Solutions to Water Scarcity

updated February 2017

As for any scarce commodity, demand for freshwater can be brought under control through greater efficiency in its use, particularly in agriculture and energy generation. Technology will play an important role, for example in recycling of household and industrial wastewater. Effective water management also requires much greater coordination of policy-making, both within countries and internationally.

The approach to demand management for water differs greatly between richer and poorer countries – the former prefer to consider economic pricing solutions whilst the latter strive to align poverty reduction with water concerns. In most of the Middle East region, extreme methods of demand management of freshwater are part of everyday life.

Poverty Reduction

Most of the world’s poor are dependent on small farms in low income countries. Poverty reduction strategies can therefore be designed to recognise the importance of efficient water use.

In Asia the challenge is to reduce demand for irrigation and to restore water table levels. Most irrigation is currently performed by indiscriminate flooding of fields, highly inefficient and wasteful. Modern drip irrigation technology can reduce water use by around 50% and increase yields through its targeted application. Groundwater recharge can be revived by maintenance of neglected storage tanks and drainage, supported by simple rainwater harvesting technologies.

In sub-Saharan Africa the problems are very different. Nearly all of the farming is rain-fed but only 4% of rainfall is captured for the purpose. Soil moisture is often lost through land degradation caused by poor farming practices and deforestation. Governments and donors are under considerable pressure to reverse their long term neglect of agriculture in Africa.

Water Economics

Richer countries are acutely aware that failure to price water as a scarce environmental resource is one of the fault lines of contemporary market economics. There is interest in managing water scarcity by exploiting the economic tools of modern consumer societies.

One approach gaining ground is based on the principle of “payment for ecosystem services.” Major users of freshwater, such as a municipal authority or industrial plant, agree to make payments to communities whose land places them in a position of control over the quantity and quality of water.

Another approach begins with the measurement of water consumed throughout the manufacturing supply chain. This has provided an invaluable starting point for raising awareness amongst corporations and consumers alike.

The figures are startling: 140 litres of freshwater are required for a single cup of coffee, 6,000 litres for a pair of denim jeans and more than 15,000 litres for a kilo of beef. Such figures make it possible to quantify the water footprint of individuals and businesses.

This invisible input has become known as “virtual water”, a concept especially useful for illustrating the movement of water between countries in traded goods. For example, the world’s largest exporters of beef and manufactured goods, Australia and China respectively, are countries which experience serious water scarcity.

The idea of virtual water opens up potential for addressing water scarcity through pricing and transparency. Informed choices by individual consumers would be facilitated by labelling retail goods with their water footprint.

Progress towards market-based solutions to water scarcity is very slow. For many people, markets conjure fears of dominant control by unaccountable global corporations, totally inappropriate in the context of a resource critical to life itself, access to which is a human right.


Examples of the water footprint of everyday consumer goods
from Deutsche Welle.

Water security in northern India: simple soil management techniques
from Deutsche Welle.

more Water Scarcity briefings
Water Cycle
Water Energy Food Nexus
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Sustainable Development Goal for Water
Access to Drinking Water
Water Wars
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