It can be argued that the business of wastewater treatment, today largely invisible to the public, could become one of the most critical industries of the 21st century. This is because water itself could take the place of fossil fuels, perhaps even food, as the commodity most sought and fought over. And that in turn means that wastewater could be seen more as a resource than ever before, with wastewater treatment inevitably growing in importance.

The subject of water shortage is increasingly seen as an immediate global issue. The World Economic Forum recently reported that, in less than 20 years, water scarcity could result in the loss of world grain production equivalent to that of India and the United States combined, just as population and food demand is skyrocketing. Moreover, one sixth of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water, and more than 2 million people are estimated to die each year from diseases borne of contaminated water.

The changing climate isn’t helping. Massive glaciers in the Himalayas that are warming and retreating are the source of water for over a billion people, and are withdrawing so quickly that they could essentially be gone by 2100. And, even though there’s a lot of water in the world’s oceans, don’t look for things like desalinization technology to solve the problem any time soon. The energy required, along with other issues, has posed more questions than answers.

Even in the United States, the all-important Ogallala Aquifer, straddling eight states in the West, is being both depleted and polluted, to the point that, at current rates, it could become a largely unusable well before the end of this century. The Ogallala is the single most important source of water in the fertile high plains, supporting much of the crops and cattle produced in the U.S.

Where is all that fresh water going? Only about 3% is being directly consumed. There’s industrial use and agriculture, but more than a third of all accessed water is actually used for energy production in one form or another. For example, water is used extensively during the mining and processing of coal, which accounts for the biggest percentage of energy generation in the U.S. Not that the water disappears, since water can often be reused, but every user represents an increased pressure on the overall water supply, and an increased demand for the treatment of wastewater.

There are a limited number of publicly traded companies involved primarily in wastewater treatment, though several major companies have wastewater treatment solutions as one of their many offerings. An example is Honeywell (NYSE: HON), which has a Process Solutions component as part of its Automation & Control Solutions group, offering systems to treat wastewater. Below are a few companies devoted largely to wastewater treatment.

• General Environmental Management (OTCBB: GEVI) – GEM was a general waste management company, which has recently changed its focus to emphasize wastewater treatment, which the company sees as a more promising industry.
• BioShaft Water Technology (OTCBB: BSHF) – BioShaft designs and manufactures a range of domestic wastewater treatment plants, including a patented fixed-film wastewater treatment process that eliminates sludge.
• Sionix Corporation (OTCBB: SINX) – Sionix specializes in advanced water treatment systems, and uses dissolved air flotation technology for drinking water and wastewater treatment.
• Ecosphere Technologies (OTCBB: ESPH) – Ecosphere is a diversified water engineering company, providing on-site water recycling services for the natural gas industry, and helping clean water energy companies extract natural gas from unconventional shale plays.
• Neohydro Corporation (OTCBB: NHYT) – Neohydro is one of the leading service companies to provide end-to-end water supply solutions for industrial clients. It offers the Pathocell electrode technology for the processing and treatment of wastewater, and also does wastewater recycling.

And then there are companies like National Automation Services Inc. (NASV.PK), a young southwest company that is rapidly becoming a leader in the sophisticated process controls and systems integration required of advanced wastewater treatment systems. National has already helped municipalities and companies throughout Arizona and the desert southwest in putting together elaborate automated systems for controlling wastewater and other processes. They’re confident in their future as water handling and process control experts, comfortable that anybody who knows about water has the keys to the future.

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