China's Water Problems, and Ours

Thomas Rooney Jr. addresses the US-China Green Energy Conference in San Francisco on April 18, 2008. (

SAN FRANCISCO, April 18, 2008—With the US and China's economies increasingly intertwined, one of the most important economic and social issues facing both countries is the development of clean, sustainable energy solutions. Asia Society Northern California brought together more than a dozen of the world's leading experts on clean energy in the US and China to discuss the dimensions of this challenge as well as the most promising remedies.

One of the highlights of the conference was an address by Thomas Rooney Jr., former President and CEO of Insituform Technologies, on the connections between water and energy and the emerging crises in each sector. According to Rooney, dramatic climate change, pollution, and drought have already caused surface water to dry up in the parts of the Himalayas that supply China with much of its water. This crisis is compounded by crumbling water infrastructure and an inability to meet current demand with existing resources. Rooney argued that "the need for water is greater than all the other infrastructure needs combined," adding that for its part, the United States currently has more than 300 water main breaks every year, despite having a relatively young infrastructure.

As Rooney sees it, the key issue surrounding water is that most people do not understand the process or the costs involved in guaranteeing a consistent, clean supply. "Moving, pumping, and purifying water is very energy-intensive," he stressed. "If you look at the US alone, water consumes about four percent of all the electricity used in the country."

What exacerbates these problems is that water is chronically under-priced. Critics charge that the true price of water in the US is three to four times higher than the market price, which encourages wasteful water practices.

What can be done to solve these mounting problems? Rooney pointed out several needed reforms. One is to increase the price of water to what it would cost on the free market. Another is to promote water conservation technologies in the home and in industry. A third, which he described as the "Holy Grail" of the water industry, is to continue working on low-energy desalination technologies. Rooney concluded by noting that GE and Siemens have made considerable progress in making desalination technologies more market-friendly, though their solutions are still somewhat expensive.

Reported by Greg Gee, Asia Society Northern California Center, with contributions from Kei Imafuku and Lillian Sie

Related links: video: US - China Green Energy Conference, Panel 1 video: US - China Green Energy Conference, Panel 2