What Is Water Scarcity?
Whether it’s from drought or lack of access, more than a billion people around the world don’t have enough clean water
Acute drought conditions and dwindling natural water resources are focusing more attention on what continues to be a worldwide problem: a lack of access to fresh, potable water.
Water scarcity can be defined as a lack of sufficient water, or not having access to safe water supplies.
Water is a pressing need in many areas of the world. That scarcity is spreading as water is needed to grow and process food, create energy, and serve industry for a continually growing population. Climate change is a key contributing factor.
Clean water is an essential ingredient of a healthy human life, but 1.2 billion people lack access to water, according to recent estimates from the International Water Management Institute cited in The World’s Water: Volume 8, edited by Peter H. Gleick. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population may be facing water shortages, according to the World Wildlife Federation. Available freshwater supplies worldwide continue to dwindle. By 2030, water demand is forecast to increase by 40%, according to Even Kuross, a management consultant based in Oslo, writing in Fair Observer. The world population is expected to reach 9 billion, placing pressure on water supplies.
Physical Water Scarcity
A child helps his father carry water containers as they fetch drinking water in Bangladesh. Because the area is surrounded by saline water, scarcity of drinking water is a major problem.
Physical water scarcity occurs when there isn’t enough water to meet demand. Roughly 20% of the world’s population now lives in physical water scarcity, which The World’s Water: Volume 8 defines as areas in which water withdrawals exceed 75% of river flows. Another 500 million live in areas “approaching physical scarcity.” This could be the result of dry or arid local conditions, but distribution also plays a role. The Water Project points out the Colorado River basin as a prime example “of a seemingly abundant source of water being overused and over managed, leading to very serious physical water scarcity downstream.”
There is another equally challenging source of water scarcity: economic factors. The Water Project explains:
In the developing world, finding a reliable source of safe water is often time consuming and expensive. This is known as economic scarcity. Water can be found […] it simply requires more resources to do it. […] Economic water scarcity is by far the most disturbing form of water scarcity because it is almost entirely a lack of compassion and good governance that allows the condition to persist. Economic water scarcity exists when a population does not have the necessary monetary means to utilize an adequate source of water.
Economic water scarcity is predominant throughout Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 1.6 billion people around the world live in areas of economic water scarcity, with 780 million people living in areas with no basic water services. Compounding the lack of infrastructure investment are political and ethnic conflicts, which continue to increase and intensify worldwide as water becomes more and more scarce, writes Brian Richter in the book Chasing Water: A Guide for Moving from Scarcity to Sustainability. Inadequate water supplies can also contribute to political and economic instability.
The Worldwatch Institute’s Supriya Kumar told Voice of America that water scarcity will continue worsening worldwide as the global population continues to grow:
Over 1.2 billion are basically living in areas of physical water scarcity. And almost 1.6 billion face economic water shortage. And these are really extreme numbers. And as our population continues to grow there’s just going to be more problems. And we’re going to really have to face drastic measures in order to make sure the people have access to water.
In the biennial compendium of freshwater information and data, Gleick writes that one key challenge inherent in quantifying the problem is that data is not gathered reliably or consistently. Some of the latest water use data available is actually 20 or more years old. Without reliable, baseline data, many key issues cannot be adequately addressed by policymakers.
Water Scarcity Solutions
There are several available solutions able to effectively address water scarcity, including water reuse, storage, management, conservation, and numerous water treatment technologies such as desalination. Typically, one or more approaches must be adopted in tandem to be effective, whether a water-reliant corporation or a government entity is doing the adopting. The crux of the issue is balancing available supply with demand or consumption. Adding water supply through reuse or desalination, for example, isn’t a panacea. Without water management and strategies for adequately addressing ever-increasing demand, the solution is incomplete.
Let’s look at a few of these solutions, as well as how and where they are being implemented.
Groundwater is water that collects below the earth’s surface in fissures and crevasses, then moves into aquifers. An aquifer is a body of permeable soil or rock that contains or transmits groundwater. Typically, aquifers fill or recharge from rain or snowmelt when the water flows downward until it reaches less permeable rock.
In times of drought or water scarcity, little water is available naturally to recharge existing groundwater supplies, which can become depleted by overuse. Groundwater withdrawals have tripled in the past 50 years, according to 2012 United Nations estimates cited in The World’s Water: Volume 8. Areas with the highest groundwater withdrawals include parts of China, India, and the United States. Roughly 67% of all water withdrawn is destined for agricultural use, 22% is allocated for domestic use, and 11% goes for industrial use.
In some areas, including Australia and California, groundwater or aquifer recharging is being explored to help bolster water supplies. The process involves the injection or infiltration of excess surface water into underground aquifers. Water may be treated before it is injected. The water can be stored underground until it is needed. Some watersheds are being restored with native plant species in wetland areas to support aquifers’ natural recharge capabilities.
Surface water is often stored in dams, lakes, reservoirs, and tanks, but there are many challenges associated with it, including flooding, pollution by natural and manmade sources, and losses from evaporation or seepage.
Water Reuse and Zero-Liquid Discharge Technology
Several interrelated strategies and approaches to water reuse can alleviate water scarcity for municipalities and industries. These include water recycling and reuse, and the use of zero-liquid discharge (ZLD) systems, which use, treat, and reuse water in a closed-loop system without release or discharge.
Recycled, or reclaimed, water can be used in a variety of applications across industries, both inside facilities and in the community. Typical uses for recycled water include surface irrigation for orchards and vineyards, golf courses, landscaped areas, and food crops. Other uses include the recharging of groundwater, preservation or augmentation of ecosystems such as wetlands or riparian habitat, and in industrial processes. Nonpotable water can be used for toilet flushing, irrigating landscaping, washing vehicles and streets, and other similar purposes.
With these systems, wastewater — once viewed as a useless, disposable commodity — becomes a valuable resource. Fluence has worldwide experience in the advanced treatment of wastewater, creating systems for water reuse across a range of industrial, agricultural, and municipal processes. Fluence’s water treatment technologies are capable of producing pure and ultrapure water for reuse in various applications, including power generation, beverage bottling, food production, and agriculture irrigation.
One important aspect of water reuse is that it preserves valuable sources of fresh water. One example is the new Ashalim solar thermal power plant in Israel, which relies on local fresh water for its cooling-tower make-up water. The government was looking for a system to reuse fresh water and minimize the discharge of brackish blowdown wastewater.
Fluence devised a solution that includes filtration, ultrafiltration, and reverse osmosis in modular containers. Recycling the cooling water before discharge into evaporation ponds reduces use of valuable fresh water by 50% and lowers discharge volumes.
The food and beverage industry also uses water reuse and zero-discharge technologies. In fact, such technologies can improve their overall cost of operations as well as make them resilient in periods of water scarcity. In a March 2012 interview with Food Manufacturing, Henry J. Charrabé, managing director and chief executive officer of Fluence, explained:
Food plants require a large volume of water to process foods, clean plant equipment and remove waste products. […] The enormous amount of wastewater that must be treated is a burdensome cost for many food manufacturers. This is why water and wastewater treatment present both a challenge and an opportunity for food plant operators.
A PepsiCo Frito-Lay facility in Casa Grande, Arizona, is reportedly the first U.S. food processing plant able to produce drinking-quality process water for reuse. The snack food manufacturing plant, which processes potatoes and corn, has a 2,460-m3/d process water recovery treatment system that has helped Frito-Lay reduce its annual water use by 378,541 m3. It landfills less than 1% of its waste, making it a near-net-zero waste facility.
Water reuse — whether it is grey water or recycled water — can save fresh water for human consumption in times of water stress and water scarcity. In Australia, for example, grey water use would reportedly save more than 1 trillion liters of fresh drinking water annually. Although some consumers are skeptical about drinking recycled water, vocal advocates — including Microsoft founder turned philanthropist Bill Gates — continue to demonstrate there is nothing to fear from drinking properly treated water.
An increasingly popular solution to fresh water scarcity is treating saline or brackish water sources through a process known as desalination. This process can treat seawater or groundwater containing salt concentrations that make the water unfit for human consumption. Fresh water, for example, is defined as water with less than 1,000 ppm of salt. Highly saline water contains between 10,000 ppm and 35,000 ppm of salt.
Many nations are increasing their investment in desalination to develop reliable water sources in the face of growing demand. These include the United Arab Emirates, nations with limited available water supplies such as Cyprus, and water-stressed areas of the U.S. There are an estimated 16,000 desalination plants in operation around the world, the largest of which are in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.
In the UAE, for example, water demand is expected to double between 2011 and 2020. Most of that demand is being filled through desalination, with roughly US$3.27 billion spent annually for desalination. Abu Dhabi reportedly produced 650 million GPD in 2011.
Unfortunately, desalination often has relied heavily on power-hungry, fixed facilities. Masdar estimated that seawater desalination requires about 10 times more energy than pumping well water does.
But there are solutions available to overcome these conventional obstacles. For example, some larger desalination facilities may include a cogeneration plant — a greener source of power for treatment.
Decentralized Treatment Solutions
Another way to save money is by bringing the treatment to where it’s needed, eliminating the need for extensive delivery infrastructure. Fluence — which already designs, manufactures, and supplies state-of-the-art, full-scale desalination plants with capacities from 20,000 to 100,000 m3/d — is leading the way with affordable decentralized treatment solutions, like the modular, containerized water treatment plants in its NIROBOX™ line. Nirobox has options for both seawater and brackish water, as well as for wastewater treatment.
Nirobox is a plug-and-play, scalable solution that can be quickly deployed. One good example can be found at Reserva Conchal, a five-star resort in drought-affected Costa Rica. Water shortage and lack of water delivery infrastructure were posing a threat to tourism, necessitating a local, high-quality, dependable supply of potable water that wouldn’t hurt the environment.
In just eight months from order to startup, Fluence provided three Nirobox containerized seawater desalination units with a total output of 1,500 m3 of water a day.
Access to power can be an obstacle to decentralized water treatment. Conventional activated sludge treatment requires a substantial amount of energy to power aerators.
A revolutionary new technology from Fluence cuts energy use for aeration by 90%. Membrane aerated biofilm reactors (MABRs) not only save money, but their low energy needs make it possible to establish wastewater treatment in remote locations.
For example, an agricultural community of 1,000 homes in Israel’s Jezreel Valley needed to update a pond system that was unable to lower nutrient levels to government standards. The solution had to be odorless and quiet, have low power consumption, and use the existing pond structure. By adding decentralized MABR units, the process was able to provide 125 m3/d of water suitable for reuse in irrigation.
The management of water resources using existing policies and regulations is a way to address many water-related challenges, including water reuse water rights, and others. It addresses the effects of natural events and human intervention — such as damming or dredging — on natural water resources, and also addresses the long-term, cumulative effects of water policy decisions on the economy, institutions, and environment. This may be through the development of policies regarding domestic water supplies, the pollution and overdrafting of groundwater supplies, wetlands restoration, and issues such as water imports and exports.
Although water management is commonly viewed as a task for national or regional governments, it is increasingly practiced at the state, provincial, or local level. Companies and industries are also adopting water management best practices to help them thrive and become better resource stewards.
One of the biggest obstacles limiting effective water management is politics and bureaucracy. A prime example can be seen in the Western U.S., where increased demand and scarcity are making state and regional officials increasingly protective of their water rights.
Infrastructure Monitoring and Repairs
Another key in the water savings puzzle is the ongoing need worldwide for infrastructure monitoring and repair to prevent loss of water through delivery systems. These small amounts become increasingly larger over time. Monitoring aging infrastructure and creating new technologies — such as wireless smart valves and pipe defect and leak-detection sensing devices — are helping, but they must be used along with water policies such as routine reporting and repair plans.
How big is the problem? According to a 2013 report from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, in the U.S., an estimated 2.1 trillion gallons per year — about 16% of the water used in the nation daily — is lost through outdated and leaky infrastructure. In Europe, the estimated value of water lost through leaky infrastructure is roughly 80 billion euros per year, according to the Community Research and Development Information Service.
Contributing to the problem is inadequate funding for infrastructure repair or replacement. Even in the U.S., investments of more than $1 trillion are needed to repair and expand the nation’s aging drinking water infrastructure, according to a 2013 American Water Works Association report. Estimates for repairing and upgrading wastewater treatment systems throughout the nation were similar.
The organization also noted that delaying investments on key infrastructure repairs dramatically increases the eventual costs. To address these issues in some areas, water utility privatization has been advocated. The World Bank, for example, estimated that public-private partnerships resulted in reducing water losses — from leaks, theft, and inaccurate measurement — by 15%.
Decentralized treatment can play an important role in reducing this type of water loss. By eliminating vulnerable infrastructure, it can lead to a reduction in so-called non-revenue water, which refers to water that’s treated but lost through leaks or theft before reaching consumers.
Water conservation is critical to stemming water scarcity. Although there are concerns about its effectiveness, it is needed to reduce demand. Typically, conservation efforts are publicized and encouraged in times of drought, but in reality, conservation is key to sustaining the supply-demand balance, especially in areas facing population growth.
Effective conservation efforts can be seen in areas such as Zaragoza, Spain, which instituted its Water Saving City project in 1997 with a goal of reducing domestic water use by 1 million m3/y. The net effect has been a “water scarcity impact” of 1.176 m3 of water per year, according Water 2030. This is a per-capita water use reduction of roughly 51 liters, or a change from 150 L/d in 1997 to 99 L/d in 2012, despite a 12% population increase.
Despite this and similar successes, conservation is frequently pummeled in the environmental media for being ineffective, especially in the absence of meaningful water management policy and low water prices. Kurt Schwabe, professor of environmental economics and policy at the University of California Riverside, was quoted in The Redlands Daily Facts as saying that critics say even the success of mandatory water restrictions is “a function of the good will of the public, also the probability of getting caught misbehaving.”
The founder of the Environmentalist Foundation of India, Arun Krishnamurthy, observed in The Guardian:
Most conservation efforts start with a bang, and fizzle out over the months or years due to a lack of support. This could be a lack of money, of public awareness, or even the in-depth knowledge needed to proceed further.
Ultimately, addressing water scarcity requires the combined efforts of consumers, water managers, researchers, and public officials. Finding a suite of effective and affordable solutions is often the goal. Brian Richter, director of Global Freshwater Strategies for The Nature Conservancy, told Colorado Public Radio:
You have to balance use with availability and consider cost and effectiveness. […] Water conservation or efficiency of use in industry and agriculture are the least expensive [options for addressing water scarcity] with the least impact on the environment.