New studies from the UN have predicted a steep increase in water shortages in the future as the climate warms, leaving many vulnerable people without access to clean drinking water. Find out how countries are aiming to manage their water more efficiently to feed a growing population.
Water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface yet only 3% is freshwater and two-thirds of that is locked away in frozen glaciers. Thus freshwater resources are precious but still manipulated and misused globally leading to a looming endemic shortage. Currently 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and the UN predicts this will rise to 5 billion in 2050.
A key cause is the fivefold increase in freshwater consumption that has occured since 1990. As populations rise there are more mouths to feed not only directly through drinking water but also irrigating crops, including crops designed to feed an increasing number of livestock. There are expected to be 2.3 billion more of us by 2050 thus demands will sky-rocket in the near future as agriculture and crop production increases to feed a larger global society. More people also means more consumers and more water demanded by industrial production of many goods, ranging from cotton clothes to cars.
Climate Change is also exacerbating the problem by making humid areas wetter and dry areas drier, thus the areas with the highest demand and lowest resources will receive less and less rainfall. Droughts will also become more common such as the one faced by India in 2019 affecting 500 million people. Droughts have knock on effects for farming, wildlife and can lead to invasive methods such as damming and diverting river flow to overcome the issue.
Pollution depletes the freshwater source that is available for drinking. Industrial waste is frequently dumped into rivers and lakes and this together with oil spills and plastics that leach toxins makes water unfit for use. Agricultural pollution caused by biotic and abiotic by products of farming practices also results in freshwater contamination.
Possibly the biggest cause of water shortages is poor management and uneven distribution. In the U.S. 24 billion liters of treated water are lost everyday from leaky pipes. The infrastructure of transporting and treating water is out of date and unfit for purpose. As a result in many countries it is cheaper to import clean drinking water than to treat and dispose of waste water.
The effects on the environment with our grapple to retain freshwater could be numerous. Since 1990 half of the world’s wetlands have been lost due to overuse and interference with underground aquifers. Furthermore habitat loss and destruction could occur as a result of damming or transporting water via pipes thus fragmenting organisms and causing isolation.
Without water, world hunger will grow as crop yields deplenish and livestock die. In developing regions such as South Asia agriculture accounts for 91% of water use and here the loss will be felt the greatest compared to the UK and US where only 34% is used in agriculture. But as the developing regions supply a lot of the crops and food to the world, the effects of reduced yields will be felt all over.
Furthermore with reduced clean drinking supply many people in particular in sub saharan Africa will be forced to drink from stream waters that are not clean. This in turn could lead to the increase in cases of cholera, dysentery and other water borne diseases that can be fatal.
There is a gender disparity in the crisis, where women will be more negatively impacted than men. This is due to the fact that in much of the developing world, women are responsible for collecting water. This takes time and energy, in fact in Africa and Asia the average distance of water being carried is 3.5 miles. With this responsibility women are unable to pursue greater goals such as an education or career, a study in Tanzania showed a 12% increase in female school attendance when water was available fifteen minutes away compared to half an hour. Without adequate water supply toilet facilities at schools are not provided which means when girls reach puberty they often miss school as they have no place to change their pads and are made to feel embarrassed and ashamed of the whole situation without any female teachers to ask for advice. Womens safety is also compromised by this fact with many only relieving themselves in daylight hours. In Kenya high numbers of women in slums were raped when they resorted to open defecation due to no private sanitation facilities at home.
One solution thrown around by rich middle-eastern countries is desalination. The theory itself makes sense, the supply of seawater is colossal so why not utilise that instead of squeezing out the little remaining freshwater resources. It works via processes of reverse osmosis or water distillation and allows Israel to get 40% of its domestic water. However there are reasons this is not done globally, desalination requires massive initial investment for treatment plants as well as high energy costs.
Furthermore inlet water from the ocean often contains fish and other sea life and passing through the desalination plant kills these organisms. Fish and other marine life can be damaged as water journets from source to plant. On the outlet side a salt-slurry makes the area around the desalination plant poisonous for the local sea-life. The massive amounts of energy used in desalination contribute to climate change causing greenhouse gas emissions, possibly exacerbating the local drought conditions that require use of desalination in the first place.
Many countries are investing in recharging aquifers, these projects aim to infiltrate or inject excess surface water into underground aquifers so freshwater can be stored as groundwater. This is not only less labour intensive but it also helps restore wetlands which are key for biodiversity as well as making beneficial use of the likely increase in flooding and extreme precipitation in wetter parts of the Earth.
It is a bleak crisis but not one without hope, take the city of Zaragoza, Spain as an example where in response to early 90s crop failure and wildfires they reduced water use by 27%. This was done by focusing on a mindset of how we can reduce needs as opposed to how we can find more water to fuel increasing demand. Between 1997 and 2012 use per capita dropped 50 litres a day despite population growth with more than 30,000 inhabitants voluntarily pledging to reduce water use. This is the most environmentally friendly solution to the crises as it reduces the need for high energy intensive mechanisms and creates a more environmentally conscious community.
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Author: Holly McElroy