Why We Need To Rethink Our Relationship With Water

We’ve passed our sustainability tipping point. Despite several major droughts we still use up freshwater faster than it can replenish.

AJ Jones
13 min readOct 14, 2018
Photo by Richard Gatley on Unsplash

Have you had your recommended 2 litres of water today? Next time you take a sip, or run the tap, consider this: our consumption rates have pushed nearly two-thirds of global freshwater supplies beyond their sustainability tipping points. Worse still is that we are collectively failing to address this.

If we don’t rethink our relationship with freshwater and alter our behaviours the consequences for future generations will be disastrous.

What are our freshwater needs?

Depending on where you live (hot and arid vs cold and wet) you’ll need about 7.5–15 litres per day just to survive. This is about the amount most refugees and displaced peoples, and those living in the world’s poorest countries, are surviving on.

Agriculture uses 70% of our global freshwater supply.

In the West, the usage figures are astonishing. An average US citizen uses about 3000 litres a day when factoring in daily living needs and the water used by industries and businesses to meet their consumer and lifestyle demands. In the UK, that figure is inexplicably larger, at 3,400 litres. These figures sound absurd, but when you consider it requires about 18,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton, and 13,000 litres to produce 1kg of beef they don’t seem so far-fetched.

Yet agriculture is the worst global user by far. It accounts for 70% of global freshwater supply usage, and often in an unsustainable way. In Ica, Peru, for example, farmers and international companies are depleting groundwater reserves to irrigate and grow large amounts of asparagus for consumption in Europe. Wells are drying up faster than they can naturally refill and over 200,000 residents face water scarcity without any prospect of relief. In Ica, human life has a value — the market value of asparagus, which, in 2017, was £7.44 ($9.59) per kilo.

And our needs are growing…

There are 7.6 billion people on the planet right now. That figure is projected to rise to 9.8 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion in 2100. Our freshwater demand is expected to increase by a shocking 55% by 2050.

We cannot continue as we are.

Around 4 billion people already live in places with severe water scarcity at least one month of the year; over half of these people live in India and China.

Yet growing populations need more freshwater to grow more food, produce more clothes, and meet their increasing sanitation and energy needs. And as populations continue to rapidly urbanise their water needs become concentrated placing greater demands on facilities and services in specific areas. Already the number of people living in cities without access to an improved water source has increased since 1990 despite immense efforts to prevent this.

Human consumption + climate change = disaster

Climate change is disrupting global weather patterns, and making surface water increasingly unreliable and unpredictable. California’s last drought, for example, lasted 5 years (2012–2016), but was immediately followed by record levels of rainfall. This unpredictability has forced us to shift our freshwater dependence away from surface water (lakes, rivers, rainfall etc.) to groundwater aquifers — large natural pockets of underground freshwater.

But groundwater depletion more than doubled between 1960 and 2000 and little has changed since. In 2015, NASA discovered that twenty-one of the world’s thirty-seven largest aquifers had surpassed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was being extracted for human consumption than could be naturally replaced. Thirteen of those, spanning the US, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia, received little-to-no replenishment between 2003 and 2013 and are critical.

Without enough freshwater to meet our needs drought, food and energy shortages, and conflict over water scarcity is fast becoming the norm.

‘Day Zero’ — The Recent South African Freshwater Crisis

Jane and Samantha don’t know each other, but they both live in Cape Town, South Africa, and both lived through the recent drought there — I’ve changed their names to protect their anonymity. The drought made international headlines when, in 2017, the South African government announced the hardest hit city, Cape Town, would reach ‘Day Zero’ in 2018.

‘Day Zero’ refers to the day when most of the city’s water supply is switched off because there isn’t enough water in the system to respond to any type of demand. But due to immense human effort and eventual rainfall, ‘Day Zero’ was narrowly avoided several times. It has just been pushed back to 2019.

“I’m angered by the way this situation became a political one and not an opportunity to change long-term thinking”.

There is a lot of anger and frustration toward the city council and government for mismanaging the water system and failing to prepare for the crisis, or putting any measures in place during it.

Critics of the government place the blame on its response to the crisis, which saw water rates rise across most of the city to prevent overuse. Some household water bills went from R500 ($37) to R5000 ($374), which is more than most people can afford. And additional penalties were introduced to prevent people using more than their allocated 50 litres a day. Some businesses cashed in on this to make a profit by supplying bottled water and tankers of water at a much higher than normal price.

This forced people to top up their water using natural springs, but large groups of people around small water sources for long periods caused diseases to spread and led to violent outbursts when people took more than others. And the time spent queuing was several hours in most cases, which was valuable time spent not earning an income.

Raising prices and imposing fines did reduce demand and this helped see the city through to the rain. And it forced everyone to make drastic changes to their lives and water usage habits — people showered less, washed their clothes less, and flushed the toilet less. Some people even got quite innovative during those difficult times, with new informal businesses starting, like waterless car washes and new rain tank designs.

But, as Samantha argues, “No amount of saving water will address a future crisis”. To address Cape Town’s future crisis long-term thinking and behaviours need to change, and long-term planning and preparation needs to happen.

But at the government level it seems none of this was learned. Rather than changing long-term thinking in a sustainable way, ‘Day Zero’’ became a political issue and political parties and public figures blamed each other for the planning failures leading up to the crisis. This was a missed opportunity, and, spurred on by public resentment, political infighting within South Africa’s parties continues to distract planning and preparation for next year’s ‘Day Zero’.

Already the proposed plans to access a large groundwater resource to increase the city’s freshwater supply have fallen silent. And the city’s residents are yet to see any of the projects the city council and government are working on to generate drinkable water. And industrial behaviours are slipping back into their pre-crisis ways with most of the city’s limited water being used to grow food and crops, and manufacture products for sale in international markets.

Despite the crisis, Cape Town still lacks a long-term solution and access to a reliable and efficient freshwater resource. Without these, Cape Town will hit ‘Day Zero’, in 2019; the consequences will be disastrous for the country and the region.

Some successful national initiatives have emerged, but…

Israel’s securitisation of water

Israel has made freshwater scarcity a national security priority. In 2008, Israel faced its worst drought for 900 years, so the government implemented a range of reforms aimed at water conservation and recycling across industries and households. New water treatment systems now recapture 86% of wastewater and recycle it for irrigation — to put this into context, Spain, the second most water-efficient country, recycles 19%. And to reduce the country’s dependence on rainwater five desalination plants were built at a cost of $500 million each. Desalinated seawater now accounts for 55% of Israel’s’ domestic freshwater supply.

However, Israel is currently in its sixth consecutive year of drought, and its water resources are at their lowest point in recorded history. Israel still manages to produce about 95% of its own food requirements — this level of self-reliance is critical for a state in perpetual war. So, Israel’s government intends to maintain its current agricultural water usage by building more desalination plants incurring a huge financial and environmental cost. Another two plants are planned.

Desalination might have saved Israel before, but the process is problematic and there are no guarantees it will save the country again. Plants require vast amounts of energy to run and generate huge amounts of wastewater containing chemicals and large amounts of salt. There are no safe places to store this waste and putting it back in the ocean destabilises marine life and established ecosystems, and makes future desalination difficult. In addition, dependence on desalination plants raises its own security risks — enemies of the state could paralyse the country by attacking one, or all, of the plants.

Australia’s reforms

Between 1997 and 2009, southern Australia experienced thirteen consecutive years of unprecedented low rainfall. Several major cities’ water supplies were severely threatened, farmers lost up to a quarter of all produce, and ecosystems were irreversibly damaged as water was diverted away from wetlands.

The crisis forced a complete reform of Australia’s national water management framework. State governments now allocate water to people and industries each year. Everyone is entitled to a share of the total amount of available water and are allocated it based on their entitlements and seasonal variations in water availability. Water also has a value and can be bought or exchanged through water markets. Water markets ensure states can trade between each other so that the available water is distributed fairly and used evenly across the country.

But parts of Australia are already back in drought. New South Wales, the state home to Sydney, is in near total drought, and over half of neighbouring Queensland too, despite record rainfall in September. And that rainfall was too little and too late to save crops, and hasn’t sustained long enough to replenish vital water sources.

What’s worse is that the water markets haven’t responded as they are meant to because dairy and crop famers can’t afford to buy the water they need. It’s not because water prices are too high; they are regulated effectively at national level. The issue is that farmers were unable to generate enough surplus cash from their stocks to pay for it. So, livelihoods are under threat again, forcing the Australian government to issue large cash relief payments. But this has proven slow to emerge, is financially unsustainable in the long-term, and still might not be enough to mitigate disaster in most cases.

The destabilising effect of water scarcity

Photo by Victor Benard on Unsplash

Major water scarcity events have caused concern in all national administrations that their population increases alongside freshwater supply decreases will destabilise their societies. This is especially the case in poorer countries with unreliable and already overwhelmed municipal water facilities and expensive water rates, like Cambodia, Ethiopia and Madagascar.

And Syria is a case in point

Between 2006 and 2009 Syria experienced its worst three-year drought on record. Back then agriculture accounted for 25% of Syria’s GDP. But without enough rainfall farmers were forced to overexploit existing groundwater supplies, which already contributed 60% of all water for irrigation. As the drought worsened Syria’s farmers drilled increasingly deeper wells (up to 1,600 feet) until the wells ran dry — the government was unable to regulate it.

Without freshwater most of Syria’s small-to-medium-scale farmers lost everything and 1.5 million of them migrated into already overpopulated urban areas in search of water and work. This, combined with the influx of Iraqi refugees at the time, placed enormous pressure on the Syrian regime, which responded by liberalising the economy and cutting subsidies to food and fuel. Most Syrians had become dependent on these subsidies, and without them more livelihoods were threatened, and in some cases lost. This helped ignite widespread civil unrest, which proved to be an important destabilising factor and contributed to the recent on-going conflict.

So, how do we respond to our global freshwater crisis?

On a global level, we are collectively failing to control population growth and climate change. And it is not enough for governments to just preserve their water resources. All governments are trying to do this, from war-torn Yemen to cash-rich Singapore, but are struggling because their citizens are over-dependent on industry for produce and profit.

We need to fundamentally rethink our relationship with freshwater.

At the core of the crisis is our relationship with freshwater. We take it for granted, we have allowed our lifestyles to become dependent on it, and we have grown to consume it without regard for others, or our own future. This needs to change, and we need to shape a new era of norms, behaviours and habits in the process.

Behaviours are different to habits; behaviours are responses to the environment we are in, whereas habits are routines that we repeat regularly. Humans are complicated creatures, but changing our behaviours and our habits is possible.

However, there are several key challenges to overcome.

Simple steps like voluntarily taking shorter showers, fixing leaking taps, and installing rain-tanks to capture rainfall will help preserve some freshwater, but these simple measures alone will not be enough to alter our current future for the better. There needs to be some industry-wide behavioural changes and the political will behind it to drive and sustain those changes.

To start, we need to share knowledge much better and establish a set of core values and norms across societies. These must promote positive behaviours toward water management and usage in industries and communities all the time, not just in times of drought. For example, respect, balance, empathy, responsibility and accountability are universally understood values, and these can form the foundations of a framework that shapes positive norms and behaviours everywhere.

But applying a framework like this everywhere will be challenging. As several water crises have highlighted, changing behaviours and ensuring compliance to universal standards across countries is very difficult. Cape Town’s freshwater crisis, for example, has shown that increasing water rates and imposing fines for overuse can force citywide behaviour change. Other cities have taken note: in the US, California’s governor, Jerry Brown, recently signed two bills bringing in permanent water restrictions on cities and businesses. But the whole concept is problematic. Public resentment builds, which detracts from long-term solutions, and regulating water usage and punishing violations is difficult and costly to implement across cities, let alone entire countries.

Changing behaviours in the major water-consuming industries is another challenge…

In the manufacturing industry, the technology exists to manage our water usage much better and is being implemented in countries that can afford it. In Taiwan, for example, waterless dyeing technology is gradually being phased into the manufacturing process and saves on water by using CO2 to dye synthetic fabric. The same method can be applied in developing countries where manufacturing is a key employer. But most developing countries can’t afford it without causing some sort of social upheaval, and wealthier governments are not cooperating to share this cost burden with them, or assisting them in implementing these changes.

However, the most urgent need for industry-wide behavioural change is in agriculture. Irrigation is wasteful and inefficient, but we have to irrigate crops to grow the foods we need. Again, the technology exists to help irrigation techniques use water more efficiently. It’s just not in place in most countries because the majority of farmers cannot afford it, and there is little financial support to enable them to do so.

In the West, some consumers are already forcing small industry-wide behavioural changes by voluntarily moving away from those water intensive foods and crops that we can live without, like beef, almonds and corn. But there’s resistance to these shifts. In nearly all developing countries, established agricultural practices account for a significant amount of a nation’s GDP and food security. Changes to either of these poses the very real prospect of civil unrest, and this acts as a powerful incentive for governments to continue with their established practices and the water needed to meet their targets.

The greatest challenges to long-term behavioural change are political…

Countries are working by themselves to manage water scarcity, but not between themselves to manage it on a larger scale. This means we lack meaningful international strategies and alliances alongside effective long-term solutions to how we use freshwater and industries’ overuse. In other words, there is a lack of political will to work together and cooperate on this issue.

An important barrier to international cooperation for mutual benefit is the fact that governments hate to surrender parts of their sovereignty and power by being tied into legally binding international agreements. But these types of agreements are the key to creating alliances that work, primarily because they enforce compliance by punishing violations (economic sanctions etc.) and deterring parties from withdrawing. Without a legally binding international agreement through which a framework for positive behavioural changes across countries and industries can be implemented, the chances of any meaningful long-term solutions are slim-to-none.

For example, the UN’s General Comment No. 15: The Right to Water was the best chance yet for positive behaviour change. Written in 2003, it outlined that water is a fundamental human right and governments had a responsibility to ensure all their citizens have equal access to high quality water. But more than that it encouraged cooperation between countries on the same issue, and promoted support and assistance to those countries struggling to meet their obligations.

However, the document has failed to deliver on its promises because it isn’t legally binding. Without the fear of being punished, governments enjoyed impunity and were free to violate their obligations and fail to meet the standards they agreed on. In the end the document not only lost credibility around the world, its failures undermined future global responses to addressing our freshwater crisis — governments used its failure as an excuse to avoid signing future agreements and losing parts of their sovereignty and power.

It’s all a bit of a mess

We live in a world without the political will to work together and address our freshwater crisis. But without meaningful cooperation between countries it’s difficult to see how we can change behaviours across industries and on an international scale. The moral argument is there for cooperation for mutual benefit, and the incentives are glaringly obvious. But there’s little political will to see it through. This is the real challenge we face.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act”. We know our relationship with freshwater is hurting us. The question is, how long can we avoid our collective duty to act before we reach a point of no return?



AJ Jones

Assiduous scribbler & diligent daydreamer. I comment on social issues to generate debate