Signs of impending water shortages are cropping up worldwide
Climate change, overuse, population growth, increased demand for food and energy and mismatches between where water is available and where people live are all contributing to growing global concern about water resources. While agreement about the challenges is almost universal, however, solutions are in short supply.
Most students learn as children that water covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. But most of that liquid is saltwater that can’t be used for drinking, growing crops or industrial processes. Now, due to accelerating climate change, booming populations that need to be fed and increased competition for scarce resources, the availability of freshwater has become a major challenge in many parts of the world.
The World Resources Institute, a nonprofit global research organization, estimates that more than 1 billion people live in water-scarce regions, and 3.5 billion could experience water scarcity by 2025.
In Syria, for example, the severe drought of 2007-2010 drove as many as 2 million rural farmers to the cities, contributing to the social stress that led to an uprising against the country’s president. In the conflict that ensued, many joined the largest migration since World War II, and debate is raging across Europe as governments decide whether to admit the refugees and where to house them.
“The entire Middle East region has been very dry in recent years,” said Majd Hamdan, assistant director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas office in Damascus, the Syrian capital. “It’s been a very dry few years in Syria. The drought cycle (of alternating wet and dry years) is getting shorter and droughts are now much more frequent.”
Water shortages have flared into conflict outside the Middle East as well. Afghanistan, for example, has complained that neighboring countries are stealing its water. The United States has been accused of undermining Mexico’s farmers by diverting so much water from the Colorado River to the US southwest that saltwater incursion from the Sea of Cortez makes what is left unsuitable for irrigation by the time it reaches northwest Mexico.
In India, meanwhile, at least two people died in water riots in the country’s tech center of Bengaluru in September over the Indian Supreme Court’s order to release water from Cauvery River reservoirs to drought-stricken farmers in Tamil Nadu state. Drought has been compounded by the draining of underground aquifers through years of overuse.
So dire is the outlook for water that the World Economic Forum, in its 2016 annual report on global risks, says water crises are now among the top potential risks to world prosperity, outweighed only by climate change and weapons of mass destruction.
One reason, the WEF reported, is that water requirements are likely to outstrip supply by 40% by 2030, largely because food production will have to rise by half to feed the growing world population.
The US National Intelligence Council identified the nexus of water, energy and food as one of the four “megatrends” the world must confront by the year 2030. “Many countries probably won’t have the wherewithal to avoid food and water shortages without massive help from outside,” the NIC said.
In addition to the political consequences, global business is now waking up to the need to plan for dramatic changes in the availability of water, said Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Swedish International Water Institute.
“Five years ago water was a non-issue,” Holmgren said. “Now it’s the top issue and also the main financial risk for many firms.”
PepsiCo, for example, announced in October that it is targeting a 15% improvement in water efficiency of its direct agricultural supply chain in water-stressed areas by 2025.
And it’s not just global food and beverage companies that are gearing up for global water shortages.
“FIVE YEARS AGO WATER WAS A NON-ISSUE.
NOW IT’S THE TOP ISSUE AND ALSO THE MAIN FINANCIAL RISK FOR MANY FIRMS.”
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, SWEDISH INTERNATIONAL WATER INSTITUTE
Holmgren said water is of concern to a wide variety of companies, ranging from insurance firms that must assess the risk of such occurrences as power plants shutting down for lack of coolant, to Swedish brands that depend on irrigation-dependent cotton crops to spin into fashionable clothing.
“When I speak to CEOs these days, it’s clear the private sector realizes that water is not a given anymore,” Holmgren said. “Water has become the main financial risk for companies and also plays a very important part in investment decisions.”
In fact, water is so critical to current investment decisions that the World Resources Institute has created Aqueduct, a water risk mapping platform, to help businesses, governments and investors understand global risks and opportunities for better water resource management. The platform is available to business interests worldwide on Bloomberg’s BMAP tool.
Ghislain de Marsily, a hydrologist and emeritus professor at the Pierre and Marie Curie University and MINES ParisTech, said he believes the biggest water problem is whether people will continue to live in areas where water is in short supply or relocate to areas where it is available to produce food.
“The consequence will be that people will move in huge numbers, just as we are seeing now from the Middle East to Europe,” he said. “I see the same happening on a very large scale in Africa.”
De Marsily noted that agriculture currently uses about 70% of all groundwater resources, the water stored in underground aquifers, for irrigation. Add in rainwater and agriculture accounts for 90% of all water use. Add to that a forecast by the International Energy Agency that power stations will need 85% more water by 2035, and you have a recipe for historic shortfalls.
“The problem now is that demand for water from agriculture and big urban areas is so great that they’ve actually reduced the level of aquifers in California and some other places to a dangerously low level,” de Marsily said. “It takes a generation to recharge these aquifers.”
“PEOPLE WILL MOVE IN HUGE NUMBERS, JUST AS WE ARE SEEING NOW FROM THE MIDDLE EAST TO EUROPE. I SEE THE SAME HAPPENING ON A VERY LARGE SCALE IN AFRICA.”
HYDROLOGIST AND EMERITUS PROFESSOR, PIERRE AND MARIE CURIE UNIVERSITYAND MINES PARISTECH
In addition to California, the Ogallala Aquifer stretching across eight US states from South Dakota to Texas, as well as aquifers in parts of India and China, are now dangerously low after years of overuse. “It’s like a savings account at the bank. You must replenish it after withdrawals in lean years,” de Marsily said.
Depletion, however, is likely to get worse. Betsy Otto, director of the Global Water Program at the World Resources Institute, said that climate change is causing dramatic shifts in weather patterns, which will inevitably affect agriculture.
For example, the Hadley cell, an air circulation pattern that pushes warm air upwards from the equator and then down to the mid-latitudes of the Northern and Southern hemispheres, is moving toward the poles. Referred to as ‘Hadley cell expansion,’ the upshot will be less water in the Mediterranean area, southern Europe, the middle latitudes of Africa, the USA and South America in as little as four years.
“There’s a general consensus that there will be a relative drying of those areas in terms of precipitation, and areas of the Middle East and the Mediterranean are also going to deal with much higher temperatures,” Otto said. “So the combination is pretty tough.”
Compounding water shortages due to changing weather patterns are unresolved man-made problems. Perhaps the greatest is that water is considered a free resource in many parts of the world, with little incentive to use it sparingly.
Claudia Ringler, deputy director of the Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, said the problem became visible in the 1980s when treadle pumps were introduced in Africa and Asia. The pumps allowed farmers to grow crops in the dry season, helping to alleviate famine. Because the pumps were not regulated, however, and the supply of electricity to run them was subsidized but unreliable, overuse became common.
“They don’t know when electricity will be available so they pump like crazy when it is on,” Ringler said. “The lack of reliability in the electricity supply is one of the main reasons farmers don’t use water in a traditional way.”
The Asian Development Bank and the World Bank have advised that electrical subsidies be eliminated. But politicians worry that poor farmers, who now get free or subsidized electricity, would revolt. This happened in India, where farmers formed lobbies and some important ministers lost their jobs.
Rather than eliminate subsidies, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) proposed that the government of Gujarat, India, use separate power cables to provide quality electricity to farmers for a fixed number of hours per day at an affordable price. “Farmers have actually decreased their use of water because they no longer need to leave the pumps going all the time,” IWMI Director General Jeremy Bird said.
While analysts agree on the causes and growing severity of water-supply issues, efforts to better monitor and manage water are less uniform.
“One of the challenges is that water management is so fragmented,” said Angeline Kneppers, a water resource expert in the Natural Resources industry at Dassault Systèmes, which publishes Compass. “Engineers are famous for saying, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,’ and that is very true of water. We need to be able to model water systems in their entirety.”
“ONE OF THE CHALLENGES IS THAT WATER MANAGEMENT IS SO FRAGMENTED. WE NEED TO BE ABLE TO MODEL WATER SYSTEMS IN THEIR ENTIRETY.”
NATURAL RESOURCES INDUSTRY, DASSAULT SYSTÈMES
Improvements in remote sensing technologies and the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), Kneppers said, could provide the data needed to track the resilience of ecosystems and establish meaningful valuations for water resources.
Equipping large urban areas with smart water networks of low-power wireless monitoring sensors, for instance, would help them to better predict supply and demand, identify leaks, spot and mitigate microbiological and chemical pollutants, manage rain events and flooding and distribute water of different qualities to users based on their specific needs.
Industries, for example, could receive water treated to match their production requirements or receive discounts for reusing water in a closed loop. IoT data monitoring already improves crop production, precisely matching irrigation to specific crop needs while detecting and mitigating nutrient and pesticide runoff in certain parts of the world.
“We are already doing a much better job of managing water at the river-basin level, and it is beginning to show,” she said. “The more data we can collect and analyze the better job we can do of managing and pricing water so that sustainable use becomes a way of life.”
Singapore is a tiny island state at the southern tip of Malaysia. Although its bigger neighbor has abundant water, Singapore decided for security reasons to become self-sufficient by providing its own water. Water experts agree that the result is one of the most efficient water management systems in the world.
“We built new reservoirs, expanded catchment areas, sewered all the homes in Singapore and cleaned up the catchments so that the water would be usable,” said Harry Seah, chief technology officer of PUB, Singapore’s national water agency. The country built 17 reservoirs to collect rainwater, carefully separating the collection areas from sewers to keep the water clean.
When Singapore decided to use advanced membrane and ultraviolet technologies to reprocess wastewater into usable water called NEWater, it represented a major milestone in water policy. While primarily piped to industrial sites and used for air conditioning, a small amount of NEWater (around 2.5% of total daily consumption) also is injected into reservoirs and mixed with rainwater. This raw water is then treated before being sent to homes as drinking water. Singapore is one of the few countries in the world to use recycled wastewater for drinking, but Seah maintains the public had no qualms after panels of scientists found the water to be safe.
The government has also spent US$500 million in public funds to foster new technologies. “We have over 180 water companies and more than 20 research centers,” Seah said. The country’s desalination plants and the NEWater plants, he said, are run by private-sector companies. ◆
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