Water Scarcity and the Upcoming Challenges of the Modern World

Water Scarcity

Taking blog ideas from my semester 2 – CE50019 Sustainable Use and Environmental Impact module, I thought I would talk about issues facing us in the modern world – starting with Water Scarcity.

Humans use about 4,600 cubic km of water every year, of which 70% goes to agriculture, 20% to industry and 10% to households. Global demand has increased sixfold over the past 100 years and continues to grow at the rate of 1% each year.

Earth is a blue planet – we have 97% of salt water, 2% is frozen freshwater, so all of humankind rely on about 1% of earth’s water – the liquid freshwater.

For a few years now I have heard that one day, water will be the most expensive resource on the planet. With a growing population and an unstable climate disaster, more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, increased demand and polluted supplies, according to a UN report on the state of the world’s water.

The world population is forecast to reach between 9.4 billion and 10.2 billion (up from 7.7 billion today), with two in every three people living in cities.

Our activity has put heavy stress on our rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use. More than half the world’s wetlands have disappeared.

The Disappearance of Lake Chad – Nigeria

“For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or ‘grey’, infrastructure to improve water management. In doing so, it has often brushed aside traditional and indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches,”

Gilbert Houngbo, the chair of UN Water.

Agriculture consumes more water than any other source and wastes much of that through inefficiencies. Agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible freshwater, but some 60% of this is wasted due to leaky irrigation systems, inefficient application methods as well as the cultivation of crops that are too thirsty for the environment in which they are grown.

To give you a couple of examples of this:

Take a bottle of Coca-Cola – 98% of the water in the bottle is actually embedded within the ingredients that it takes to make the plastic of the bottle.

Take the agricultural example – nothing has as much embedded water as MEAT.

Alfalfa is a common ingredient in cattle feed – 510 litres of water goes into producing a kilogram of this plant. An average cow takes up to 12 kg of feed a day. This is adding up to 1,650 litres of water to produce about one quarter-pound hamburger.

Embedded Water in our Consumer Produce

Water is still treated like it will never run out. Water is used in horribly wasteful ways. Some of the most water intensive crops in some of the driest regions. Some farmers just flood their fields.

Climate change is also making available water much more erratic.

Climate change is altering patterns of weather and water around the world, causing shortages and droughts in some areas and floods in others.

Some places around the world have restrictions on water already. Close to 2 million people have their taps turned off once in every five days in Brasília – the capital of Brazil, due to an unusually prolonged dry period.

In drought belts encompassing Mexico, western South America, southern Europe, China, Australia and South Africa, rainfall is likely to decline. The shortage cannot be offset by groundwater supplies, a third of which are already in distress.

Another side effect with using up our groundwater in aquifers is that it compresses the soil. Mexico City is literally sinking due to settlement issues of the soil – as much as 9 inches a year. Another issue with Mexico City’s water crisis is the fact that their water systems allow a loss of around half of their drinking water due to leaking pipes.

Soil Compression due to excessive water use explained
Mexico City’s sinking streets

There is no substitute for water and it is the most valuable resource on the planet- most of us will die in several days without it. Hedge funds and private interests have literally been buying up water for years, prompting fears that they will one day they will take advantage of scarcity to turn a profit.

While developing our world, our water was undervalued. It was valued so little that we squandered it, we polluted it, we sold it off cheaper than many other pointless commodities. It is only now that the world is realizing its true worth. Invaluable.  

Water scarcity is increasingly driving violent clashes around the world, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. As tensions grow over the fears of freshwater, the governments are increasingly eyeing the options to solve this problem.

One idea, that used to be far fetched – creating more of it.

Desalination of ocean water has more than doubled over the last decade, but still only makes up 1 % of the water we use a year. It is cost effective and energy efficient? The cost of the products made by this would skyrocket. Companies could collapse. But it would also change the decisions being made about water. So, would this improve our attitude towards water waste and water reduction, water conservation?

Cape Town called it the countdown to day zero where they were going to shut off most water taps in the city.

Just this incentive got the population to start conserving, which pushed back “day-zero” by a month. Then, by another month; then by another month and then another year. This was all due to the extraordinary efforts of the city’s residents and authorities who, by the end of 2018, had cut their water consumption by over half of what is was before the announcement of “day zero”. Now, their “day-zero” has been paused indefinitely.

Just talking about “day-zero” forced dramatically successful action within one month.

Many countries other countries are on their way to their own “day zero”. So, let’s start talking about it and start making a change! Start saving water today!

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