Understanding the water crisis in a water-filled planet

Falling regularly from the sky and surrounding us in waterways and underground reserves, water feels like it's the most abundant and renewable resource of our planet.

However, we are facing up to an imminent water crisis. The UN has warned that as many as 5 billion people – over half the global population – could be living in areas experiencing water scarcity by 2050.

The dangers of water scarcity haven't featured as prominently on global sustainability agendas as issues such as global warming, perhaps in part due to the perception that we have unlimited reserves. But it's crucial that the situation is properly understood, and necessary action is taken now.

What is the water crisis?

What the global water crisis boils down to is a case of demand outstripping supply. World population and economic growth over the past century has placed added pressures on already depleted reserves. We already have a challenge of around 2.2 billion people worldwide not having readily available access to clean water. More developed parts of the world have now begun to experience water shortages as well. Nearly three-quarters of the world's megacities are facing up to increased water scarcity and drought conditions, while Cape Town only narrowly avoided a “day zero” scenario back in 2018.

But how can we run out of water when it covers 70% of the earth's surface?

Although water does indeed constitute the majority of the surface area of the planet, less than 3% of that is freshwater that can be used for drinking or daily purposes. The vast majority of the earth's water is salt water and brackish water found in its oceans and rivers.

Furthermore, more than two-thirds (68.7%) of freshwater is stored in ice caps or frozen as snow. The remainder is groundwater and surface water, which is where we draw the majority of our reserves from. So we can already see that only a very small portion of the supply on our water-filled planet is currently usable (±0.23%).

Add to this the fact that freshwater is very unevenly distributed across the globe, with some areas wetter and with high annual rainfall while others are drier and more prone to droughts.

What are the main challenges?

Besides the natural challenges involving water, there are also a number of human-made issues, which have exacerbated the global water crisis:

  • Human growth – both population and economic growth have contributed towards the water crisis. The global population has more than trebled in the last 70 years and is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Economic growth and industrialization also add pressure as they use water-intensive methods to produce goods and energy.
  • Poor management of supplies – we don't use water efficiently with water-intensive agricultural and industrial practices accounting for around 88% of global water use. Additionally, ageing centralized water infrastructure loses billions of gallons a day in leaks and will cost trillions of dollars to upgrade.
  • Climate change – this has disrupted the global water cycle and worsened the uneven distribution of water, with an increase in both droughts and floods.
  • Pollution – some of the world's freshwater supplies have become infected with pollutants such as sewage, industrial waste, pesticides and chemicals released through mineral extraction.
  • Over-reliance on freshwater resources – despite the availability of technology to make use of other forms of water (e.g. wastewater, salt water), most countries still source the vast majority of their water from their ground and surface water reserves.

What are the solutions?

Luckily, there are a number of ways in which we can turn things around and avert a worldwide water crisis. New technologies are emerging and expertise is improving to help governments, municipalities, businesses and even households become more efficient and switch to more sustainable supplies.

Solutions include:

  • Better water management – cutting down on waste and reducing water use can greatly reduce pressure on the water supply. This can include educating households on how to reduce their water footprint, performing a water audit on companies to make them more water-efficient, reducing centralized leaks with leak detection technology, and investing in less water-intensive farming and industrial practices. Australia is a good example of what can be done, where the government overcame a 12-year drought by transforming its water management practices.
  • More recycling – investing in water reuse systems, including wastewater recycling or rainwater harvesting technology, can provide an alternative supply (even for drinking water) and reduce mains water usage between 30-70%.
  • desalination – technology is available that can turn saltwater into drinkable water, opening up the possibilities of tapping into the 97% of the global water supply currently unusable. Israel has successfully utilized desalination techniques to overcome water shortage problems, now producing around half of its drinking water via this method.

Water Experts provides bespoke services and advice to a wide range of clients including businesses and communities, helping them to save money and reduce their water footprint. Our services include support to develop a sustainable water management plan and water treatment technology which can provide renewable alternative drinking water supplies.

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