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Craig Criddle: Can water security be engineered?

​A professor of civil and environmental engineering discussed the risks and opportunities that face the next generation of water systems.

dry cracked earth

It’s time to start thinking about the long-term future of our water supply. | iStock/sandsun

Exacerbated by population growth, climate change and mass migration, freshwater scarcity is an increasingly pressing issue with the potential to spark conflict and civil disorder.

“How do we intervene from an engineering perspective?” asked Craig Criddle, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and director of the Codiga Resource Recovery Center, in a recent seminar at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Criddle explained that water security involves five crucial elements: quantity, quality, affordability, equity and, especially, resilience. “Are we thinking about long-term strategies that ensure that if there’s a perturbation in the system, some problems, some upset, that we’ll still be OK?”

Criddle also traced the history of water and wastewater treatment systems. “Basically, it’s a history of transport. It’s moving water around.” The problem is that, more and more, the freshwater is not where the people are and moving water is an energy-intensive endeavor prone to disruptions, Criddle said. On top of that, many of the water systems built last century are approaching the end of their life cycles. “We can go backward. There could be another sanitation dark age. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves,” Criddle warned. “We’re in a new era. We need a different perspective.”

Outlining a range of projects and promising technologies, Criddle laid out his vision for the future of water and wastewater systems, from mobile resource recovery units that extract valuable materials from wastewater to smart sewers designed to monitor and analyze pathogens and other community health risks. And to complement a new wave of effective technology deployed at scale, Criddle called for support from a variety of stakeholders to ensure water security going forward.

“It’s critical to have good governance for these systems and science-based standards that protect public health and the environment,” he said. “We need to have sustained investment in these systems to meet local needs, now and in the future.”