The Future of Water: Strategies to Meet the Challenge

Despite the UN’s adoption of a new economic and social right in 2010 – the Right to safe drinking water and sanitation – the deficit of fresh water is becoming increasingly severe and large-scale.

The mounting water crisis and its geography make it clear that without resolute counter­action, many societies’ adaptive capacities within the coming decades will be overstretched.

The scale and the global nature of the water crisis demand a new level of statesmanship, of vision and of international action. To master successfully the threats of water crisis, not only its effects, but essentially its underlying causes must be addressed by implementing structural changes in our water policies and economies. This requires a coherent strategy in which the economic, social, water and environmental aspects of policy must be properly coordinated.

The world needs a standalone comprehensive “water goal” in the post-2015 development agenda, based on principles of equity, solidarity, recognition of the limits of our planet and rights approach, and linking development and environment in analyses and in governance policies. Such a goal would address the three interdependent dimensions of water: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, Water Resources Management and Wastewater Management and Water Quality.

Scientific understanding of water risks and worldwide evidence clearly define the challenges to be addressed and provide a sound basis for policy; the resources required could be made available if the water agenda is given sufficient priority; and the benefits and opportunities of early action are undeniable. In fact, the moral, scientific and practical imperatives for action are established.

The United Nations’ General Assembly recognized a new economic and social right in 2010 – the Right to safe drinking water and sanitation.

Despite the UN’s adoption of this vital principle, the deficit of fresh water is becoming increasingly severe and large-scale – whereas, unlike other resources, there is no substitute for water.

While the drinking water target has officially been met according to the UN’s criteria (based on the number of pipelines) and statistics, in reality the existence of a pipe does not necessarily mean there is clean water reliably flowing out of it; and even if there is, it may be very far away, or priced at a rate which some people cannot afford. More worrying still, recent reports show that drinking water availability in Africa is declining, and the UN Habitat warns that by 2030 more than half the population of huge urban centers will be slum dwellers with no access to safe water or sanitation.

The mounting water crisis and its geography make it clear that without resolute counteraction, many societies’ adaptive capacities will be overstretched within the coming decades. This could result in massive migration, destabilization and violence, jeopardizing national and international security to a new degree. As John F. Kennedy rightly observed in the early 1960s: “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel Prizes – one for peace and one for science.” The observation made 50 years ago has become more appropriate today.

The figures are staggering. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that by 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in regions stricken with absolute water scarcity, while two-thirds of the world population could be living under stress conditions. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assesses that, by 2025, water withdrawals will increase by 50 percent in developing countries, and 18 percent in developed countries. According to UNEP and UN Habitat, about 80 percent of wastewater from human settlements and industrial sources is discharged to the environment without treatment. Last but not the least, the IPCC report suggests that by 2050 annual average runoff will have increased by 10%-40% at high latitudes and decreased by 10%-30% over some dry regions at mid-­­­­lati­tudes and semi-arid regions at low latitudes.

As always, the cost of no action will be much higher than that of action. The return on investment for providing basic services need not be demonstrated anymore. For safe drinking water and sanitation, the World Heath Organization estimated returns of $3-$34 for each $1 invested depending on the region and technology. Worldwide, more than 7,000 major disasters have been recorded since 1970, causing at least $2 trillion in damage and killing at least 2.5 million people. The Stern Review on Climate Change published in 2006 concluded that by 2050 extreme weather could reduce global GDP by 1% and that climate change could cost the world at least 5% in GDP each year if left unabated. If even more dramatic predictions come to pass, the cost could rise to more than 20% of GDP.

1. Where We Stand Today
There will be 220,000 people at the dinner table tonight who were not there last night—many of them hungry, thirsty and desperate. Population growth is one of the major drivers of the multiple changes taking place around the world, including in terms of economic activity and availability of natural resources like water.

Humanity currently uses half of the accessible 12,400 km3 of freshwater per year. The bad news is that the water use is growing even faster than the population: water consumption in the 20th century grew twice as fast as the world population. As a result, a third of the world’s population lives in water-stressed countries now. By 2025, this is expected to rise to two-thirds.

The problem of overcoming the water crisis comprises many complex and controversial questions. But thinking about ways of countering the global water crisis, we must first of all recognize its direct causes.

They include:

1.1 The growth of the world’s population and of agricultural, industrial and energy production, which are the main consumers of water;

The global population tripled in the 20th century but water consumption went up sevenfold. Half the world’s people already live in countries where water tables are falling as aquifers are being depleted. Since 70 percent of world water use is for agriculture, water shortages inevitably translate into food shortages. By 2050, after we add another 3 billion to the population, we will need an 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves.

Already, around one billion people are chronically hungry, and by 2050 agriculture will have to cope with these threats while feeding a growing population with changing dietary demands. This will require doubling food production, especially if we are to build up reserves for climatic extremes.

To do this requires sustainable intensification – getting more from less – on a durable basis.

1.2 The environmental consequences of economic activities and the destruction of natural ecosystems;

Current estimates of global GDP are around US$ 60 trillion and even at modest per capita growth rates in the emerging economies of the world we could easily see a world (as we conventionally measure it today) with a GDP closer to US$ 200 trillion that would meet poverty targets – three worlds sitting on our present one world but stretched to the limits with regard to consumption and production patterns.

We are polluting our lakes, rivers and streams to death. Every day, 2 million tons of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water, the equivalent of the weight of the entire human population of 6.8 billion people. 80% of the world’s rivers are now in peril, affecting 5 billion people on the planet. We are also mining our groundwater far faster than nature can replenish it, sucking it up to grow water-guzzling, chemical-fed crops in deserts or to water thirsty cities that dump an astounding 750 million m3 of land-based water as waste in the oceans every year. The global mining industry sucks up another 750 m3, which it leaves behind as poison. Fully one third of global water withdrawals are now used to produce biofuels – enough water to feed the world. A recent global survey of groundwater found that the rate of depletion more than doubled in the last half century.

1.3 Wasteful use of water and other natural resources in an economy driven by hyper profits and excessive consumption;

The amount of wastewater produced annually is about six times more than the water present in all the rivers of the world.

In many places of the world, a staggering 30 to 40 percent of water or more goes unaccounted for due to water leakages in pipes and canals and illegal tapping.

In the US some of the 852 billion litres wasted each year through over-watering can be saved by installing smart systems which deliver just the right amount of moisture.

City landscaping or “urban irrigation” makes up 58 percent of urban water use, besides the water wasted which generates over 544,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually.

U.S. water-related energy use is at least 521 million megawatt hours a year – equivalent to 13 percent of the nation’s electricity consumption.

The carbon associated with moving, treating and heating water in the U.S. is at least 290 million tons a year.

1.4 Mass poverty and backwardness in countries where authorities are not able, and often have no desire to organize effective water management;

Almost two in three people lacking access to safe drinking water survive on less than 2 dollars a day and one in three on less than 1 dollar a day.

World Bank estimates that 53 million more people were trapped in poverty last year, subsisting on less than $1.25 a day, because of the crisis. This comes after the soaring food and fuel prices of recent years, which pushed 130 to 155 million people into extreme poverty, many of whom have still not recovered.

Dirty water is the biggest killer of children; every day more children die of waterborne disease than HIV/AIDS, malaria and war together. In the global South, dirty water kills a child every three and a half seconds. And it is getting worse. By 2030, global demand for water will exceed supply by 40%—an astounding figure foretelling terrible suffering.

It is not surprising that virtually all of the top 20 countries considered to be “failing states” are depleting exponentially their natural assets—forests, grasslands, soils, and aquifers—locked in a vicious circle to sustain their rapidly growing populations.

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