Can water consumption be decoupled from economic growth?

Economic growth has been identified as one of the key factors contributing towards accelerating global water scarcity, as population expansion and growing urbanisation add to the pressures on finite freshwater resources. The UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) published a report in 2016 looking into the potential for decoupling water consumption from economic growth – essentially, moving to more sustainable forms of water use without reducing growth – stating that half the world could face severe water stress by 2030 unless this is achieved. But how can this be done in practice and how likely will this be?

The importance of decoupling water consumption from economic growth

In 2015, the UN launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to be met by 2030. These goals were largely based around the twin concepts of global economic development (to eradicate problems such as poverty, hunger and insecure employment) and environmental sustainability (clean water and energy, sustainable consumption and production, tackling climate change).

Many have noted the tensions between these two concepts. Particularly in the case of water sustainability, where research suggests that demand for water could exceed supply by as much as 40% as early as 2030 if growth continues without sustainable water practices in place.

For the SDGs to have any chance of meeting targets, water consumption needs to be decoupled from economic growth. Water is essential to human life, wellbeing, ecosystems and industrial/agricultural production. Although decoupling is occurring at a slow rate, with overall water consumption increasing around five times slower than economic growth, much more needs to be done if we are to avert a global crisis.

 How can decoupling be achieved?

Decoupling water consumption from economic growth can only be done via a sustained effort in terms of policies and practices that aim to reduce water use and long-term dependency on freshwater supplies. Techniques can include:

  • better water management at both central and local level, for example upgrading infrastructure to reduce water leaks
  • investing in sustainable technologies ranging from city-wide buffering and infiltration systems to water recycling systems at business and household level
  • Monitoring water use and water quality and implementing IoT in the water sector to steer the decoupling based on qualitative data
  • policies to reduce water use in agricultural and industrial production that incentivize the implementation of for example smart irrigation techniques, water use monitoring and water reuse technology
  • Communication efforts to engage all stakeholders to join forces in implementing the decoupling.

A number of countries have shown that it's possible to continue with economic growth while reversing the trend for increasing water consumption. Australia has managed to reduce its water consumption by 40% while at the same time increasing GDP by 30% between 2001-09. China, one of the world's fastest growing economies, is piloting “sponge cities” in several areas. Research has shown good levels of decoupling in some provinces as water consumption levels out or reduces. Meanwhile India, one of the countries most at risk of extreme water stress, is looking into ways to reduce its water consumption by up to 80% by improving its farming techniques.

Decoupling challenges

Decoupling is a noble aim but it is by no means easy to achieve, even if the will for change is in place. Indeed, some have argued that environmental approaches will always be seen as secondary to economic growth strategies, and the tensions between the two will ultimately be damaging to the environment unless a new approach is taken.

Even looking beyond these tensions, progress is very uneven. Water scarcity is a global problem. It will not be enough if only a handful of leading countries put necessary measures in place. Many nations still pursue unsustainable projects such as building dams, canals and aqueducts while not investing enough in improving water infrastructure. There are also regional disparities, with 12 of the 17 countries most at risk of extreme water stress in the Middle East or North Africa. Global best practice is needed and some countries or regions may need more support than others.

Additionally, there needs to be more mainstreaming of available technologies that can help avert a crisis. Systems for wastewater recycling, rainwater harvesting, desalination and buffering/infiltration can play a key role in greatly reducing water footprint but as yet have not received sufficient investment or attention.

Conflicts and geopolitics play a major role as well. According to the UN, there are 263 lake and river basins and around 300 groundwater basins and aquifers that cross international boundaries, and there have been 37 serious conflicts over water around the globe since 1948. Water should be considered a common product essential for all human beings and not cause or be used in regional disputes. Proper and sustainable management will be hindered by the conflict which, in the long term, can have a negative impact on all parties involved.

Water Experts offers sustainable options for water use and how you can contribute towards reducing the water footprint in your area. Our experts can advise on how to decouple economic growth from water consumption by implementing sustainable water management and water reuse technology. This includes BOSAQ technology such as the Q-Drop water purification system which can provide you with a sustainable recycled water supply.

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