It was the second day of the Special Operation Forces Exhibition in Amman, Jordan, and the temperature outside the convention center was around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, with a typical chance of rain of zero. Drones of various sizes hovered in the hot blue desert sky. Inside, Ed Atchley had set up a booth for his company, Aspen Water Inc., right next to a 30mm chain gun designed to sink things like helicopters and Somali pirate ships. Ed had traveled from his headquarters in Richardson, Texas, to the largest weapons trade show in the world, mainly because he makes “the army’s smallest, lightest, least expensive, high output, reverse osmosis water purifier," he says, and people in the Middle East – including soldiers – get very thirsty.
His Aspen 2000DM, his popular desalination machine, wants to solve another problem too, one familiar to many of the generals and officials who came to SOFEX: a cool glass of water sounds like just a thing you drink, but it also represents struggle, war, and famine. Some experts say the only documented case of a “water war” happened about 4,500 years ago, when the city-states of Lagash and Umma went to war in the Tigris-Euphrates basin. Now some believe that future water wars in the Middle East and Central Asia are not a question of if but when. The former King Hussein of Jordan once said water is the only reason he would go to war with Israel; Ariel Sharon told a journalist that the reason for going to war against Arab armies in 1967 was water. (Amnesty International reports that Israelis use 300 liters of water per person compared to Palestinians, who use 70 liters.) By 2030, says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 47 per cent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress.
And the political heat around water, especially in water-deprived regions, is only getting hotter. Credit is due in part to climate change, the result of the record amounts of fossil fuels produced in the Middle East and around the world. Rising temperatures and erratic climate events effect the price of food. That number reached a new all-time high in March of 2011, and is considered one factor behind the unrest that brought down regimes during the Arab Spring. “Climate change played a necessary role, even if it was obviously an insufficient trigger on its own,” says a report from the Canada-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. “A proximate factor behind the unrest was a spike in global food crises, which in turn was due in part to the extreme weather throughout the globe over the past year.”
“There is so little water here,” says William, a Jordanian water engineer and resident of Ghor Mazra’a, a small village near the Dead Sea (which, by the way, is falling one meter a year as Jordanians, Israelis, Lebanese, and Syrians pump fresh water from the Jordan River, depriving the Dead Sea of replenishment). In Amman, the chronic water shortage is mostly due to its geography: a high-elevation desert city with very little surface runoff, low rainfall, and a booming population. Water per capita has dropped from 3,600 cubic metres in 1946 to 145 cubic metres in 2008. This means only periodic water delivery: for most people, water only flows from the tap twice a month. (Attendees at SOFEX were served water from large bubblers, and journalists received their H2O in sealed, Jell-o-cup-like containers.)
Around Jordan, the shortage makes for a real mother of invention. "We are almost completely sustainable,” William says, speaking of his house. He shows me a series of barrels that line the back of his home. “All the water we use inside comes into these barrels, making greywater for our garden.”
Potable water is a different challenge, and the Jordanian government is scrambling to build infrastructure, from aqueducts to large-scale desalination plants, to address it. Ed’s reverse osmosis purifier, useful for smaller, mobile uses, is capable, he tells me, of taking “sewage to baby safe, and will operate standing on its own internal battery for four hours, making 2000 pounds of water before you have to find electricity.” Ed compares the machine’s special membrane technology to a lung in which oxygen and deoxygenated blood pass through a highly porous filter. In the purifiers, pressurized water passes though a system of three membranes to desalinate the water. (“The rest of the details,” he says, “are proprietary”).
There was more than one booth at SOFEX trying to sell me a Javelin missile, so I assumed there was more than one company trying to sell me one of these water purifiers. But there weren’t any. And when I looked online I didn’t find much, either. But I did stumble upon a lawsuit filed in 2008 in the 5th district court of Dallas, Texas, between Aspen Water, Inc. and Global Water Group. When I asked Ed about the case, he said the accusation (described in the lawsuit as “misappropriation of trade secrets and conspiracy”) was a ridiculous claim made by a company of which he was formerly president and shareholder. In an appeal courts opinion, Justice Michael O’Neill wrote that "the similarity lies only in the percentages of two commonly used ingredients, [and] no inference of use arises. We conclude there is legally insufficient evidence to show misappropriation of [Global Water Groups’] formula.” Since those legal hurdles were resolved, Aspen Water has been growing, distributing fresh water systems to militaries around the world and in humanitarian crises. Last year, some of his 2000DMs were deployed in Thailand after its record floods, and in the Philippines following the tsunami there in February.
When I ask Ed how he feels designing products for war, he is quick to clarify his relationship. “These products are designed for disaster relief," he explains. "I wasn’t interested in working with the military. Too much red tape. But they begged to see the water purifiers in action.” One thing led to another, and now he’s “been designing and building these systems for 20 years for the United States Military, primarily the Special Forces.” He says he has sold about 1,000 units to the Department of Defense, at prices ranging from $20,000 to $75,000 a pop.
Ed acknowledges that his business with the military has allowed him to make some big leaps with his company and his technology, pointing to the shades of grey within the military-industrial complex. Technological advancements that stoke divide-and-conquer tactics have led to some helpful tools – the microwave, modern headphones, GPS, and the Internet, to an extent – used in those non-war moments of life. But it’s hard to lump Ed’s purifiers in with even these inventions. There’s no blood on the hands of these water purifiers. The ethics are simpler. Aspen Water’s products are used in both manmade and natural disasters, and every time they have saved lives. “We had to be one of the busiest booths at the SOFEX show," he says. “Everyone in the Middle East is concerned about water.”
This piece originally ran on Motherboard.