Our Thirsty World :The Man-made Creation of Water Scarcity

By Jimi T Hardee & Rachel Major

Water treatment is so inflexible countless individuals and industries are powerless to control and reuse this precious resource.  Water is our society’s indispensable lifeforce. Unlock the power of recycled water and build a healthier world with NuLeaf.

We put water recycling back into the hands of people and we’re semi-finalists in VERGE Accelerate 2018, a Silicon Valley clean tech conference and competition. If you believe in our bio-inspired solutions to make recycling water easy at any scale, please vote for us in the circular economy category until August 21st! Vote: bit.ly/votefornuleaf

The Ordinary, Thirsty World

In 2014 the city of Flint, Michigan began construction on a new pipeline that would deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint in order to end the city’s dependence on water from Detroit. While the pipeline was under construction, the city would begin to use the Flint River as an alternative water source. This was the beginning of what we now refer to as the Flint Water Crisis.

Although the lead levels in Flint’s water supply are in line with the Federal standard, the contaminated pipe infrastructure is not estimated to be replaced until 2020 and access to clean drinking water is still a concern for many residents of the city.

At this point this is old news, most of us have more or less accepted the water crisis in Flint as a fact of life, part of our “ordinary world.” But the crisis is emblematic of much larger issues that run rampant in our water infrastructure on a global scale.

The Flint water crisis proves that these problems happen right here at home, and it is important because we cannot make the argument--as we have so often been able to in the past--that lack of access to clean water is due to the poor infrastructure of developing nations.


This happened in the United States.

This happened in the nation with the largest GDP of any country in the world.

It is as near as our own home base in Silicon Valley to countless vibrant cities like Cape Town, Barcelona, and Delhi. It ripples across affluent and impoverished nations alike. And the glaring commonality is that many of these water crises result not because of a lack of resources, but of a failure of government and infrastructure.

Even in urban areas currently unaffected by extreme water scarcity, the water infrastructure as it stands can hinder economic development. Businesses that create large amounts of waste water—like breweries— find themselves victimized by the expensive and inflexible nature of traditional water treatment methodologies. The system is not as stable as we think.


These infrastructural and technological failures will and are causing intense, unprecedented, and cascading pressure on our communities in the face of looming water scarcity.

This is especially important because a lack of access to water and sanitation is the keystone of societal growth. Nearly every vital aspect of society from economic infrastructure to access to medicine and education to unchecked population growth are linked to water. Water scarcity is often seen as the leading problem undermining efforts to fight extreme poverty and disease. It is equally required to maintain productivity and growth in a developed country.

So how do we solve a problem that is literally and figuratively built into our society? The core issue is that the standard technology doesn’t let people control their own water or unlock the power of their recycled water.


Access to clean water is reliant on both distribution and accessible water treatment with, ideally, recycling initiatives. As it stands, over 80% of the world’s water is not adequately treated and less than 1% is recycled. This can be tied back to the limitations of our two main types of water treatment solutions, which are septic systems and treatment plants.

Septic systems, one of the most common small “treatment” solutions,  collect solid and soluble wastewater from a home or business and allow that waste to settle until the contaminants can be released into the soil. While septic systems are relatively inexpensive, they don’t provide a means of treating—much less recycling—waste water. For businesses that create a large amount of wastewater, this method of “catch and release” is simply ineffectual.

On the other hand, treatment plants provide a much more comprehensive approach to dealing with wastewater. Indeed, in some corner cases, treatment plants can actually do a relatively good job of recycling the water. The problem here is cost and space as they generally cater only to the largest of industrial and municipal operations. Even for a business that can afford this set up, the plant still must laboriously and expensively be specialized for their specific needs.

Both types of systems require on site maintenance by trained professionals and cannot be scaled up or down in terms of price and efficiency to meet specific treatment needs. This puts both septic systems and treatment plants out of reach in areas of extreme poverty as well as in crowded cities because the obstacles of expense, space, and need for specialized labor are not easy to overcome.

These technologies, largely unchanged for over a century, have created a situation where effective treatment is largely only available at scale.

A Call to Adventure

In spite of this, there is no doubt that there is amazing work being done in the water sector to provide clean water to billions of people around the world.

We are simply providing context to the insidious nature of the problem of water scarcity. It has been the choices we have made in our policies, infrastructures, and technologies over and over again that have made our ordinary world such a thirsty one.

Solving this problem puts the power into the hands of individuals to create effective and small but expandable water technology that doesn’t rely on large corporations and governments. If we’ve learned anything from industrialization, it’s that future technology will only be successful if it is sustainably founded.

Here we are now with another opportunity to leave our ordinary, thirsty world behind and answer the call to adventure.


This is why we started NuLeaf.

Starting from a DIY biotech group, we were impatient about the lack of water solutions in the world. We wanted to provide people with the opportunity to control their water and, by extension, their future.

The NuLeaf team has learned to look in the right places to build easy to use, bioinspired, and powerful water treatment for any scale. A multifunctional design adds bioenergy and vertical farming to boot. For more about where we find inspiration to flip the table on these major issues, tune into our next blog post.



Lead-Laced Water In Flint: A Step-By-Step Look At The Makings Of A Crisis



Water for Life Decade: Water Scarcity



EPA: How Your Septic System Works



Palo Alto Accepts Mountain View Water



Today Wasn’t Day Zero for Cape Town, But the Water Crisis Isn’t Over



‘Day Zero’ water crisis : Spain, Morocco, India, and Iraq at Risk as Reservoirs Shrink



Why Delhi is facing an acute water crisis today



Wastewater enforcement issues for craft breweries: From permit issuance to notices of violation



Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene



Water and Poverty: How Access to Safe Water Reduces Poverty



The top 9 causes of global poverty



Learn about small Wastewater Systems



Septic Tank



Primer for Municipal Wastewater Treatment Systems



Wasting the Wastewater



The United Nations World Water Development Report