With factors as precarious as climate, failing infrastructure, increased global population, pollution, and excessive groundwater pumping, it is no wonder that the concern for water scarcity has garnered the attention of authorities across many agencies and sectors.
And while those in developed countries might not experience the effects of the water crisis as imminently as those in more water-stressed regions of the world, the reality of water scarcity is ultimately a global concern and should certainly be treated as such.
Solutions such as demand management, culture and policy change, and improved infrastructure are practical and achievable – contrived through extensive research and collaboration. Because combating the global water crisis is such a complex issue, it requires a multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary approach.
In this article, we’ve asked water experts in the NGO, government, academic, and private sectors to share their candid opinions on water scarcity and to shed light on potential and practical solutions.
We’ve asked the question:
In your opinion, what are the main contributing factors to our current global water crisis and what actions do you believe are most crucial in mitigating it as best as humanly possible?
The following are their answers.
Causes and Solutions to the Global Water Crisis
Read our related article:
10 Critical Water Scarcity Facts We Must Not Ignore
Broader Democratic Principles and Institutions
Governance failures often lead to water-related crises around the world, from Flint, MI to lack of access to adequate and affordable drinking water on First Nation reserves in Canada. I agree with many of my colleagues here on the importance of inclusive, responsive governance that is able to consider multiple perspectives and also respond to changing conditions (something that has historically been difficult given colonialism, Apartheid, and other undemocratic institutions and ongoing inequities, as well as fixed investments and infrastructures associated with water storage and provision).
Observing some of the recent challenges experienced in Cape Town, South Africa, as well as in underserved communities in the U.S. and Canada, I am increasingly convinced about the importance of broader democratic principles and institutions in fostering more equitable and sustainable water use, access, and governance. As such, some of the key issues to deal with ‘water crises’ are the key avenues to maintain and serve democratic governance—from getting rid of private financing and interests in elections to shoring up accountable and democratic institutions, to protection of land and water by enabling and supporting Indigenous laws and practices.
Doing so might provide key avenues to better protect waterways, and to ensure better access to safe and healthy water now and into the future, while also enriching democratic possibilities.
Democratize Access to Information
The main contributing reason is that public policy has failed to adequately address water scarcity, poor quality and lack of access of water for economic development, business growth, social well being and ecosystem health. We have framed this failure as the "Day Zero” which obscures the underlying issues of overallocation of water, lack of incentives for sustainable water use and the realization that the past is not a guide to the future.
The most crucial action in addressing this failure is to democratize access to data, actionable information and access to safe drinking water. Centralized water supplies and information can no longer be the only option.
Focus on Demand Management
Our global water crisis is a result of rising demand for limited supplies of water due to a range of trends including rapid population and economic growth, urbanisation, and rising water-energy-food nexus challenges. The result is that more than often we are increasing supply to meet this rising demand, often at large environmental and economic cost.
"We need to focus on demand management which promotes water conservation and water efficiency across all sectors to balance rising demand with limited, and often variable, supplies of water."
Environmentally, aquatic habitats are being damaged, often beyond repair, resulting in loss of ecosystem services that humans rely on while economically, water transfer schemes involve large construction costs. Also, water treatment costs are likely to increase, as the water that is sourced is often of poorer quality.
With climate change increasing the variability of water supplies too, we need to focus on demand management which promotes water conservation and water efficiency across all sectors to balance rising demand with limited, and often variable, supplies of water. Demand management can involve hi-tech as well as simple solutions ranging from installing smart meters to fixing a leaky tap.
Public Pressure is Crucial
The water crisis is the direct result of decisions taken - or not taken - by those in power. While billions of people face scarcity, industry, agriculture and the super-rich consume water in excessive quantities. The climate crisis will only exacerbate this inequality. Technology isn't the issue. Nor is money. It’s ultimately the state’s responsibility to provide water: denying people this vital public service is a political choice.
Public pressure is crucial in ensuring efforts to mitigate water scarcity are sustained beyond the allocation of funds or the completion of projects. In December we launched #ClaimYourWaterRights: a global grassroots campaign to mobilise people to challenge the denial of their human rights to safe water and sanitation. So far 16 civil society organisations from 12 different countries have joined the campaign. We’ve already achieved some success. In Zambia, over 1,000 people’s safe water supply was restored, while in Nigeria, Enugu State declared a water emergency before reconnecting a slaughterhouse’s water supply, removing a significant public health risk.
Whatever your nationality, wherever you live – whether on the streets, in prison or a refugee camp - water is your human right. The first step in addressing water scarcity is for the WASH sector to stop treating people as if they are powerless.
Behavior Change and Evidence-based Cooperation
Current global water issues are inherently complex, and interrelated. They are also context dependent, timely, and shifting as the world changes. Interrelated issues require an integrated approach, encompassing economic, social, and scientific considerations.
Systems thinking is an important component, as is behavior change and evidence-based cooperation. It is also necessary that we all take some part - some responsibility - especially adopting a climate and water smart diet.
The Water Fund Model
In Africa, source water protection is critically important. The majority of water use solutions — be them gray or green — tend to focus on where water is utilized. Taking a broader landscape-scale approach from trees to taps has multiple benefits for biodiversity, people, and the long-term resilience of watersheds.
The Nature Conservancy and partners are focusing on sustainable watershed management through a payment for ecosystem services model called water funds, where restoring natural ecosystems upstream is funded in part by the people who rely on them most: businesses and water users in the cities downstream.
Incorporate Natural Infrastructure
In my opinion the main reason for the current global water crisis is due to weak governance and poor management. This includes a history of heavy reliance on grey infrastructure that disrupts healthy ecosystems that are critical to source waters and watersheds, and narrow water governance that ignores issues of equity and justice and the multi-dimensions of water including virtual water flows, groundwater and green water – the water in soils.
"We must build resilient water systems that incorporate nature based solutions."
With increasingly complex and interconnected human driven global environmental risks such as climate change, we must build resilient water systems that incorporate nature based solutions such as natural infrastructure to buffer against floods and storms, regulate water supply and filter pollutants.
To ensure that ecosystems are valued in governance, we must influence a wide range of decisions-makers. This includes farmers, who manage much of the world’s water resources, and politicians and consumers who through their purchase power can shift companies to be more sustainable. Finally, it is essential that women, men, youth, indigenous people and the environment all have a voice at the decision-making table.
An Imbalance of Water Demand and Supply
There is currently an imbalance of water demand and supply across the world, with supply scarcity driven by climate change impacting negatively on both water quantity and quality issues. Water demand is influenced by income, population, diet and environmental preference changes.
The catastrophic fires that Australia has been experiencing in 2019-20 illustrate how the impacts of climate change are interlinked with water, food and energy issues. Hotter temperatures and a record-breaking drought have meant that Australia is on fire with 12million+ acres burnt as at early January 2020. This is coupled with multiple country towns trucking in water, dry rivers and countless livestock and farms burnt to the ground, let alone the 500million+ wildlife that have been lost.
"The overall key is planning, reinforcing institutions and recognizing all the interlinkages and unintended consequences from actions that may exist, and therefore the critical need for policies to be adaptable."
Leaving aside the desperate need for both local and global climate change policy, the question is how best should we address water scarcity? Unfortunately, many proponents often seek a silver bullet as the solution, and in Australia these silver bullets are seen as building dams and pipelines and stopping water flowing out to sea in rivers. This mindset overlooks the diverse portfolio of tools that can improve our use of, and demand for, water. The reality is that one strategy, by itself, is never enough.
On the supply provision side, options include upgraded infrastructure systems and water recycling plants. On the demand side, there needs to be greater consideration of regulation, enforcement, monitoring and standardization of water restrictions and planning, amplified education and outreach, and last – but not least – greater application of economic instruments–water markets, prices, fees, taxes, social subsidies and rebates–link information and motivation under a non-coercive plan.
The overall key is planning, reinforcing institutions and recognizing all the interlinkages and unintended consequences from actions that may exist, and therefore the critical need for policies to be adaptable. Climatic and human systems involve complex feedback loops that react in ways nearly impossible to predict.
To design a resilient response to water scarcity, a multi-faceted approach works best.
Infrastructure, Allocation, and Prioritization
Media stories increasingly threaten us with the catastrophic likelihood of water wars and water shortages borne of climate change. In my view, the imagined dystopian future of severe water shortages has already arrived—shaped not so much by lack of water, but by aging infrastructure, underfunded utilities, social exclusion, politicized commodification, and environmental racism.
There’s often an impulse to naturalize water crises, to talk about weather and rain and climate and drought. But that’s a wrong causal framing and it leads us to the wrong solutions. We have enough freshwater to support human life. What we don’t have is enough solutions to problems of infrastructure, and allocation, and prioritization.
When we think about water scarcity, we shouldn’t think of water crises as a product of climate change and environmental scarcity on the horizon. Whatever horrors the future may hold, there are real and urgent needs—right now—for us to improve the social, political and economic institutions that determine who gets what water, how much it costs, and whether it is of acceptable quality.
Explore Water Recycling
The main contributing reasons for global water shortages are a combination of population growth and climate change. As populations grow, water demand increases, sometimes to the point of exceeding local sustainable yields.
In many places, pressure on water supplies is further exacerbated by climate change, leading to reduced or less reliable supply. Climate change is widely anticipated to increased frequency and severity of drought episodes in many parts of the world and such effects are now being acutely felt in Australia.
"It is conceivable that cities can reuse the same water multiple times before it is eventually returned to the environment. "
In other areas, seasonal rainfall, which has generally been highly reliable has become much less predictable with failed wet seasons having recently been experienced in southern India and northern Australia. With ongoing climate change, many regions of the world will need to prepare for an increasing intensity of water shortages and reduced wet season reliability.
One of the greatest untapped opportunities for urban water management is to drastically increase water recycling. It is conceivable that cities can reuse the same water multiple times before it is eventually returned to the environment. Opportunities to double water supply availability through recycling are real, but will require focused and ongoing efforts to achieve.
Preservation and Restoration of Ecosystems
The global water crisis is certainly a nuanced and complicated issue with many causes. One of the main drivers is undoubtedly human mismanagement of water resources. Profligate and wasteful water use and water pollution could both be addressed with proper management, including policy and infrastructure improvements.
Management could also encompass the preservation and restoration of ecosystems that naturally filter, store, and release water, such as wetlands and forests, and could facilitate the recharge of aquifer systems. While sustainable management is still subject to the effects of climate change, seasonal and absolutely water scarcity, and does not address population growth, I believe scientifically-informed water management is crucial in mitigating the global water crisis.
Reduce Heat-trapping Gas Emissions
There is not a single main contributing reason for our current global water crisis. Water crises vary between regions. They can unfold as floods because of excess water or scarcity and poor water quality because of lack of water. Water crises can occur because of inadequate water management or a lack of transboundary cooperation.
However, one clear thing that is making the global water crisis worse is climate change, as it is significantly transforming the water cycle. Therefore, to mitigate the water crisis, we need systemic actions to reduce heat-trapping gas emissions. We also need water education, new technology, and a paradigm shift where water is allocated first for basic human needs, for growing food, and for healthy ecosystems. Lastly, we need community governance and partnerships because the communities with fewer resources are the most affected.
A Patchwork Quilt of Local Issues and Global Trends
Though the dominant story we hear around water is of a global water crisis, this narrative is somewhat misleading. The issues we face aren't inherently global; rather, they're a patchwork quilt of local issues and global trends that, viewed together, coalesce into a global crisis. The driving global trend is climate change, which forms the backdrop for local and regional water issues. At a local or regional level, the majority of water issues are less about water scarcity and more about water management.
How can we make decisions as responsible water stewards? How do we minimize the impacts of industry, agriculture, and development on water resources? How do we view water as a circular flow rather than a waste stream? These are a few of the water management questions that underlie many local water issues, and present an opportunity for water managers and stakeholders to rethink how we view water resources.
Culture Change is Needed
The main contributing factor to global water problems isn't climate change, even if that is a major factor. It is the general inability for governments to plan for over-the-horizon needs. For dictatorships, there is no concern for anything beyond the current day, because the head of state has only self-preservation in mind. For democracies, leaders have a hard time asking their publics to start or stop doing something that they wouldn’t be doing on their own, and likewise to start paying today for needs long into the future.
To mitigate this, culture change is needed. As I report in my book Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World, Israel succeeded in water because it has a water-revering culture. And as I discuss in my new book, Troubled Water: What's Wrong with What We Drink, America’s drinking water is far less safe than it could be because of a failure to develop a culture that prioritizes public health over cost-containment.
Higher Valuing of Water
I think we basically have three related but distinguishable water crises. First, water quality is a big problem because of the scale of pollution from industrialization and intensive agriculture (and, on a related note, there are still hundreds of millions of people who lack clean water). Even in the developed world, water quality is an issue because of aging infrastructure and emerging contaminants.
Second, because of climate change, water quantity is becoming much more unpredictable around the world, both temporally and spatially. This means we'll face longer, more severe droughts but also more intense and concentrated flooding. Both having too little and having too much water is a growing problem.
Third, we still lack good water management almost everywhere. Globally, most water use is for agriculture, with too little being preserved for environmental use, recreation, drought buffers, etc. We need to find ways to allocate water much more efficiently.
In terms of solutions, we need to find ways of valuing water more highly (which often will mean paying more for it) to promote wise use, while at the same time ensuring that all people have access to sufficient clean water.
Municipal and Industrial Concerns
I think one of the main contributing factors to the global water crisis is the role that humans are playing from both a municipal and industrial stand point.
From a municipal perspective, there is a growing, and aging, population whom are all relying on a finite supply of fresh water. Fresh water supply has remained (relatively) constant for millennia, literally since the dinosaurs. Despite the world being 70% water, only c. 2.5% of that water is potable (drinkable) and the competition for that finite supply is increasing and causing tensions.
"Water used in an industrial process such as cooling water can be reused through a closed loop, therefore reducing consumption and municipal wastewater can be treated to drinking water standards. "
From an industrial perspective, we have huge industrial verticals that are thirsty for, and dependent on, water. Food & Beverage industries as well as agricultural sectors top the list when it comes to water consumption. It takes something like 8 litres of water to make 1 litre of beer and agriculture accounts for almost 70% of all industrial water consumption which is staggering when you factor in huge industries like Oil & Gas, Pharmaceuticals that are bundled into the remaining 30%. These industries aren’t getting any smaller and the associated water consumption is going one way, up.
Regarding the ways to mitigate a global water crisis, there are a number of viable options that are being discussed. These vary from something as simple as increased awareness around water consumption and the effect that we have on water supplies on a personal level, through to high capital investments into new infrastructure to help better protect and distribute our already stressed water supply.
One area that I think will have a notable effect, with the necessary investment, is the adoption of water and wastewater reuse and recycling strategies, pushing the circular economy throughout the water industry. Water used in an industrial process such as cooling water can be reused through a closed loop, therefore reducing consumption and municipal wastewater can be treated to drinking water standards. These techniques rolled out to their fullest, would make a notable difference.
Hard and Soft Infrastructure
The global water crisis is about the failure of infrastructure, of which there are two distinct types. Hard infrastructure is about pumps, pipes and plant, much of which is based on technology in mainstream use half a century ago. This is a universal problem, so its not about rich or poor countries. Soft infrastructure is about policy, procedures and people, and this is where the crunch happens.
Sadly the world has been driven by forces over which few have control. One of those is climate, but another is migration of people. The nexus of these two forces is mostly large cities situated on floodplains or well-watered arable land. But then there is a third force over which we have little control – the facts on which decisions are made. Sadly, we are now in a post-truth world, so the free flow of information has been disrupted. This has weaponized information, with an unintended consequence being the general loss of confidence by the public in the government of the day. We see the emergence of two main strands to this problem.
"the global water crisis is really a manifestation of the inability of constitutional democracy to adapt at a rate fast enough to put policies, procedures and people in place to mitigate the growing risk of water scarcity."
The first strand is the notion of a deep-state, which is portrayed as something to mistrust because “they” (whoever they might be) don’t have the best interests of the public in mind. In reality, the deep state is nothing more than highly competent technocrats sitting in institutions (soft infrastructure) dealing with policy, procedures and people. The second strand is the delegitimization of the factual basis on which the technocrats make decisions about water resilience. This is evident in the constant attacks against the science of climate, international treaties about sustainability, and global regimes designed to mitigate risk at planetary level. Together these two strands weaken the soft infrastructure, thereby undermining the technocrats who have been delegitimized by being branded as the “deep state”, with the unintended consequence being an emerging crisis in the water sector at planetary level.
Unless the technocrats regain the trust of the masses, most of whom are uninformed about the technical complexities underpinning water resource and waste management, then we can anticipate a deepening of the crisis, fuelled by the relentless weaponization of information. It is possible that under such a scenario, democracy as we know it might be unable to cope with the demands being placed on it. This could give way to a form of authoritarian government, fuelled by populist rhetoric, but unable to do what the science, engineering and technology specialists know needs to be done.
Therefore, the global water crisis is really a manifestation of the inability of constitutional democracy to adapt at a rate fast enough to put policies, procedures and people in place to mitigate the growing risk of water scarcity.
Education is The First Step
The reality of water scarcity is sobering but it is not unmanageable. A surefire way to accelerate ourselves into a detrimental position is to ignore the facts and to hinder the spreading of information.
A collaborative approach across multiple disciplines, nations, and industries is a must. Innovative solutions and technological advances will be necessary, as will the willingness to reduce use and make drastic changes to culture and lifestyle. But the first step in combating this crisis is to educate ourselves and everyone around us.
In conclusion, we'd like to thank those who've participated and provided their expertise for this round-up article. We hope to have shed more light on the issue of water scarcity and to encourage others to research these topics.
If you have any additional insight to share on the global water crisis, please give your thoughts in the comments below.
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