EDITORIAL

Rampant Global Water Use May Outstrip Supply by 2050

Dr BK Mukhopadhyay

A noted management economist and an international commentator on business and economic affairs. He may be reached at m.bibhas@gmail.com

Water scarcity already poses a grave threat to economic growth, human rights and national security. Population growth could cause global demand for water to outpace supply by mid-century if current levels of consumption continue, according to a recent study. Periods of increased demand for water – often coinciding with population growth or other major demographic and social changes – were followed by periods of rapid innovation of new water technologies that helped end or ease any shortages.

As per recent UN estimates, around 1.2 billion people – around 20 per cent of world population – were living in areas where the limits of sustainable water use had already been reached or breached. It is high time the issue was placed high on the global agenda. In fact the world is urgently required to adapt to the reality. There is still enough water for all of us if and only if we keep it clean and share the same. In fact we face the challenge that we must make safer stores of water available to all.

It is a global phenomenon – an area where immediate and adequate attention is to be paid so that the things do not go from bad to worse. It is essential for survival – more important than anything else the most crucial factor considered from the point of view of environment protection and poverty alleviation and to promote development in as much as now globally more than two-and-a-half billion people live in the most abysmal standards of hygiene and sanitation. Wastage of water and absence of regular clean water supply not only to the burgeoning metropolis but to huge rural regions also simultaneously coexist.

Faced with an ever-increasing demand for water, countries and municipalities are showing a growing interest in green solutions. China, for example, recently initiated a project entitled ‘Sponge City’ to improve water availability in urban settlements. By 2020, it will build 16 pilot Sponge Cities across the country. Their goal is to recycle 70 per cent of rainwater through greater soil permeation, retention and storage, water purification, and restoration of adjacent wetlands.

The system of rice intensification, originally introduced in Madagascar, helps restore the hydrological and ecological functioning of soil rather than using new crop varieties or chemical products. It enables savings of 25 to 50 per cent in water requirements and 80 to 90 per cent in seeds while raising paddy output by 25 to 50 per cent, depending on the region in which it is implemented.

Green infrastructure focuses on preserving the functions of ecosystems, both natural and built, and environmental engineering rather than civil engineering to improve the management of water resources. This has multiple applications in agriculture, the greatest consumer of water by far. Green infrastructure can help reduce pressures on land use while limiting pollution, soil erosion and water requirements by contributing to the development of more effective and economic irrigation systems, for example.

It is estimated that agricultural production could be increased by about 20 per cent worldwide if greener water management practices were used. One study reviewed agricultural development projects in 57 low-income countries and found that using water more efficiently combined with reductions in the use of pesticides and improvements in soil cover increased average crop yields by 79 per cent.

As per the recent study, green solutions have also shown great potential in urban areas. While vegetated walls and roof gardens are perhaps the most recognizable examples, others include measures to recycle and harvest water, water retention hollows to recharge groundwater, and protection of watersheds that supply urban areas. New York City has been protecting its three largest watersheds since the late 1990s.  Disposing of the largest unfiltered water supply in the USA, the city now saves more than US$ 300 million yearly on water treatment and maintenance costs
Nature-based solutions (NBS) can play an important role in improving the supply and quality of water and reducing the impact of natural disasters, according to the 2018 edition of the United Nations World Water Development Report. The study argues that reservoirs, irrigation canals and water treatment plants are not the only water management instruments at our disposal.

NBS recognizes water not as an isolated element, but as an integral part of a complex natural process that involves evaporation, precipitation and the absorption of water through the soil. The presence and extent of vegetation cover across grasslands, wetlands and forests influences the water cycle and can be the focus for actions to improve the quantity and quality of available water.

It is crystal clear that population growth would put further put strain on per capita availability of water. Efforts to enhance drinking water supply must move at a greater speed so as to cover all of the villages with adequate potable water connection/supply. Technology, needless to say, would play the bigger role in such a context to meet people’s basic needs in a sustained manner. Naturally, protecting fresh water reserves, watershed development, chemical treatments following the safety norms, and tackling arsenic and fluoride contamination, among others, could give rich dividends.

The government has to come up with a new water resource strategy, since the sector has to become more sustainable, efficient and focused on how water is used and how it reaches people. To ensure economic growth and political stability, approach to water management must be a positive, forward-looking and not myopic. Let there be no water conflicts – conflicts between users and across regions. Water limits are close to being breached in several countries, while food output has to increase by up to 100 per cent by 2050 to sustain a growing world population, according to the United Nations. The World Bank rightly said that key problems in India’s water sector include data secrecy, competition for resources, too much focus on increasing supply, and not enough on management.

The immediate imperative is to invest in reliable, proven and advanced water purification systems that guarantee the public – both in rural and urban areas – safe and pure drinking water at all times. Latest technology available on this score must be extensively made use of in a time-bound manner to protect human beings from getting crushed via pollution routes. Water recycling and finding better ways to remove salt from seawater hold the key.