Published: March 29, 2023 By

Around the world, dry areas have become drier and wet places have become wetter, with both drought and flooding reducing the amount of safe drinking water in those areas.

Studies from Oxfam and others have pointed to emissions inequality—wealthy countries by far emit the most greenhouse gases. Those emissions cause destructive weather patterns, with the greatest impact to water quality in the poorest parts of the world.

But what people may not realize is that the capitalism that caused these water issues can be used to solve them,” says Evan Thomas, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering and director of the Mortenson Center in Global Engineering & Resilience.

Thomas will discuss CU Boulder’s work to bring climate finance solutions to water quality challenges in the American West and East Africa at TedXCU on April 7 in Macky Auditorium. 

Used for decades to control greenhouse gas emissions, carbon credits incentivize companies to reduce their emissions by selling the excess credits they earn through emitting less carbon. Corporations that commit to net-zero emissions reduce what they can, then buy the remaining credits from projects that reduce it elsewhere in the world, thus reducing worldwide emissions and fulfilling desires of their investors and customers.

But water management is a local challenge, Thomas says. Using less water in Colorado won’t help residents in Africa affected by drought.

Thomas’ idea is to take carbon credits and bring them into the water world, using them to incentify water conservation. His team was the first in the world to earn carbon credits for drinking water treatment. Today, his company, Virridy Inc., is scaling water treatment programs in Kenya, Rwanda and the United States, financed with carbon credits. 

The company partnered with governments in Rwanda and Kenya to provide water filters to households, thus reducing the need for residents to burn wood to boil and sterilize water. The reduced demand for fuelwood was calculated and transferred to carbon credits, which the company sold to emitting companies. The money generated was used to purchase more water filters.The program has reached more than 5 million people in Rwanda and Kenya.

Thomas says that carbon credits could also be used in the United States to incentivize water conservation. Construction of water treatment plants involve concrete, steel and energy, and once in use, the plants produce a lot of emissions. He says the carbon credits could be earned through green practices such as reducing fertilizer and manure runoff upstream, reducing the need to build more water plants. 

Today about 4 billion people globally face water insecurity at least one day a year, which means they don’t have enough water. And another billion people don’t have safe, clean drinking water. The UN predicts that by 2030, another 700 million people will be displaced because of water insecurity. 

“In seven more years, about 5 billion people will face water insecurity,” Thomas says. “Yet most of the time there is plenty of water. We don’t preserve and protect it and value it so that it’s there when we need it most.

“We can’t count on water being where we need it. We don’t pay for what it’s really worth. We act like it’s free until it’s not there anymore.”