World Water Day – Counting down the drops

Today’s Water Day aims to raise awareness of the importance of water resources and how damaged ecosystems impact the availability of drinking water for human consumption. It’s a wake-up call to action!

Water covers two-thirds of the earth’s surface, but drinking water is getting ever scarcer. Increasing pressures on global water resources due to population growth, dietary changes and climate change are reducing access to freshwater supply. This pressure on water resources will force governments worldwide to focus on the availability of water as well as using water more efficiently. In Cape-Town, South Africa after three years of drought, “Day Zero” is approaching. This would mean that about 1 million people will be without running water and by summer millions of people might have to queue for water. Many other major cities such as Beijing, Sao Paolo, Mexico City and London face similar situations if we don’t act quickly.

Global water demand is projected to increase by 55% between 2000 and 2050[1]. Farming accounts for around 70% of freshwater use worldwide, and food production will need to grow by 69% by 2035 to feed the growing population. Industrialisation, increased energy demands and the effects of climate change will put further constraints on freshwater resources. In fact, MIT researchers estimate that 5 billion of the world’s projected 9.7 billion people could live in water-stressed areas by 2050. In Europe, water scarcity might affect half of the European water basins by 2030.

The UN recognises the critical water challenge and one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 6) aims to ensure that everyone has access to safe drinking water by 2030.

What are the major economies doing to address water challenges?

The EU’s policy Tsunami

Water stress, i.e. pressure on the quantity and quality of water resources, exists in many places throughout Europe, not just in the Mediterranean. In fact, nine European countries can be considered water-stressed: Cyprus, Bulgaria, Belgium, Spain, Malta, FYR Macedonia, Italy, UK, and Germany. In other words, 46% of the region’s population live in places which are water-stressed. Only Austria and Finland saw themselves as not being affected at all by water scarcity.  To save water resources, this year the EU will see a tsunami of reviews and legislation in water policy. The overall objective is to ensure access to good quality water in sufficient quantity for all Europeans, and to ensure the good status of all water bodies across Europe. The EU needs to tackle several challenges at the same time, including water pollutants, climate change, and water scarcity; all while fostering sustainable economic growth and creating jobs. The issue of pharmaceutical residues found in water will dominate the discussions in Brussels in 2018; while negotiations on the revised Drinking Water Directive and the upcoming Proposal on Water Reuse will keep the Environment Committee in the European Parliament busy until the end of the European Commission’s mandate.

Deregulation in the US

The outlook in the US remains challenging as well. Western states have been dealing with water stress problem for long time, but they won’t be alone for long.  The water crisis will affect 40 out of 50 states in the US. Shortages are expected in some part of these states within the next 10 years. In December of 2016, Congress passed the 2016 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a water resources package aimed at improving the United States’ water resources infrastructure. The bill also responded to the drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, which contained high levels of lead in 2016. The legislation enjoyed widespread support from stakeholders ranging from municipalities to trade and industry groups.  However, in 2017, President Donald Trump, issued an Executive Order directing the EPA to review US water policy. By reviewing the regulation, the administration can begin to pick it apart and weaken it. This policy choice is surprising, considering that about 117 million Americans – one in three people – get their drinking water from streams that lack clear protection.

The grand plan of China

While air pollution had been the main environmental focus in China over the past years, the country is now starting to focus on water as well. In China, water stress levels are very high. There are several reasons behind this, but industrialization and urbanization are two of the biggest. In April 2015, the Chinese Government released the Water Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan (“Water Ten”),  which is the most impactful water policy in the country.  The plan covers pollution control, municipal water use, coastal water management, overall ecological environment protection and, very importantly, water efficiency improvement in agriculture. The plan uses a mix of water efficiency targets and market mechanisms such as water tariff reform, revised water fees, credit financing, environmental performance and eco compensation. The target for the upcoming years remains on preventing and controlling pollution rather than improving the overall water quality, but the reform of water pricing looks promising.

Finding solutions

Pressure on water resources will continue to increase worldwide, but water is also scarce because it is poorly managed. As water becomes scarcer, it is essential to use water more efficiently. Raising water prices is seen as an option by many stakeholders, but is politically contentious for many governments. However, this could incentivise investors to build infrastructure to supply water, and also will increase water resilience and mobilize actors to fight climate change. The right water policy will also encourage water efficiency technologies that have the potential to deliver effective water consumption. Different sectors such as agriculture should be incentivised to use water more carefully.

Encouraging reuse of treated wastewater can also provide significant environmental and economic benefits and could help easing water stress. According to figures from the European Commission, the world water market is estimated to reach 1 trillion € by 2020. A 1% increase in the rate of growth of the water industry in Europe could create up to 20.000 new jobs.

The public has also an important role to play in the debate. Education programmes to promote/encourage behavioural changes in times of water shortages, such as drought or water supply interruptions, are key. These programmes help customers carry out water-efficient lifestyles. In California, the programme save our water has been very successful since its implementation in 2009.

Today’s Water Day should be a call to action for a fundamental shift in the way the world looks at water. Drinking water is literally running out and this will have devastating impacts for humankind. Cities living in Zero Days are not a possible future somewhere in the 2100s. It’s happening now!

“When the well is dry, we will know the worth of water” – Benjamin Franklin

[1] OECD (2012b), Water Quality and Agriculture. Meeting the Policy Challenge, OECD Publishing

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