What problems are we facing?
We are facing a potential global water shortage. With around 1.1 billion people – around 15% of the global population – already lacking access to clean drinking water, it is predicted that 33 countries will face problems with water supply by 2040 as demand continues to surge. Problems are due to a number of factors, including:
The ever-expanding global population puts an increasing demand on water supplies. The OECD has predicted that water demand will increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050. Economic growth and industrialisation add to the pressure on water supply, as resources such as meat and fossil fuel energy are water-intensive in their production.
Climate change has disrupted the earth’s water cycle, increasing the occurrence of both droughts in water-deprived regions and floods in water-rich regions. Warmer countries, particularly those nearer to the equator, are deprived of vital rainwater.
Poor water management
We don’t use water efficiently and waste far too much of it. That goes for both individuals and industries. In fact, domestic use of water only accounts for around 3% of total consumption. Far more is used in agriculture (which accounts for 80-90%), industry and energy production. Water is used in the production of most things, often excessively (e.g. half a litre of soft drink can require as much as 175 litres of water to produce). Water is also wasted through problems such as leaks, with the US losing around 6 billion gallons each day due to pipe leaks. The EU has estimated that leakage rates in member states vary between 7% and 50%.
Water supplies across the world have come under threat from a range of pollutants including raw sewage, industrial waste, pesticides and mineral extraction processes.
What solutions might there be?
Better water efficiency
One of the most effective solutions is to cut down on waste and reduce water use. This comes down both to educating populations on reducing their individual water footprint (e.g. re-using water, only putting full loads in the washer) and improving farming and industrial practices so that pressure on the water supply is lowered. This requires strategies to eliminate waste at both national and international levels. One good example is Australia, where a 12-year drought was survived by the government implemented measures to halve both domestic and commercial water use.
Desalination of saltwater
Although we are a water-rich planet, over 97% of the world’s water is seawater unfit for human consumption. When water reserves held in frozen ice caps and located in inaccessible underground areas are accounted for, we are actually left with only 1% of our planet’s water as a usable resource. But modern technology has made desalination – turning saltwater into potable drinking water – now possible, and it’s also slowly becoming cheaper. Through desalination, it’s possible to hugely increase our water supply. One country that has made use of this is Israel, where half of the drinking water now comes from desalination.
We have seen a growth in the recycling of materials over the past couple of decades as people have become more environmentally conscious. Several countries have now extended this practice to water to try and counter risks of a shortage. Methods include rainwater collection systems and treating waste water so that it can be reused. Singapore, a country without a big enough supply of freshwater to meet the demands of its population, is a leader in both techniques. 40% of its water needs are met through recycled waste water, with a further 10% provided by captured rainwater.
If a future global water crisis is to be averted, it’s going to take a concerted effort at all levels – household, business, governmental and supranational. It will require both political will and financial resources. The EU adopted a Safeguarding European Waters policy in 2012 and, more recently, the US announced a Global Water Strategy. The powers that be have started to take notice. They need to make sure they follow this up by taking the necessary action.