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The looming water shortage crisis

An astronaut’s view of Earth reveals a blue planet with 70 percent of its surface covered in water. Yet the World Economic Forum (WEF) earlier this year ranked water scarcity as the second largest risk facing the world in the years ahead. As the global population grows and the amount of water stays the same, will there be enough water for everyone? 

Water appears to be plentiful, yet appearances are deceptive. Fresh water – that we drink, bathe in and irrigate our fields with – has been described as “incredibly rare” by the World Wildlife Fund. WWF say that only 3 percent of the world’s water “is fresh, and two-thirds of that is tucked away in frozen glaciers or otherwise unavailable for our use.”

This leaves less than one percent of the world’s total water readily usable by humans. Demand for this small percentage of water is ever increasing, and already 780 million people in the world do not have access to clean water. A 2008 Goldman Sachs “Top Five Risks” conference, in fact, identified a catastrophic global water shortage as a greater global risk than soaring food prices and exhaustion of energy reserves during the 21st century.

Water stress and scarcity

There can be several reasons for water stress or scarcity, such as a physical lack of water in a region, insufficient infrastructure to access available water, or unsustainable use. According to the UN, around 1.2 billion people live in areas of physical water scarcity, while another 1.6 billion people face economic water scarcity because their countries lack the infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers.

Water scarcity is typically defined as a situation where the water demands of all users in a system cannot be met. A region is defined as experiencing water stress when annual water supplies drop below 1,700 m3 per person, and experiencing water scarcity when it drops below 1,000 m3 per person. The UN predicts that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water-stressed conditions.

Unsustainable use

Unconstrained water use has surged to a level more than twice the rate of twentieth century population growth. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), says “demographic pressures, the rate of economic development, urbanization and pollution are all putting unprecedented pressure on a renewable, yet finite resource, particularly in semi-arid and arid regions.”

In Europe, to take one example, 60 percent of cities with more than 100,000 people are using groundwater at a faster rate than it can be replenished. Globally, more than 1.4 billion people live in river basins where the use of water exceeds minimum recharge levels, thus depleting groundwater and rivers.

The FAO notes agriculture is the sector where water scarcity has the greatest relevance. Currently, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of global freshwater use, yet in a country like Tanzania around 80 percent of the water used for irrigation goes to waste.

Increased competition and conflict

“Our experiences tell us that environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict and would be greater in poor nations,” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned.

“Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon,” he told participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos in late January 2013.

The Secretary-General cited a recent report by International Alert identifying 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, where climate change and water-related crises create a high risk of violent conflict. A further 56 countries, representing another 1.2 billion people, are at high risk of political instability, according to the study.

“This is not an issue of rich or poor, north or south,” he said, pointing to examples of water problems in China, the United States, Spain, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Republic of Korea. “All regions are experiencing the problem.”

The Secretary-General emphasized that water resources must be protected. “There is still enough water for all of us – but only so long as we keep it clean, use it more wisely, and share it fairly,” he said.

What can be done?

Last year’s UN World Water Development Report states that “initiatives worldwide are emerging to address the need for improved and comprehensive urban water planning, technologies, investment and associated operations.”

One such initiative is water reuse, which conserves limited potable water supplies by using treated wastewater effluent for irrigation and in industrial processes (see the World Bank’s new infographic on water reuse). There is also a growing awareness of the importance of “hydro-diplomacy” to prevent conflicts over water in regions like the Middle East and North Africa. With climate change and droughts, many large companies – such as PepsiCo and MillerCoors – are also realizing how water scarcity and waste affects their bottom line and are implementing efficiency measures.

As the UN states in its report, water users at all levels of society need to act more responsibly to ensure that the world’s freshwater resources meet the needs of everyone.

by David Noble