is, or how much we can use of a given source before it’s exhausted. And we need to know not just where water is today but also where it will be tomorrow.

That means monitoring the entire surface area of the planet, around 510 million square kilometers; determining the depth of oceans, lakes, and ponds; the flow of rivers and ocean currents; the thickness of glaciers and ice caps; the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere; and the location and capacity of aquifers.

That’s where IEEE comes in, with a project called Water for the World. It’s just one part of the organization’s involvement with the 75-country Group on Earth Observations (GEO) and its Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). Besides water, GEO is charged with developing and coordinating ways of measuring global weather and climate; agricultural activity and the changing distribution of croplands; biodiversity; ecosystem conditions and trends; energy usage and resources; and more. Water for the World focuses on creating pilot programs for increasing water availability in developing countries and making drinking water clean and safe for the 1.7 billion people—28 percent of the world’s population—who lack it.

Much of the data GEO needs is now being measured by different countries and regional and international groups using thousands of gauges, sensors, buoys, weather stations, satellites, seismometers, and other devices. But the measurements are often taken in different ways or expressed in incompatible terms. What’s needed are common standards and a common interface so that information can be combined into coherent databases.

IEEE, with its coverage of a wide range of technical fields and its experience in developing internationally recognized standards, plays a vital role here. Coordinating IEEE’s involvement with GEO is the IEEE Committee on Earth Observation (ICEO). “Several IEEE societies and councils have been involved in ICEO activities,” notes Thomas Wiener, ICEO’s executive vice chair and a life senior member. They include the Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society, the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society, the IEEE Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society, the IEEE Communications Society, and the IEEE Sensors Council.

FINDING EVERY DROP Making water more available begins with finding where that water is, often from satellite observations. This means not only measuring the area of lakes and oceans but also determining the volume of water they hold. It also means finding water that isn’t visible to the eye.

“One of the pilot proposals is to measure the health of aquifers and the amount of water they hold, based on space-based measurements,” Wiener says. “At low frequencies you can get radar returns that show underground topography, revealing where the natural cisterns are and the likely presence of water.”

Local gravity variations can also indicate underground structures that may contain water. And reflectivity measurements serve as a surrogate for soil moisture. Some of these technologies are already finding new groundwater.

Of course, these new sources aren’t always where they’ll be needed. “Redistributing water is an opportunity for meeting some of the world’s water needs, but the current economics of doing so make this option unattractive,” Wiener says. “More and more people are moving close to seacoasts, where you have lots of salt water, which you can desalinate. The lack of electric power is more the issue in developing such sources in poor countries, but wind and wave energy may provide solutions.”

Water recirculates: the run-off that reaches lakes and oceans comes back to land as rain. So although the amount of water on Earth is finite, “we won’t run out,” says Wiener. With proper management and reclamation, “water resources are limited only by man’s imagination.”

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