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The Upcoming Avoidable Water Crisis

RP Siegel | Wednesday April 6th, 2011 | 0 Comments

As our series on the future of drinking water begins to wind down, I wanted to be sure to include some other perspectives besides those of beverage companies boasting of their achievements or vowing to do better, however sincere and effective those efforts might be, and to really try and have a look at the big picture.

Since I am hardly an expert on this subject myself, I turned to a report that is a couple of years old but still contains some very forward-looking thinking ideas from a sizable community of people who are indeed experts on the subject. I refer to the report of the 2030 Water Resources Group,  entitled Charting Our Water Future. The study was facilitated by McKinsey & Company to forecast the global water picture for the year 2030. The report was the culmination of a year-long effort that included input from over 300 authorities in the field.

The report says that by 2030, the demand for water will be 40 percent higher than it is today, and more than 50 percent higher in the most rapidly developing countries. This is serious because even today, supplies are already strained in many areas. The unavoidable effects of climate change, while difficult to predict, are likely to make things far worse in some areas.

The good news, however, is that the substantial gap between what we would expect using today’s practices and technology and what has been forecasted, based on today’s consumption patterns can be closed if concerted action is taken quickly, averting what could otherwise be a catastrophic problem.

In order for this to occur, conversations will need to be had about economic and social priorities. Because, as the report says, “there is little indication that, left to its own devices, the water sector will come to a sustainable, cost-effective solution to meet the growing water requirements implied by economic and population growth.”

It’s really a question of water resource management, which urgently needs to be modernized. In today’s water resource picture, economic data is insufficient, management is often opaque, and stakeholders are inadequately linked.”

This makes it difficult for agencies to shape policies that are fact-based and implementable. As a result, water resources “face inefficient allocation and poor investment patterns because investors lack a consistent basis for economically rational decision-making.”

The report goes on to say that, “even in countries with the most advanced water policies there is still some way to go before the water sector is managed with the degree of sophistication appropriate for our most essential resource.”

We have already described the linkages between water, energy and food, which further emphasizes the critical importance of managing this resource as effectively as possible.

Under a business-as-usual scenario, using a moderate economic growth scenario, at today’s rate of water utilization efficiency, global water requirements would grow from 4.5 to 6.9 thousand cubic kilometers by 2030. This is a full 40% above our current accessible, reliable and environmentally sustainable supply. At the same time the expected allocation will evolve as follows:

  • Agriculture usage would decrease (as a percentage) from 70% to 66%
  • Industrial usage would increase from 16% to 22%
  • Domestic usage will decrease from 14% to 12%

These forecasted changes will vary widely by region. Whereas India’s demand, for example, which is projected to exceed the available supply by a factor of two, will be driven by food production requirements, China, on the other hand, will see its demand, driven primarily by the industrial sector and the need for more power generation, exceed its available supply by 30%.

In order to meet this demand under current resource management practice, fossil (non-renewable) reserves would be depleted, water previously reserved for environmental needs would be diverted, and some of the demand would simply go unmet, leading to great hardship in many areas.

There are better alternatives if we plan for them now. The report suggests three primary approaches, which are, listed in order of increasing cost are:

  • Efficiency measures
  • Surface water supply infrastructure improvements
  • Desalination

Agriculture is the biggest contributor and it also provides the biggest opportunity to provide far more “crop per drop.” Some specific suggestions include:

  • Irrigation scheduling
  • No-till rain fed crops
  • Drip irrigation
  • Integrated plant stress management
  • Improved germplasm

The authors give specific suggestions for industrial and domestic applications as well. The report closes by saying, “The case for pursuing a revolution in water resources management has never been stronger. We have seen that the challenges that lie ahead are considerable for many countries. But we have also provided evidence that none are insurmountable.”

In other words, we are with respect to the water crisis, where we might have been with global warming thirty years ago, when there was still time to act. We just might be able to avoid disaster on this one if we don’t wait another twenty years to start taking it seriously.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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