27 May 2020

Collectively solving the world’s water crisis

People, businesses and policy makers can together overcome pressing water challenges — providing there is the will to do so

Photo: Pexels.com

By Belmont NewsBeat

The first step to overcoming a crisis is accepting it.

That’s the view of life coach Leon Ho who notes that denial is one of the most common responses to a crisis — yet it is the least helpful.

This week, a new study published by American Geophysical Union warned that the number of people subject to continuous water stress could double within 30 years. That’s a further 380 million people without access to drinking water and clean sanitation all year round, on top of the four billion who currently face water scarcity for at least one month of the year.

What more is needed to convince most people, businesses and governments that the world’s water crisis is a global emergency, requiring urgent attention?

Higher stress levels expected

The study combines data from hydrological models and climate models. Two scenarios are explored: The first assumes future population growth is low and efforts are successfully made to keep global warming below 2°C — the temperature at which catastrophic climate change will take place; while the second scenario assumes future population growth is high yet global emissions do not peak until 2060.

Under the first scenario, the number of people facing water stress would double between 2010 and 2050 to 760 million. Under the second scenario, the number of people facing water stress is instead expected to increase by 50% to 570 million.

“There are not many new areas facing high water stress but the stressed river basins will see even higher stress levels in future,” explains Professor Matti Kummu, one of the study’s authors and a water researcher at Aalto University in Finland, in an interview with Carbon Brief. “The largest increases were found to be North Africa, Middle East and south and central Asia.”

The US’s Midwest region could also experience water stress by 2050, the study notes.

People solutions

Researchers note that the forecasted stress levels are subject to a number of factors. One is fluctuating consumption levels. Another is the level of human interference from the building of dams, agricultural activities and so forth.

There is light at the end of the tunnel, however: People are the cause of the world’s water problems — but they can also provide solutions.

A recent poll conducted by GlobeScan and SustainAbility asked more than 1,200 water experts to outline the best solutions to tackle today’s global freshwater crisis. Of the many answers given, they point to action required by three sets of people: Individuals, businesses and governments. All three must work together to make the real change needed.

Take the notion of water conservation. For individuals and businesses to lessen the amount of water they use, they need to be informed by either a water advocate or governmental representative of how best to achieve this. All stakeholders must actively engage with one another to share views, opinions and experiences, and accordingly co-create solutions. Likewise, to develop cutting-edge water recycling technology, the private sector must not only work with state regulators to ensure it is safe to use, they must also achieve buy-in from society and businesses, as without this, people just won’t consume recycled water, making the whole exercise defunct.

Singapore’s NewWater demonstrates that by engaging with all factions of a nation and educating them on the benefits of ultra-clean, high-grade reclaimed water, the concept of water recycling can be universally accepted. Currently, NewWater supplies up to 40% of the nation’s water needs.

Money talks

Engagement and the sharing of ideas will only get the world so far. What is needed is further investment from both the public and private sectors, and the general public.

Water is significantly underfunded in most countries. Deploying cutting-edge water technologies within cities and national networks requires significant amounts of capital. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic continues to expose the digital divide between utilities that are equipped to operate their networks remotely and those who must risk the health of staff by requiring them to operate systems onsite.

The situation is set to get worse in the coming years, as governments globally aspire to pay back the trillions of US dollars they have pumped into their respective economies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on businesses and workers. Let’s also not forget how much more water we are using while washing our hands to stay safe from the pandemic.

As funding into water projects dwindles, so too will the industry’s risk profile. Today’s shallow pool of water investors will likely become even shallower.

Governments can look to Singapore or inspiration. A hub for the global water industry, the city-state positions water as a strategic asset, where the provision of service from source to tap is among the most advanced globally. The nation invests significantly in developing water technologies, and sets appropriate pricing for consumers, businesses and industry, among many other best-in-class policies.

Globally, society and businesses must be prepared to do more. This isn’t just about conserving water or keeping waterways clean. It is also about being prepared to pay a fair price for water — just like we do for food. By doing so, governments will have the capital required to invest in new projects while upgrading existing infrastructure, private businesses and investors will be drawn to ventures that make money, water research and development will accelerate, and everyone — yes, everyone — will have the water they need to thrive.

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