Water Scarcity Predicted To Intensify In Line With Climate Change

Water management consultants - H2O Building Services


A new study from the University of Utrecht has found that water scarcity around the world will intensify as time goes on and both climate and socioeconomic change start to take hold, although the impacts will not be felt equally across different regions, with the global south expected to bear the brunt of the water crisis in the future.


Published in the Nature Climate Change journal, the study used simulations from an innovative water quantity and quality model to analyse global water scarcity now and in the future.


It was found that 55 per cent of the world’s population currently live in places that have insufficient clean water for at least one month out of the year, but this could increase to 66 per cent by the end of the century.


Lead author of the study Dr Edward Jones explained: “Climate change and socioeconomic developments have multifaceted impacts on the availability and quality of, and demands for, water resources in the future. Changes in these three aspects are crucial for evaluating water future.”


He went on to say that increases in exposure in the future will be concentrated in the global south, the result of significant population and economic growth, coupled with a drop in water quality and climate change.

While water quantity is frequently focused on in water scarcity assessments, it is essential that water quality is also not ignored, because safe water use will depend on this, which is why this particular study aims to normalise its inclusion in analysis, as well as in the development of strategies for managing water scarcity issues.


Dr Jones concluded: “The lack of clean water presents a systemic risk to both humans and ecosystems, which is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Our work highlights that, alongside substantially reducing our water demands, we must place an equally strong focus on eliminating water pollution in order to turn the tide on the global water crisis.”


Global water quality


Target 6.3 of the UN’s sustainable development goals is to improve water quality by 2030 by driving down pollution, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater, eliminating the dumping of hazardous chemicals and materials, and minimising their release, and significantly increasing safe recycling and reuse of water around the world.


The United Nations World Water Development Report 2023 shows that data relating to water quality remains sparse, particularly at a global level, because of inadequate monitoring and reporting capacity, especially in some of the least developed countries in places like Africa and Asia.


Water quality risks affect low, middle and high-income countries, albeit in different ways. In higher-income nations, for example, the more serious problem seems to be agricultural runoff, whereas in lower-income countries low levels of wastewater treatment is the bigger issue.


Hazardous chemical release from industry occurs across all seven continents, while microplastics and pharmaceutical pollutants are a growing concern for water quality.


This is compounded by further human activity, such as land use change and natural wetland loss, which is also putting freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity at risk… and it’s expected that this risk will only grow in the future as natural landscapes are cleared to make way for cultivated land.


UN figures show that around 60 per cent of reported water bodies in the world are currently categorised as having good ambient water quality. However, more than three-quarters of the 75,000 or so waterways that were reported on in 2020 could be found in 24 high-income countries.


For the poorest 20 countries in the world, just over 1,000 waterways were reported on, which means these nations are significantly under-represented by the global estimate.


UK water quality


One of the biggest issues to hit the headlines of late in the UK is the state of the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams, with water quality seemingly getting worse day by day.


Sewage pollution, in particular, is one of the biggest threats facing our natural water environment, thanks to inadequate infrastructure that’s no longer fit for purpose and water mismanagement on the part of water suppliers, which appear to be making sewage discharges on an increasingly regular basis as time goes on.


Despite dismal pollution records and insufficient investment to make the necessary infrastructure upgrades, suppliers continue to pay out billions in shareholder dividends. And it seems that government intervention in the form of unlimited fines for pollution incidents isn’t proving to be much of a deterrent.


Surfers Against Sewage figures show that there were 584,001 discharges of raw sewage into waterways around the UK in 2023, with 75 per cent of rivers posing a serious risk to human health.


From competitive athletes falling ill after swimming in the sea to towns being affected by cryptosporidium in the water supply, it is becoming increasingly clear that the UK’s water quality issues will be here to stay unless significant action is taken… and soon.


How can businesses help?


Understanding how and where you use water is the first step towards improving your water stewardship and ensuring that you’re not contributing to the global water crisis.

Your impact on water quality will largely be dictated by the industry you’re in, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that businesses can adopt to reduce their impact in this area, but it’s important to ensure that you look at your entire supply chain to see what improvements could be made in this regard.


The good news is that there are many different ways in which companies can improve their water footprint and safeguard resources for future generations, everything from water leak detection and repair to rainwater harvesting, greywater reuse and automated meter reading.


If you’d like to find out more about how you can start operating more sustainably as a business where water is concerned, get in touch with the H2o Building Services team today.