Water seems the most renewable resource of all.
The problem is that most of the water resources are so inaccessible that it is as if they were on Mars and those that are accessible are not distributed regularly to the planet. Water is difficult to transport for long distances and our needs are increasing, both for food and for industry. Everything we do needs water: to drink, to wash, to grow food and for industry, construction and manufacturing. With more than 7.5 billion people on the planet – destined to become 10 billion by 2050 – the situation is expected to become even more urgent.
Currently, 844 million people – nearly one in nine of the world’s population – do not have access to clean and reasonably priced water within half an hour of their home, and nearly 300,000 children under the age of five die of dysentery each year, because of dirty water and poor hygiene conditions. Providing water to those who need it is not only vital for human security, but also has major social and economic benefits. Providing water at reasonable costs saves lives and reduces the burden on health, as well as freeing up economic resources.
It would cost just over 21 billion a year until 2030, or 0.1% of global GDP, to provide water and sanitation to everyone who needs it, but the World Bank estimates that the economic benefits would be 60 billion a year. year.
Is climate change making things worse?
Climate change generates droughts and heat waves around the world, as well as floods and rising sea levels. Pollution is increasing, both in fresh water supplies and underground aquifers. Overexploitation of those aquifers can also make the remaining water more salty. Even fertilizers that infiltrate nitrate in those reserves can make the water not drinkable or unsuitable for irrigation.
Who risks more?
The poor are the most affected. Jonathan Farr, senior political analyst at WaterAid, says: “Competing demands for water mean that those who are poor or marginalized find it more difficult to have access to water than the rich and powerful.” Many governments and private water companies focus their supplies on richer areas and prioritize agriculture and industry rather than poor people, while turning a blind eye to those who pollute and those who extract more water than is allowed. from underground sources. Sharing access to water fairly requires good governance, strict regulations, investments and implementation of laws, all qualities that are in short supply in some of the poorest and least water-rich areas in the world.
The number of areas where water is scarce is increasing. A revolutionary new study, based on data collected by NASA’s GRACE – Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment – satellites for a period of fourteen years, has discovered nineteen hotspots worldwide where water resources are rapidly in short supply, with potentially disastrous results . The authors were inflexible: the results showed that “water is the central environmental issue of this century”.
How can fresh water resources be best managed?
Some of the most effective methods of managing water resources are also the simplest. Repairing leaks in pipes is a good example – old infrastructures that have not undergone proper maintenance waste enormous quantities of water. A leaking tap can waste up to 300 liters per year.
Irrigation has allowed farmers to grow a wider range of crops even in the driest regions. Some irrigation methods, however, are highly inefficient – in countries where it is hot, the water sprayed on the crops evaporates before it can reach the roots. An alternative is drip irrigation, a system of pipes that brings water directly to the root of each individual plant, but this too is prone to waste.
Advances in sensor technology offer a way out. These sensors – at around $ 2 a year – can monitor soil moisture, thus letting farmers know if there is need for water and thus allowing them to calibrate irrigation more accurately than was possible in past.
But science and technology can only go so far. As with many issues concerning water, the main problem is always governance and equity. Farmers will cultivate what they can to earn something and many do not have many alternatives than to use the scarce resources of groundwater. Without strong governance, this can lead to disasters given that water scarcity has widespread effects on the entire local community.
And the floods?
Climate change will not only mean more drought, but also more frequent floods. These can be devastating for agriculture and cities, especially for those coastal cities that are already threatened by rising sea levels and more violent storms.
The UN’s sixth goal for sustainable development concerns water: clean water and hygiene should be available to everyone by 2030. But Farr of WaterAid points out that, at the current rate, some countries will run out of centuries. World governments will meet at the United Nations this summer to discuss the progress made.