As for any scarce commodity, demand for freshwater can be brought under control through greater efficiency in its use. 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.
Agriculture is the vital sector. In its report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2020, the UN warns that the goal of zero hunger in the world can be achieved “only by ensuring more productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 percent of global water withdrawals.”
The search for water scarcity solutions 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.
Solutions in Poorer Countries
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 through more efficient irrigation and to increase supply by capturing more rainfall, either in aquifers or by simple harvesting technologies. 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. Introducing crops that require less water than rice and wheat is often a challenging option for small farmers but does deliver a lower threshold of demand.
Groundwater recharge requires maintenance of neglected storage tanks and drainage systems. Aquifers are resilient to the effects of climate change, thereby rewarding investment in their sustainability.
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 sustain ecosystems, integrating improved crop yields with protection of water and forest resources. A low input approach known as agro-ecology has attracted particular interest.
Solutions in Richer Countries
Technology can contribute to balancing supply and demand for freshwater in more advanced economies. For example, a water efficiency label for household appliances, enforced by regulation, is a recognised technology solution to demand management in consumer societies.
A similar quantitative approach focuses on the amount of water consumed throughout the manufacturing supply chain. 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. This invisible input has become known as “virtual water”, opening up potential for addressing water scarcity through pricing and transparency.
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. Nonetheless, 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.
Supply management for the most water scarce countries in the Middle East indeed looks to the ultimate solution of desalinisation. Whilst production by this means has become more efficient, desalinisation remains a controversial technology on account of its very high energy requirement and its by-product of brine which may pollute ocean ecosystems.
Water Governance Solutions
Across richer and poorer countries alike, policymaking that reconciles the demands of competing users of water, and anticipates the impact of policy on other sectors, rarely meets the challenge. Water resources are susceptible to tension between local and national political interests, resulting in misguided subsidies and other inconsistent policies. Lack of enforceable regulation in India lies at the heart of the country’s groundwater crisis.
Governments are accordingly encouraged to develop national plans which integrate their policies on poverty reduction, food security, energy security and climate adaptation so that actions necessary for water security are coherent. Described as “integrated water resources management,” this discipline features in assessments of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal relating to water.