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The water crisis: time for change?
By Max Gottschalk
What happening? The world is facing a “triple crisis” of overuse, pollution and climate change-related threats to its water supply, with demand expected to outstrip supply by 40% by the end of the decade, according to a landmark report by the Global Commission on the Economics of Water.
The study calls for an end to wasteful practices in sectors including manufacturing, mining, and agriculture, and for water to be viewed as “a global common good”.
Around 50% of countries currently depend on water supply from neighbouring countries. The report also calls for a move towards “water as a human right”, and the creation of a United Nations agency for water scarcity.
Why does this matter? In the World Economic Forum’s annual risk report, water scarcity has consistently secured a spot among the top five risks to the global economy. Multiple factors contribute to this scarcity in the UK, including the impact of climate change, which has led to more frequent and intense heatwaves and droughts. Following the current trajectory, the Environment Agency forecasts that by 2050, average summer temperatures will increase by 7.4C, causing a 50-80% decline in river levels and reducing freshwater availability by 10-15%. Meanwhile, average water consumption in the UK has risen YoY since 2014, reaching 143 litres per person per day. Demand now outstrips supply – In England, water levels in 28% of groundwater aquifers and 18% of rivers and reservoirs are declining, according to government figures. Much of this demand is spurred by domestic and agricultural use.
Domestic water use – Changing social norms is an important facet of tackling the water crisis, with many calling for a reframing of how we view and use water. As eloquently put by the Chief executive of the Environment Agency in 2019 “we need water wastage to be as socially unacceptable as blowing smoke in the face of a baby”. Numerous questions arise regarding domestic water usages, such as the necessity of flushing waste with clean drinking water and the appropriateness of using drinking water for hosepipes.
Reframing grey water – In India, where the water crisis is particularly acute, trials using grey water to flush toilets are underway. Grey water can be taken from baths, showers and sinks (outside of the kitchen), representing 50-70% of domestic water use. A home-installed system can lightly treat the water for reuse. The heat from bath or shower water can also be reused, with up to 60% of the heat recovered. Today, UK households spend £2.3bn ($2.9) each year heating water for showers and flush 740 billion litres of water down the toilet. Social norms are a barrier to the uptake of these technologies. However, as the water crisis intensifies, circular solutions may become mainstream.
Agricultural water use – Agriculture uses a staggering 65-70% of the world’s freshwater, with almost half of this wasted. Reducing water use in agriculture can be approached from several angles. For example, from a wastage perspective, losses occur at every stage of the food system, from planting and harvesting to storage and transportation – one study suggests that 44% of crops grown are lost before they reach the consumer. Preventing food waste reduces water demand and optimises farmers’ time.
Technology in agriculture – Precision agriculture is one solution to on-farm wastage, harnessing advanced technologies and tools to help farmers make better decisions and improve crop yields. Here, the use of water and other resources is optimised to increase production while reducing the time and effort required. Precision agriculture relies on collecting and analysing vast data sets from various sources, including crop health, soil moisture and soil fertility, enabling farmers to make informed choices. The drawback is the costs which, at present, are high – cameras and sensors mounted to tractors, drones and within the soil are expensive and require interpretation from IT-literate farmers or third-party providers. Small farmers from less developed countries cannot afford these services. However, companies are increasingly harnessing open-source data and data analytic tools available on smartphones to increase access to the benefits of precision agriculture for more farmers.
Changing diets – Further down the supply chain, consumers can reduce their freshwater footprint by choosing foods that do not require intense irrigation. Approximately one-third of the water used in agriculture is related to the production of livestock, but the nutritional returns are not relative. For example, a gram of protein provided by beef requires 20 times the amount of water compared to the same protein provided by cereals and starchy roots, according to a study. Changing diets may be an important tool in the water crisis.