How Much Water Does Your iPhone Drink?

article image
Richard Borge /

When commentators are discussing impending water shortages, they understandably focus on personal uses, from drinking water to bathing. But the resources needed to keep the faucets on are a just a drop in the bucket, especially considering the millions of gallons guzzled each day to maintain society’s various mechanical processes, including energy production. Even an iPhone relies on water, IEEE Spectrum (June 2010) points out in the introduction to an illuminating package of articles on “the coming clash between water and energy.”

“Plug your iPhone into the wall,” the magazine reports, “and about half a liter of water must flow through kilometers of pipes, pumps, and the heat exchangers of a power plant. . . . Now, add up all the half liters of water used to generate the roughly 17 billion megawatt-hours that the world will burn through this year. Trust us, it’s a lot of water. In the United States alone, on just one average day, more than 500 billion liters of freshwater travel through the country’s power plants–more than twice what flows through the Nile.”

In a bit of cyclical perversity, it takes an enormous amount of energy to push all that water through pipes, and in an era in which both resources–the water and the energy–are in greater and greater demand, conservation and efficiency become paramount. IEEE Spectrum profiles two places that may point the way for the rest of the world in balancing these twin demands: Singapore and Malta.

Singapore, an island with virtually no freshwater supply, collects wastewater, cleans it with a state-of-the-art filtering system, and returns it to the water system. One expert even credits Singapore’s economic success over the past 45 years to its water strategy. While the filtering process is energy intensive, because it relies on natural gas imports, it also drives innovations in efficiency.

In Malta, a nation of 400,000 people on a seven-island archipelago between Italy and Tunisia, a “smart” electrical grid that is being created will monitor both water and electricity. The grid will heighten efficiency, prevent electricity theft, and prepare for coming strains on both systems. “Maybe the Maltese,” writes IEEE, “can conserve their way to a sustainable future.”

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.