In a year that saw unprecedented flooding worldwide — from Germany, Vietnam and Kenya to Canada and the U.S. — many people had too much water. Some, however, fell short, as a megadrought continued in the western U.S. and Brazil faces its worst drought in a century, adding pressure to an already taut situation. Further, drought and flooding are bringing attention to another pressure point: water quality and its environmental justice impacts.
While 2021 bore witness to devastating water-related events, it was also a year of improving the understanding and ability to solve these problems. Top headlines this year include stories about improving inadequate and unreliable data, shifting utility business models, and addressing inequities in legacy infrastructure. The science on climate change is clear, and people are increasingly recognizing water’s inextricable link to every aspect of addressing climate change.
With a better understanding of the problem, the solution becomes more possible. In 2021, the efforts made by the public and private sectors to get a clearer picture of resources and needs are just as much of a news story as the problem itself.
Data has always been a sticky problem for the water sector because of both the nature of the resource and complex regulations and usage patterns. As countries grapple with how to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), leadership increasingly recognizes the need to improve water data collection and management. Without it, nearly half of the world’s population will continue to struggle to understand the scale of the problem or how to address it. Read the full story here.
Measuring scarcity in particular requires good data. A mapping technology called WaterLOUPE, developed in partnership with Kimberly-Clark and Dutch research organization Deltares, enables water-stressed communities like Cape Town and Sao Paolo to track data related to social, economic and climate factors that affect freshwater availability. Having that data at hand means communities can act according to their own circumstances. Because data is so crucial, the private sector has a vital role to play in the solutions, but all stakeholders must understand the situation on the ground. Read the full story here.
Having the data is one thing; having the structural systems in place to manage supply in a changing climate is another. Water utilities, like their electricity counterparts, cannot rely on antiquated business models to address times of stress. The problem is governance, not technology, and more utilities recognize business-as-usual operations are not sustainable in the new normal of climate change. Read the full story here.
Infrastructure was a hot topic in 2021. American drinking water infrastructure continued to barely pass muster, and repeated floods and droughts put additional stress on the pipes that were often laid decades ago and have long since outlasted their intended lifespan. While much attention has focused on energy and transportation infrastructure in the new infrastructure law, water infrastructure gets a big boost in the legislation as well. Read the full story here.
Water quality was again a hot topic in 2021, with one of the most distressing news stories coming out of Jackson, Mississippi, where residents, mostly lower-income and Black, were left without safe drinking water for weeks. The new infrastructure law will send $75 million to the state for water infrastructure needs, but it is still not clear how that will be allocated. Officials have stated priority funding should go to disadvantaged communities. Read the full story here.
In the Mexican state of Guanajuato, home to over a thousand American expats, water quality and quantity are longstanding problems, exacerbated by climate change and the increased demand for thirsty crops grown there. The situation is made worse by inadequate regulation and oversight as well as the worst affected people being the least powerful. Community members and development organizations have started working with the expat community and the tourism industry to help bring attention to the problem. Read the full story here.
Closing in on the first full calendar year of the global pandemic, people continue to feel the impacts of climate change. Water is a tangible thing, in a way that energy and agriculture often are not. When it is not available because there is not enough or it is not safe to use, people notice. This year has seen an emphasis on data, technology and investment, which is essential. The biggest challenge will be changing the culture and governance of this resource to meet the challenges of climate change.
Image credit: Jong Marshes/Unsplash
Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.