The Future of Fresh Water
Without effective action, it’s been predicted that half of the world’s population will descend into severe water poverty by 2050.
Around the world, sustained effort will be necessary to ensure adequate supplies
Fresh water is becoming more and more scarce across the globe, and in the absence of adequate countermeasures, the trend is expected to continue in the future. With demand growing and sources dwindling, water scarcity already touches approximately 2.8 billion people from every continent for at least one month a year, and more than 1.2 billion people have no access to clean drinking water.
Shrinking supply and growing demand for fresh water are currently overstressing water systems worldwide, and major modern cities are for the first time having close calls with “Day Zero” events, when a city’s taps would simply run dry. In fact, the world’s freshwater requirements are expected to outstrip stable supply by a startling 40% by 2030.
Severe Water Poverty
Citing unproductive management and inefficient overuse as culprits, 500 of the world’s leading hydrologists attending a meeting in Bonn held by the Global Water Systems Project (GWSP) predicted that half of the world’s population will descend into severe water poverty by 2050, limiting human development during this century. More ominously, they warned of a probable global catastrophic tipping point whose arrival date would be unpredictable.
Human communities depend upon healthy freshwater ecosystems, but become increasingly vulnerable when those systems degrade. Scientists warn that as regions run out of water, mass migrations will follow, with political friction a likely consequence, something already seen in Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Iran, and India.
The World Resources Institute recently predicted 33 other countries will be added to the list of those facing extremely high water stress by 2040. Crown Prince General Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently said, “For us, water is [now] more important than oil,” a dramatic statement, considering that the UAE is the world’s seventh largest oil exporter.
Contributing to dwindling supply is pollution generated by farming, industry, untreated wastewater discharges, and environmental damage from erosion, as well as overpumping that causes permanent damage to vital aquifers. Water pollution not only poses a danger to human health but also to aquatic species, harming fisheries and increasing the cost of water treatment.
Hope for Fresh Water
Overall, the world is not yet keeping pace with the problems, although some governments are beginning to take a proactive stance, and technology and engineering are increasing the energy efficiency of water treatment to make it attainable to much more of the world’s population. Bonn University’s Professor Janos Bogardi, senior adviser to the GWSP, expressed the state of uncertainty and opportunity regarding the future of our freshwater supplies when he said, “I’m optimistic that we can pull ourselves out of this mess but I don’t know how we are going to do it yet.”
What are some of the technologies and water management practices that can help? Among them are water reuse, desalination, and improved wastewater treatment. Here are just a few examples of how governments and business ventures are making changes to ensure the availability of fresh water in the future:
- Seawater desalination technology is becoming more and more efficient and less expensive. It’s increasingly being used not only to supply drinking water, but also as a source of industrial process water.
- As with desalination, wastewater treatment is undergoing important advances. Super-efficient technologies like Aspiral™ MABR may provide the missing link needed to usher in a “golden decade of water reuse” predicted by Christopher Gasson of Global Water Intelligence.
- In California, large projects are using reused water to recharge aquifers. Also moving forward there are large storage projects, and restoration of forests that are a vital part of watersheds.
- Many Indian states are adopting major water policies that require the use of recycled water for industry.
- As many countries plan major water infrastructure outlays, a growing number understand the benefits of decentralized treatment, which uses small, efficient treatment facilities to economically bring treatment to where it’s needed.
- With possibly the largest-scale program, China is in the midst of an ambitious Five-Year Plan dominated by greening, river restoration, and rural water treatment infrastructure outlays.
It’s clear that much remains to be done, but these advances — and more to come — could very well hold the key to a future of water security around the world.