The Next Big Thing- Water Security

Water! A precious but limited resource is all around us. It is in the air we breathe and under the land we walk upon. It covers 72% of world’s surface and upto 60%[1] of the human body is made up of water. Did you know that we’re all nurtured in water- the womb? Abundance of fresh water bodies in any nation is critical for its survival, growth and prosperity.

Water and Human Civilizations

Water has always played a critical role in setting up of human civilizations. UNESCO[2] describes water as “mainspring of civilization”. In fact, as per Perscolli (1999), the direction of river flow influenced the moment of civilizations.

The Indo-Gangetic plains are an environmental setting of one of the world’s first urban civilizations, the Indus (or Harappan civilization) (Gupta, 2014[3]). Similarly, other ancient civilizations too have been around rivers or water basins, like — Egyptian civilization was based on the bank of river Nile, Mesopotamia drew its requirements from the valleys of Tigris and the Euphrates, and so on. These rivers not only supplied fresh water for drinking, which is precursor to human settlements, but also ensured the fertility of the land by bringing slit and minerals along with. Hence, a perennial river with sunshine meant supply of all that is required for a civilization to exist i.e. food and water. Name any present day prominent city- be it London, New York or Milan, a fresh water resource would be nearby from where the city draws its requirements.

Similar to river basins, ground water too is an important source of fresh/ drinking water. It also has an important role to play in maintaining water in rivers through seepage[4]. Lakes and other fresh water bodies too play an important role in ensuring water security, which in turn ensures food security, for the human settlements.

The role of water is not just with rivers and fresh water sources, but with sea too, that contains 97%[5] of the total water on the earth. Most of the cities located on sea coast have growth to become some of the world’s/ nation’s largest cities[6], like Shanghai, Dubai, Venice, New York, Toronto (Great Lakes), Santos, Los Angeles, Sydney or Mumbai, primarily. This is because globally, most of the cargo moves through sea.

Water for Food Security

Ample availability of water means ample water available for agriculture, which consumes up to 70%[7] of the fresh water across the globe. Good agriculture means food security, a combination which is a basic requirement to be addressed by government bodies across the globe.

However, the scenario is changing. The human population has risen from 2.5 billion[8] in 1950 to 7 billion[9] in 2016. So has the requirement for Food and in turn, water.

Water for Industry and Domestic use

The below chart by United Nations represents that Low income and middle countries tend to use most of the water towards meeting their basic needs such as food, whereas, the share of domestic and industrial consumption increases magnificently for high income countries.

Courtesy: United Nations Report

This directly correlates with the fact that high income countries tend to have a larger carbon footprint as compared to low income countries.

What happens when income levels rise in low income countries and people look forward for a life style as lived by people of high income nations? Logic says a heavy rise in carbon footprint, as well as water which is integral part of almost any human activity.

Water Stress

If we go back to Water statistics, fresh water, the water essential for drinking and agriculture, commonly found in lakes, rivers, ground water, etc., comprise only 2% of Earth’s total water, and only 1%[10] remains drinkable.

Yes, all we have is this small portion which we must learn to manage efficiently. Difficulty in managing this is what causes Water Stress.

The European Environment Agency (EEA)[11] defines Water stress as a situation when “the demand for water exceeds the available amount during a certain period or when poor quality restricts its use. Water stress causes deterioration of fresh water resources in terms of quantity (aquifer over-exploitation, dry rivers, etc.) and quality (eutrophication, organic matter pollution, saline intrusion, etc.)”.

Water stress affects all of us, as it affects our activities connected through agriculture, domestic or industrial use.

Is the rising human population to blame?

Is it the rising population that is creating a load on precious and limited natural resources like water (and in turn food)? As per predictions by United Nations[12], the world population crossed 7.3 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

Logically, if more people are using the same resource, per person share will reduce and hence create a stress on this. But, a BBC story says otherwise, “It is not the number of people on the planet that is the issue — but the number of consumers and the scale and nature of their consumption,” says David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. He quotes Gandhi: “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Another article by the Economist[13] too reiterate the above view i.e. a rise in demand for water for irrigation is not purely out of the rise in population, but due to change in consumer preference for different types of food that require more water. For an e.g., it takes nearly twice as much water to grow a kilo of peanuts as a kilo of soyabeans, nearly four times as much to produce a kilo of beef as a kilo of chicken, and nearly five times as much to produce a glass of orange juice as a cup of tea. With 2 billion people around the world about to enter the middle class, the agricultural demands on water would increase even if the population stood still.

In other words, it is not the food (agriculture) directly to blame, but the choice of food that is connected with rising load on water. There are food products which can be grown with lesser water footprint, and few that can be called as ‘virtual water’ considering the heavy amount of water used in cultivation.

Way out to ensure Water Security

To summarize, the planet is facing a situation of water stress. A UN report quoted “Half of the world’s wetlands have disappeared over the last century, with some rivers now no longer reaching the sea, and over 20% of the estimated 10,000 freshwater fish species are now endangered or extinct”. In other words, we are already facing water scarcity in many nations which in turn is leading to fluctuations in agriculture output igniting a vicious cycle.

To deal with this situation, the first step would be for nations to build well-equipped water infrastructure to ensure better water use such that there is reduced threat of droughts and floods (Priscolli[14], 1999). As Priscolli (1999) further states, it calls for communities to come together and determine how to best use and not use this precious resource. It calls for people to unify and agree terms of water sharing agreements so as to ensure a win-win situation for all, as otherwise, violence has always surrounded water, including wars.

Technology is integral to address Water Security. It can broadly help in two ways, (1) Waste Water management, and (2) Desalination.

One of the outcomes of contemporary lifestyle is ‘waste’, a lot of waste. This waste also translates into waste water too. According to U.N. World Water Development Report[15], around 80% of waste water is released into rivers, untreated, which is bad for both, environment and community health. But, the same waste water can be treated and recycled for drinking, horticulture, cleaning, industrial use, and it even leads to byproducts such as bio gas, slurry (manure), etc.

Sea water too can be looked upon as a source of water security. Did you know that desalination plants act as a water source for upto 40%[16] households in Israel?

Conclusion

Business and Sustainable Development Commission very well summarizes the situation as,

“Meet our needs today without compromising the ability of future generation to do the same”.

In conclusion, the current levels of water stress is a trigger point for the global decision makers to come together and resolve the way water is being used, and invest in technologies to make better use of waste water and sea water.

References:

[1] https://water.usgs.gov/edu/propertyyou.html

[2][2] “http://www.unesco.org/archives/multimedia/?pg=33&s=films_details&id=1557

[3] http://www.safl.umn.edu/ancient-rivers-ancient-civilizations-present-water-water-and-life-through-time-nw-india

[4] https://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthhowmuch.html

[5] http://www.unwater.org/downloads/Water_facts_and_trends.pdf

[6] http://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/port-cities/

[7] http://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/chart-globally-70-freshwater-used-agriculture?CID=ECR_TT_worldbank_EN_EXT

[8] http://www.economist.com/node/16136302

[9] http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160311-how-many-people-can-our-planet-really-support

[10] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/earths-freshwater/

[11] http://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/water/wise-help-centre/glossary-definitions/water-stress

[12][12] https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Publications/Files/Key_Findings_WPP_2015.pdf

[13] http://www.economist.com/node/16136302?fsrc=scn/tw/te/bl/ed/

[14] Jerome Delli Priscoli, 1999, Water and civilization: using history to reframe water policy debates and to build a new ecological realism

[15] http://news.trust.org/item/20170322111208-37osq/

[16] https://www.technologyreview.com/s/534996/megascale-desalination/