Why A Quarter Of The World Faces Extreme Water Stress
It goes without saying that water is essential for life, but for a quarter of the global population, there are times in the year when there is barely enough of it to go around.
According to data from Aqueduct, the World Resources Institute suite of tools that measures various markers for potential water risks, 25 countries in the world are exposed to extremely high levels of water stress.
This leaves roughly a quarter of the population of the world in an extremely vulnerable position, as if there is a flash drought, infrastructure failure or contamination of a freshwater supply, the potential effects could be catastrophic.
There are ways to manage and mitigate the potential effects of water stress through cooperation, expert advice from water consultants and a concerted effort to preserve freshwater supplies, but the first step is understanding what causes water stress to begin with.
What Is Water Stress?
There are a lot of overlapping terms used for places where water supplies are vulnerable, all of
which have slightly different meanings.
The term water stress is used to describe the ratio of water demand to renewable drinkable supply available, typically expressed in the form of a percentage.
Extreme levels of water stress are found in any country where the water demand is 80 per cent of the level of supply or higher on average.
It must be noted that the level of water demand and indeed supply will fluctuate based on a range of factors, which means that countries with lower levels of water stress can be affected by acute scarcity and shortages.
For example, a particularly hot summer in the UK can in some cases lead to hosepipe bans and other limitations and restrictions on the use of freshwater to ensure there is no shortage of the water needed for cooking, cleaning, drinking and other vital functions.
Why Does Water Stress Happen?
There are many causes of water stress, but they can typically be separated into physical and economic factors.
Physical water stress factors are the issues that often intuitively come to mind when one thinks of water scarcity, and they are situations where natural water resources in an area struggle to or do not meet the demands of the area.
This can sometimes be due to an outright shortage of water due to a drought or in densely populated areas with arid climates such as as seen in Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman and Cyprus.
Wider effects such as population growth and climate change can affect the demand and supply of water, both directly and in the way it affects other industries that scale with population such as agriculture.
By contrast, economic water stress factors are primarily focused on infrastructural or technological deficiencies which mean that an area cannot access enough of the water in the area to meet the demand.
This is far more common than physical water scarcity but is also far easier to fix. It costs a lot less to build a well to access a groundwater source than a major irrigation project such as the Great Man-Made River in Libya.
What Can Be Done?
Whilst this situation could change in the next few decades as the effects of climate change intensify, for many countries suffering from extreme levels of water stress, the issue is less about the supply of water but how it is being used, and extracted.
There are several countries, cities and locales such as Las Vegas and Singapore that have thrived despite being areas of extreme water stress due to careful technological deployment and infrastructure development to minimise wasted water and maximise the benefits of water that is used.
Developing water resilience and security plans is far more economical than is perhaps expected, and any single pound spent on securing the future of water will be paid back at least six times over from a purely economic perspective.
What is required more than anything is the will to make big decisions that focus on long-term benefits for stakeholders, rather than short-term solutions that typically mean that more drastic and desperate measures are needed later down the line.
There are a lot of measures that can be taken from a community level all the way up to political leaders, and whilst such a major crisis requires decision-making on a top-down level, it is important to know what individual businesses can do to help.
Companies should audit their water supply throughout their entire supply and distribution chain and look for measures they can take to keep their water use within levels that are enough to sustain the Earth and meet the needs of society.
Many businesses have already set targets based on the science of climate change and a growing number are developing or refining their targets to match.
Farmers have a wide range of options to make their water use more efficient, such as using sprinkler or drip irrigation rather than flooding fields with water, as well as more efficient ways to grow certain types of crops.
City planners, councillors and mayors should consider commissioning an action plan for urban water resilience, which will explore ways to use water more efficiently and find new water sources, reducing demand and increasing supply respectively.
Desalination and wastewater treatment should be increasingly used as a water security measure, as other cities have done so with considerable success elsewhere.
Energy policymakers should consider using sources of energy less reliant on water for either
cooling or power generation such as wind turbines and solar power in order to avoid water stress contributing to energy stress and potential shutdowns.
Development banks, investors and lenders could consider setting up debt-for-nature swaps, which is a form of debt relief contingent on a commitment to invest in water resilience, biodiversity and preserving natural reserves that contribute to water security.
Finally, national leaders can protect their green infrastructure, audit their current water governance, develop forests and wetlands to build a natural resistance against flash flooding and flash droughts, as well as develop an integrated approach to water resource management.