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Solutions for sustainability will guide Earth’s future
June 9, 2009, 12:33 pm
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LEN C. RODMAN GUEST COLUMNIST

Imagine the year is 2025, and we are reflecting on the progress made in addressing global challenges.

Nearly one decade into the turn of the century, the world’s population was 6.6 billion and growing, with most people living in cities. The nexus of issues we faced could be summed up in a single word: sustainability.

The century began with the world trying to find solutions to climate change, energy assurance, water scarcity, safety and security, economics, food shortages, transportation and many other competing issues.

We could see that to exist in 2025, future generations needed us to address issues beyond their immediate scope — not unlike the aqueduct engineers of early Rome centuries before. We had to design larger infrastructure solutions with a much longer life cycle that would span traditional political boundaries.

Early in the millennium, we recognized the growing interdependence between energy and water. The energy cycle was affecting water through climate change resulting in rising sea levels, increased flooding alternating with severe drought. Increased use of energy to process and deliver clean, potable water created complex challenges while the demand grew also for water needed for energy production.

We learned how to manage energy and water demand at a household level, giving individuals a direct opportunity to contribute to the solution, while saving money and reducing waste.

The island nation Singapore, for example, optimized its water program by aligning it with advanced, energy-efficient technology for desalination and recycled water processes. The country also effectively engaged individuals and public and private institutions to conserve water and take ownership of water resources.

Australia showed us a way to increase water supply in a low-carbon manner. Recycled water supplies were piped to major power generation stations to reduce reliance on water from another drought-affected area of the country. Water desalination plants also used wind power to lower the carbon footprint.

In the United Kingdom, major water utilities followed up on their commitments to adopt renewable energy projects by capturing tidal energy and sending it back in the electric grid, as well as installing wind power projects.

In the southwest United States, seven states cooperated to solve water supply issues along the Colorado river basin through collaborative approaches such as desalination plant construction to meet Mexico’s water rights and supplies. This directly addressed drought conditions and the effects of climate change on snow pack melt availability as a key water source.

Although many advocated conservation as the only real solution to a resource-constrained environment, others learned how to become more self-sufficient and designed systems to reduce commuting. In effect, we replaced subsidies on natural resources with penalties for over consumption. And the elimination of waste was as important as the generation of new resources.

Behaviors changed and innovative solutions were initiated to deal with issues surrounding the growing population in cities: in particular, food supply and potable water. This was a major undertaking with the world’s population growing to 9 billion by 2025.

One thing was clear. We could not simply discuss or debate the future; we had to plan, take action and then measure results. Yes, mistakes were made, but lessons were learned. The greatest mistake would have been not taking action. We needed to plan for systems that would outlive our children’s children.

Will this be how our story is recounted in 2025 and how the great minds of tomorrow will plan for the future by learning from the present? What will be the legacy we leave?

We must act now, using holistic and global views, to develop the best combination of solutions for sustainability. We know for the success of global sustainability we must collaborate, work and live in harmony like no time in the past, truly building a world of difference.

Len C. Rodman is chairman, president and CEO of Black & Veatch, Overland Park.

Posted on Mon, Jun. 08, 2009 10:15 PM
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