How can we save water and avoid a crisis?

Anders Berntell
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
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Water is at the heart of international discussions on human and economic development. For the third year in a row, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report has put water security as one of the five biggest global risks for the near future.

The thirst of economic growth and population growth are what has led to a situation in which many parts of the world simply don’t have enough water, and, in other places, much of the available water is polluted.

The growing number of people in the world increases demand for food, energy and water. Changing patterns of consumption – not just the growing head count – require more water. To provide the energy and quality of food that people need to make a better life, particularly in developing countries, there are shifts to more water-intensive production methods; grain-fed meat, for instance, is now part of the food chain in developing countries as well as developed markets.

Yet, while demand for water is rising, supply is under threat. Already, many river basins are failing to reach the sea for parts of the year; some are running dry. A couple of years ago, the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG) commissioned research that forecast the gap between global water supply and demand. If current trends continue, that gap will be 40% by 2030, based on the need for more water for food, industry, energy production and household use.

However, there are opportunities to reduce demand by using water more efficiently. In September last year, 2030 WRG presented a collection of 42 case studies from all around the world showing how water could be saved in agriculture, industrial production and in municipal water distribution. In each case, we were able to quantify the water saved, the cost at which those savings were achieved, and set out the knock-on effects in increased food production or reduced energy consumption.

We know, therefore, that there are substantial efficiency gains to be made. More can be done with less. Food can be produced using less water and less energy. Energy can be produced using less water, and if we reduce water consumption, there are further energy savings to be made because the need to pump and transport water is reduced. The forecast gap between water supply and demand is not something we should regard as inevitable; we can all contribute to reducing it.

What many of the case studies show, however, is that often water savings are a by-product of projects that have been designed primarily to reduce energy consumption. And this illustrates a fundamental point: electricity is a commodity that is prized on a market (in most countries). Water is a natural resource that has many uses and many values. One of the reasons why water is not seen as a scarce and valuable resource by many of those who use it, in agriculture, industry, or in the municipal distribution system is that it is not properly prized. . In some municipalities, up to half of the drinking water they produce is lost between the source and delivery to the consumer, mostly through leaky pipes. Imagine any other business losing up to half of the goods it produces before it reaches the consumer. It is unthinkable. Clearly, in cases like this, the value of water has not been understood – or perhaps the price of the water at source has not been calculated to reflect that value.

This has got nothing at all to do with the issues related to the Human right to water as such, and the needs of water for human consumption and daily basic needs There are several examples from around the world of tariff structures that protect poor segments of society, while charging extra for water used for watering lawns, filling up swimming pools or washing cars.

Efficiency gains and re-valuing water will sometimes not be enough, however, to close the gap between demand and supply in all places. Tanzania, for instance, is a country already suffering from a scarcity of water in many regions. The country has enormous potential for development, rich as it is in fertile soils, minerals, oil and gas, and in its human resources. Yet rainfall is patchy, and, because industrial development is in its infancy in large parts of the country, the efficiency gains that businesses can make in other markets to save water simply cannot happen there. In many areas, there is no industry to speak of, there are no leaky municipal water pipes that can be fixed, and subsistence agriculture depends largely on rainfall. There are ambitious plans in Tanzania for irrigated agriculture, hydro-electric power, and industrial development. But the water required to realise all of those  plans combined just isn’t there.

In many countries, governments have difficult decisions to make, some might be easier, such as how to improve water efficiency, but also much mored difficult regarding how to allocate water when there just isn’t enough to both meet all the aspirations that exist, while safeguarding the basic needs for people and ecosystems. Those governments need our support.

Read more blogs on World Water Day.

Author: Anders Berntell Executive Director at Water Resources Group

Image: A woman walks on the dried-up river bed in southwest China’s Chongqing Municipality REUTERS/China Daily

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