3 Amazing Inventions That Can Solve the Water Crisis (Review of National Geographic’s ‘Breakthrough’ – Ep. 6)

Kevin Ott - Editor and Writer for Rocking God's House (small)

No offense to Peter Berg, Paul Giamatti, Brett Ratner, Ron Howard, or Akiva Goldsman, but of all the sequences that introduce an episode in the National Geographic Breakthrough series, Angela Bassett’s introduction to her episode (which airs this Sunday 12/13/15 at 9/8c on National Geographic) is my favorite. 

LOS ANGELES, CA - Angela Bassett directs the Water Apocalypse episode of Breakthrough. 

(Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic)

LOS ANGELES, CA – Angela Bassett directs the Water Apocalypse episode of Breakthrough. 

(Photo by Barry King/FilmMagic)

I love the poetry of it, and the use of Hebrew scripture (Joel 1:20) — and the visual juxtaposition: Bassett strolling through a dry aqueduct with a white umbrella over her head.

If you’re wondering why I mentioned five other famous Hollywood directors/actors, it’s because each of the six episodes in “Breakthrough” is directed by one of these Hollywood luminaries.

Frankly, I’ve never seen anything quite like this series on television. (And kudos to @NatGeo; they’ve been doing a lot of very unique things lately — like Saints & Strangers).

Episode 6 of “Breakthrough,” called “Water Apocalypse,” looks at the very dire problem of water shortage in the world — a problem that is, as I write this, shaping history behind the scenes.

For example, the entire Middle East (except for Israel) is in the midst of a potentially civilization-ending water crisis. If that sounds alarmist, the facts support this severe assessment.

It’s utterly shocking. Most Westerners have had no idea this is going on — including me, until recently (hat tip to Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, for his extensive coverage of the topic).

The Middle East Water Apocalypse: What a Water Crisis Nightmare Looks Like

Iran gets plenty of news for its politics, but there is another story unfolding in Iran that is historically unprecedented and could reshape the Middle East — perhaps the world.

Issa Kalantari, a government official in Iran, has said in recent years that Iran’s water supply will soon become so insufficient that up to 70 percent of Iran’s population — 55 out of 78 million Iranians — will have no choice but to leave their native country and relocate elsewhere. Over two-thirds of Iran’s settlements are almost out of water. Today’s Syria crisis has produced 4.3 million refugees who have fled Syria. Imagine 55 million refugees.

Lake Urmia in Iran, for example, the largest lake in the Middle East, has lost a whopping 95 percent of its water since 1996. The Zayanderud River in Iran, the lifeline for Isfahan, went completely dry in 2010. According to an eye-witness blogger in Iran, the water came back, but the city still closes the dam and dries up the river periodically because of severe water shortages.

And then there are the dust storms in Iran — huge dust storms that are threatening the lives of vast populations and shutting down entire cities. According to reports from Azer News, “the dust is mainly a result of drought at Hurul-Azim (a wetland in western Khuzestan) that has become a source of particles raised into the air. Today, nothing is left of the former base of water but a dry desert.”

Yemen, Syria, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and Gaza are all experiencing similar calamities. Israel is the exception. Its advanced tech and expert water management has provided an abundant, continuous supply of water. (In fact, Israeli water experts have come to California to help us with the drought.)

Despite the grim conditions, there is hope. There are three state-of-the-art, so-new-that-most-people-haven’t-heard-of-them technologies featured in “Water Apocalypse” that are simply amazing.

1. Drawing Water from the Rock: A Desalinating Miracle

National Geographic Channel's Breakthrough Water Apocalypse 2 - Rocking God's House Christian ReviewThe first one hits home for me. The episode goes to the Central Valley, California, where I grew up, to look at the plight of farmers. Our farms across the Central Valley have been devastated from the drought.

But things are beginning to turn.

As “Breakthrough” shows, a company called WaterFX has set up its revolutionary new desalination plant — a demonstration of its technology — in a struggling farm in the Central Valley. The desalination plant essentially pulls up old water — waste water that has already been used to irrigate the fields, has drained to aquifers deep beneath the ground, and has turned to salt water because of the minerals in the ground — and then the plant desalinates the waste water and reuses it to irrigate the farmland.

If you know the tremendous amount of power it takes to run a desalination plant, you’re probably wondering, “How on earth do they do that?”

You’ll have to watch “Water Apocalypse” (airs this Sunday, 12/13/15, 9/8c on the National Geographic Channel) to get the whole scoop, but it’s brilliant. I’ll give you a hint: it uses the sun like a magnifying glass. And it involves boiling. Lots and lots of boiling.

WaterFX now has funding to build a plant that can desalinate 1.6 billion gallons per year. When they expand on it to a full-size plant, it will be able to sustain 100,000 acres of farmland. In other words, they’ve created a new water source, and they will have transformed the Central Valley and other arid regions like it forever.

2. Using Ocean Waves to Provide Electricity and Drinking Water for an Entire Community

Where I live, on coastal California, surfing is a way of life. It’s considered “spiritual.” I know plenty of Christian surfers in
my area who view surfing as a perfect time and place to pray and strengthen their relationship with Christ.

But now the ocean is becoming more than just a source of relaxation, fun, and spiritual communion.

Thanks to an astonishing new piece of technology, the ocean might very well become the primary source of electricity and drinkable water for a coastal town near you.

It’s called CETO, developed by Carnegie Wave Energy, and it’s the first of its kind in what people are calling “wave energy.”

CETO tethers giant buoys to hydraulic pumps that have been placed on the ocean floor. The enormous swells that pass through the ocean push these buoys continually, and the motion powers the pumps below. The pumps, when triggered, shoot water at a high-pressure through very large pipes that lead to a power station onshore.  The water then spins turbines that generate huge amounts of electricity.

But that’s not all.

The pumps also push water into a reverse-osmosis membrane that filters out the salt. The desalinated water is then deposited into the city’s water facility for distribution to an onshore population.

It’s breathtaking to consider: we’re essentially converting kinetic energy into electricity and drinkable water for an entire community.

We’re now powering civilization with ocean waves.

3. The Warka Water Tower, and Why It Could Be the Salvation of Poor Nations Without Access to Clean Water

ETHIOPIA - Arturo Vittori and his team of Ethiopian architecture students work to assemble stages of the water tower Vittori designed to collect drinking water from passing fog. 

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Brendan Bannon)

ETHIOPIA – Arturo Vittori and his team of Ethiopian architecture students work to assemble stages of the water tower Vittori designed to collect drinking water from passing fog. 

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Brendan Bannon)

In Ethiopia, they don’t necessarily have a shortage of water. They simply have no way of easily accessing the water or filtering their water so that it’s safe to drink. Rural villagers travel great distances and struggle carrying all the water they need. And then the water makes them sick.

In the midst of this dire situation, artist, architect, and industrial designer Arturo Vittori stepped in, along with the talented Warka Water team, to create one of the coolest inventions I’ve ever read about or seen in my life.

It’s a basket-shaped tower made only of bamboo, hemp, metal pins and bio-plastic that can be constructed by rural villagers with simple tools in one hour. They don’t need an outside team of Westerners to come and build something using outside materials. It’s all done locally by the residents who will benefit from it.

It harvests water from fog and dew, and it does it so effectively that it can harvest 13-26 gallons of water a day that is stored in its central storage “tank,” if that’s the right word for it. It can store up to 800 gallons of water — an abundant source of clean water for rural communities in Ethiopia.

You really have to see it in action in National Geographic’s episode. It’s designed to look like a piece of art, and it uses local Ethiopian tradition for its art design. It’s incredible on so many levels.

The site has this fascinating explanation of the Warka Water design:

The Warka’s water harvesting technique and construction system are inspired by several sources. Many plants and animals have developed unique micro- and nano-scale structural features on their surfaces that enable them to collect water from the air and survive in hostile environments. By studying the Namib beetle’s shell, lotus flower leaves, spider web threads and the integrated fog collection system in cactus, we are identifying specific materials and coatings that can enhance dew condensation and water flow and storage capabilities of the mesh. The termite hives have influenced the design of Warka’s outer shell, its airflow, shape and geometry. We also looked at local cultures and vernacular architecture, incorporating traditional Ethiopian basket-weaving techniques in Warka’s design.

It’s moments like these — when creativity, compassion, and genius combine in wonderful synchronicity to meet the needs of others — that we can see how truly unique and marvelous humanity can be when it is at its best.

We can see the image of God in such wonders.

Some Concluding Thoughts About ‘Breakthrough’ and These New Marvels of Technology and Creativity

I’ve walked away from these six episodes of “Breakthrough” with that sort of dazed, concussed sense of wonder and shock. It really is mind-boggling (or mind-bottling, in the case of the “Water” episode), to consider the level of breakthroughs that humanity has achieved even in just the last 10 years. You sort of walk away shaking your head, mumbling the word “amazing,” over and over again.

A series like this is good medicine for the soul during such troubled times. It’s easy to fall into a spiral of pessimism when you spend too much time watching the news and its unrelenting melee of death, darkness and destruction.

But things like this remind us that are some amazing things happening in the world right now too.

And that should encourage us.

The “Water Apocalypse” episode of National Geographic’s “Breakthrough” (@NatGeo, #Breakthrough) series airs this Sunday night, Dec. 13 at 9/8c.

To read my reviews on the other five episodes in the “Breakthrough” series, follow these links:

Episode 1, “Fighting Pandemics” by Peter Berg

Episode 2, “More Than Human” by Paul Giamatti

Episode 3, “Decoding the Brain” by Brett Ratner

Episode 4, “The Age of Aging” by Ron Howard

Episode 5, “Energy on the Edge” by Akiva Goldsman