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Can we avoid Day Zero?

The idea that major cities across the globe might start running out of water is a frightening prospect. But that’s exactly what experts are warning could happen if we don’t start addressing problems in the way we use and manage water. Several big cities have already been identified as “at risk” and the UN has stated that two-thirds of the world could be living in water-stressed conditions by 2025, with around 25% experiencing absolute water scarcity.

Cape Town and the effects of “Day Zero”

Day Zero sounds like a premise for a gruesome horror movie. But it’s a term used to describe the situation where water reserves in a major city are depleted to the level where the central supply is turned off and water has to be rationed. Sound far-fetched? Well, Cape Town became the first global city last year where this nearly happened. This is not just about global warming. Although Cape Town was pushed over the edge by low rainfall levels, the situation was made much worse by bad water management – with the city losing as much as 37% of supply due to leaks and the government being ill-equipped to deal with a crisis.

Cape Town is not the only city with problems. A number of other big cities have been identified as approaching a “Day Zero” crisis point due to a combination of climate change and inefficient use of water supply. These include Tokyo, London, Los Angeles and Beijing. Another report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has identified European countries including Spain, Belgium, Italy and Germany as being water-stressed.

The effects of large cities running out of water could be catastrophic. With water such a vital resource to all societies, there are impacts not only to health and hygiene but also to industry. With close to 90% of current global water supplies used for commercial purposes, there could be a real danger that “Day Zero” could lead to problems such as food shortages.

What are the main problems?

There are a number of factors that interplay and increase the risk of cities being hit by a “Day Zero” scenario. Climate change is one of the main causes, with disruptions to the world’s water cycle leading to more droughts in water-deprived regions. Population growth is another factor, with the OECD predicting that global water demand will increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050. Pollution of water supplies is also an issue.

Arguably the biggest problem is the over-consumption of water. This comes down not just to domestic use at household level but also water used in commercial practices. It’s already been mentioned how nearly 9/10ths of water is used for agriculture and industry. Water-intensive practices in the production of everything from meat and milk to smartphones and jeans is eating heavily into supplies. Countries across Europe and the western world are putting too much pressure on water supplies. In Belgium, for example, the water footprint (the measure of water consumption) is 5,200 litres per day per person when water used to produce consumable goods is taken into account.

Add to this poor management of water supplies, with even countries such as the US losing around 27 billion litres of water a day through leaks in centralized piping networks, and it’s clear to see how we are wasting water and bringing the threat of “Day Zero” closer through our own bad practices.

What can be done?

The good news is it’s not too late to act, but it will take a serious and planned effort at national, regional and international level to avert “Day Zero” situations happening across cities worldwide in the near future. The World Economic Forum has already identified water shortages as one of the main current global risks. We need to see a shift towards more sustainable industrial practices, such as sustainable farming and waterless dyeing in garment production, which will greatly reduce pressure on global freshwater supplies. We need to see better water-efficient practices at both household and commercial level, including energy-saving low-flow systems and water recycling technologies. We also need countries to invest in their water infrastructure to stop the billions of litres being needlessly wasted through leaks every day.

It won’t be cheap and it won’t happen overnight but, if we can drastically overhaul our water use practices and start living more sustainably, we might give ourselves a chance and banish “Day Zero” to a threat of the past.

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