The world’s water crisis — and what we can do about it

With global warming and a growing population, the need to address the world’s water crisis has never been greater, reckons Chris Price


The global water crisis: the reality

Sitting at my desk in rainy London it’s difficult to imagine an impending water crisis. But if you look at the situation globally it’s clear that drinking water is becoming an increasingly scarce and precious resource for large numbers of people on the planet. At the same time, basic sanitation which we take for granted in the west is a luxury that’s still not available in many parts of the world.

A fast growing world population coupled with global warming are both helping to create a perfect storm in the world’s growing water crisis. And while the planet’s surface comprises 72 per water, 97 per cent of this is saline water from the oceans. Currently, less than 3 per cent is water that can be drunk from freshwater lakes.

According to figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF, 748 million people currently don’t have access to safe drinking water — that’s roughly one in ten of the world’s population — while 2.3 billion (one in three of the population) don’t have adequate sanitation.

One of the many organisations trying to change these depressing statistics is Water.Org. Co-founded by Hollywood actor Matt Damon along with Gary White of WaterPartners in 2009, the US charity claims that a total of 3.4 million die of water related illnesses each year which is almost the size of a city like Los Angeles. This includes nearly 600,000 children who die each year of diarrhoea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation, making it the second largest killer of children under five in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s an absolute, white-knuckle crisis right now for three-quarters of a billion people,” Damon told CNN last month, speaking about those who don’t have access to clean drinking water. “It’s killing a child every 20 seconds. It’s unfathomable that these children are dying from things like diarrhoea, which you know, if you have kids, your kid gets a stomach bug, maybe they miss a day of school.”

He adds: “It’s hard for us in the west to even wrap our brains around this concept that a lack of access to clean water and sanitation is literally slaughtering children by the millions, just because none of them are dying here.”

Clearly it’s a subject close to Damon’s heart. When the Bourne Identity star took part in the ice bucket challenge earlier this year, he did so with toilet water proclaiming that “the water in our toilets in the West is actually cleaner than most people in the developing world have access to.” Before that he proclaimed a strike on toilets, saying “until everybody has access to clean water and sanitation, I will not go to the bathroom.”

But diarrhoea isn’t the only disease affecting millions of people. Poor water supply and lack of sanitation is also associated with a higher risk of stunting (low weight for age and developmental delay) as well as other illnesses, such as malaria and parasitic diseases, claims the World Health Organisation. For Water.org education is key, especially in places like India where the practice of washing with soap is not widespread (a study by UNICEF showed that only 53 per cent of the population wash hands with soap after defecation, 38 per cent before eating and 30 per cent before preparing food.) It’s particularly important that people understand the connection between hygiene and sickness by learning to wash their hands properly with soap before preparing food as well as after going to the toilet or changing a nappy. It’s also important to teach people how to store water and not contaminate it with utensils.

Beyond ill health

Nor is the increased risk of disease the only reason for improving people’s access to water facilities. There is also an important economic consideration, reckons Damon. By providing clean water and sanitation within villages, it’s possible to improve people’s prospects particularly those of girls and young women who are often expected to travel for miles to get water. According to Water.org, 200 million work hours are consumed each day by women collecting water for their families — time that could be spent finding a job and making money. In parts of Mozambique, for example, women can spend up to three hours a day walking just to get water for their families. Says Damon: “As a guy who has four daughters, this is a huge issue for women and girls: girls are often left to leave school and go find water, and that obviously has a huge impact on the quality of life they can expect to have,” says Damon.

Another issue for women is around security. With many people not having access to their own bathroom facilities, women often have to go out in the middle of the night to use the toilet which can put them at risk. Gary White, co-founder of Water.org, told CNN last month about a case of two cousins earlier in the year in the Indian village of Katra who were raped and murdered as they went out at night looking for a discreet place to go to the toilet. “That’s just unbelievable that something so basic to humanity like access to sanitation should set up these situations,” he said.

Clearly this wasn’t an isolated incident either. A report in the Times of India earlier this year quoted the police in another district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95 per cent of cases of rape and molestation crimes take place when women and girls leave their homes to ‘answer a call of nature’. A WaterAid study in the slums of Lagos, Nigeria also showed that a quarter of women who lacked access to sanitation had first or second hand experience of harassment, threats of violence or even assault linked to their lack of a safe private toilet while Amnesty International has released similar studies from Kenya and the Solomon Islands. To help combat the problem Water.org offers a WaterCredit initiative to help poor people so they can pay for a private toilet in their own home or connect to an existing water supply. Rather than paying massive interest rates to loan sharks, the not for profit organisation has so far helped over 1.6 million with ‘microfinance’ so they can get their own facilities at a very low interest rate.

The world water crisis affects all of us

Although it’s clearly the third world where the need for improved sanitation is greatest, the impending water crisis isn’t simply restricted to the poorest regions of the world either. Large parts of the Middle East, Australia and the US (including California where 80 per cent of the state was in either extreme or exceptional drought even at the end of November) are also suffering water shortage problems. China too is experiencing a dire situation, forcing the communist government to turn on the taps in the world’s biggest water-diversion project. The Yongding River, which once fed Beijing, ran dry along with 27,000 other rivers in China that have disappeared due to industrialization, dams and drought. “Some of the large parts of the north China plane may suffer severe water shortages,” says environmentalist Ma Jun. “Some of the cities could literally run out of water.” To try to solve the problem, China’s government is planning to spend nearly $80 billion to build nearly 2,700 miles of waterways — almost enough to stretch from New York to Los Angeles!

Taking place in Abu Dhabi this January is the International Water Summit, where organisations will come together to discuss solutions for water sustainability in arid regions. This includes London-based company Isle Utilities which works mostly as a conduit between water/waste utility companies and new sustainable clean-tech businesses. “What we do is invite new companies to come to us and if we think they are suitable we help to present them to investors including the water utilities for funding,” explains Christina de Poitiers, Senior Environmental Consultant at Isle Utilities. Every three months Isle Utilities holds TAGs (Technology Approval Groups) where the latest technology initiatives to help manage water and sewerage more efficiently are considered.

Recent examples of companies Isle Utilities has supported include Zaps Technologies which has developed the LiqIDinstrument, a real-time optical-based broad spectrum water quality analyser, as well as SewerBatt — an acoustic sensor which uses sound waves to gain information about the condition of sewer pipes. At the Water Summit in Abu Dhabi, Isle Utilities will be holding a forum called Innovate which will use the company’s TAG idea to encourage new businesses to pitch to a panel, in a similar format to the UK TV show Dragon’s Den.

The future can be brighter

But it’s not just in the developed world where funding is becoming available for new water-based initiatives that could help avert a worsening in the water crisis.

Based in India, Innovation Experience has so far helped develop a number of projects including a solar powered bicycles and boats as well as as a range of solar powered lights made from renewable materials such as bamboo and coconut. It has also recently begun working with a new ‘disruptive’ technology called Desolenator which is currently raising money on crowdfunding website Indiegogo to develop a new low cost, solar powered water desalination system that can potentially make any kind of water drinkable.

According to Managing Director of Innovation Experience Alexei Levene there are currently very few suitable solutions for turning the existing supply of bad water (ie. water contaminated with arsenic, metals or saline) into drinking water. “Either you have a Bear Grylls-type solution called the Solar Still which is very low yield or you have these huge desalination plants which cost a fortune to run and are very energy inefficient.” He claims that the Desolenator will help bridge the gap by providing an affordable solar powered desalinator solution to families in areas where there isn’t currently drinking water. Desolenator was recently awarded Best Climate venture 2014 at the EU funded Climate-KIC’s Clean Launchpad competition in Valencia. Andrew Burford, Entrepreneurship Lead of Climate-KIC at Imperial College, London, says: “What really sparked the interest of the judges is the massive impact it can make to humanity, and the fact that it can be rolled out at real scale.” He adds: “We saw this as a massive humanitarian product but also a product that has a real commercial potential.”

So with WaterAid, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation calling for a new Sustainable Development Goal that would commit countries to ensuring that everyone everywhere has access to basic sanitation, clean drinking water and hygiene by the year 2030, there’s certainly never been a better time to start developing solutions to help tackle the world’s growing water crisis.

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Images: Vinoth Chandar, SuSanA Secretariat, woodleywonderworks, Department of Foreign Affair and Trade, Colin Crowley, frankdoylezw, AJ Leon, Dinesh Bareja at Flickr Creative Commons