Water Warriors


By Anne Burke

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM

YORAM COHEN LOOKS UP FROM THE PHONE. He's wearing an expression that says, "Wait 'til you hear this." Cohen is the director of the Water Technology Research Center at UCLA and one of the world's foremost experts on reverse-osmosis membrane desalination. He's talking to a developer who called looking for advice about installing a desalination plant at a housing tract in the San Joaquin Valley. Cohen finishes the conversation and chuckles.

"He wants to know if we're on top of our game!" One might ask if Kobe or Tiger is on top of his game. Cohen and his colleagues have put together the academic world's leading R&D program in reverse-osmosis, or "RO" membrane desalination — a process invented at UCLA nearly half a century ago.

RO desalination is the state-of-the-art technology for turning seawater and brackish water into fresh drinking water. But the process is still too problematic to be practical and economical for the parched masses. If we're going to meet the needs of a thirsty planet, we'll look to scientists like the 53-year-old Cohen (photo above) to help do it.

Freshwater Falloff

"Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink," is as apt today as when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in the 18th century. Seventy percent of the world's surface is covered in water, but only a tiny percentage of that is freshwater. Due to overconsumption, pollution and climate change, supplies of this most precious of natural resources are dwindling at an alarming rate.

Today, about 20 percent of the world's population lacks access to safe drinking water, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. More than 2.2 million people die each year from diseases associated with poor water and sanitary conditions, the UN reports. At any one time, half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by people suffering from waterborne diseases.

If present consumption patterns continue, two out of three people will live in water-stressed conditions by the year 2025, according to the UN's World Meteorological Organization. We can laugh at the chestnut attributed to Mark Twain — "Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over" — but not at former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin's unsettling prediction that the next world war will be fought not over oil or ideology, but water.