As for any scarce commodity, demand for freshwater can be brought under control through greater efficiency in its use, particularly in agriculture which consumes more than double all other sectors combined. 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 tackle the dysfunctional economics of water whilst the latter strive to align poverty reduction with sustainable water objectives.

Poorer Countries – mainly about farming tools

Household poverty reduction is a high priority for most of the world’s low income countries. As most poor households are engaged in subsistence farming, the optimum strategy for water scarcity is to align rural economic development strategies with greater efficiencies in 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 a tiny percentage of rainfall is captured for the purpose. Soil moisture is often lost through land degradation caused by poor farming practices and deforestation.

The solution for water scarcity lies in smarter farming methods which secure sustainable ecosystems, integrating improved crop yields with protection of water and forest resources. An approach known as agro-ecology has attracted particular interest.

Richer Countries – mainly about economic tools

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, opt for a holistic view in securing sustainable resources. They will regard investment in the ecosystem of the watershed landscape as equally important to traditional built infrastructure. For example, New York City is known to spend large sums in protecting the area that feeds its water supply.

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, India 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. The response would drive industry and governments to invest more in technologies of water demand management.

Progress towards market-based solutions to water scarcity is very slow. Few politicians are prepared to contemplate risk of cultural change on this scale. The exception might be the Middle East region, where extreme methods of demand management of freshwater are accepted as part of everyday life.

Another embryonic concept at a very early stage involves the award of legal rights to rivers. As yet seen only in a handful of countries, this approach would strengthen resistance to development proposals that threaten the sustainability of freshwater resources.

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more Water Scarcity briefings (updated April 2018)
Definitions
Water Cycle
Water Energy Food Nexus
Causes of Water Scarcity
Climate Change and Water Scarcity
Sustainable Development Goal for Water
Access to Safe Water
Water Wars
Source material and useful links