Though most of planet Earth is covered in water, less than 3% of this water can be used for drinking, cooking, bathing, washing, and most human activities involving water. This 3% is also known as freshwater, and even freshwater is mostly inaccessible to humans due to being locked up in polar ice caps, glaciers, the atmosphere, and in the soil. The remaining bodies of water accessible to humans are being threatened by climate change, pollutants such as pesticides and fertilizers, unsustainable energy production, and population growth. These factors are causing severe water-stress around the globe.
While water scarcity only represents the ratio of human water consumption to availability of water resources in a given area, water-stress takes into account availability, quality, and accessibility of water. According to UN-Water, when a territory withdraws 25% or more from its renewable freshwater resources, it is considered to be ‘water-stressed’. A territory with high or critical water-stress levels will have difficulty providing water for personal needs. In 2021, UN-Water reported that 10% of the global population live in areas with high or critical water-stress. These areas include Northern Africa and Central and Southern Asia. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has set goals for the world, including SDG target 6.4, which is to increase water-use efficiency in all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address and substantially reduce water scarcity by 2030 (UN Water). To do this, all freshwater withdrawals for economic activities will be monitored and compared to the total amount of freshwater available. However, progress is slow and the problem has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, making the world fall further behind where it should be in order to fulfill SDG 6. If the status quo continues, then the world will not have enough water to meet demand by 2030.
Even currently, water scarcity is an issue for many people around the globe. 842,000 people each year die from consuming untreated drinking water, 80% of illnesses in developing countries are due to water scarcity, 500 million people live in regions where water is being consumed twice as fast as its being replenished, and ⅔ of the world population already live in areas where they suffer from water scarcity at least 1 month per year. Water scarcity also threatens ecosystems, as wetlands are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since 1900, 50% of wetlands have disappeared, a worrying fact as they house many animals, filter water, act as a buffer for storms, and control floods. Failing economies and poverty also result from water scarcity, as people who have no access to water will spend time and effort obtaining it, reducing the time that they would potentially spend in education and careers. This chain reaction would lead to GDP losses of up to 14%, according to the World Economic Forum. Reduced access to food and higher prices should also be expected. The more scarce the water, the higher its price, increasing production costs and raising the price of food, electronics, clothing, and other goods. For instance, a 10% increase in the price of water would result in increasing the production cost of an orange by 30%. Finally, water scarcity would cause widespread social unrest, as people would succumb to violence to obtain water. This is especially the case with water, an even more immediate need than food, since a person can survive up to 2 months without food but only around 3 days without water.
Given the currently bleak situation, it’s important to remember that it isn’t too late to change our habits and behaviors to create the best possible outcome. Below are a few solutions to address the water crisis.
Best things the world should do
- Increase water filtration
Water filtration ensures that the water we do have is safe to drink. Filtration systems remove bacteria, microbes, and other contaminants that can cause diseases.
- Promote water stewardship
Everyone needs to play their part in the water conservation effort, whether it’s taking shorter showers, installing low-flow toilets, collecting rainwater for gardens, reusing greywater, fixing leaks in schools and offices, or investing in sustainable energy and water reduction technologies.
- Protect wetlands
Wetlands are extremely important biomes that collect and purify water. The Ramsar convention, an international treaty, currently protects 2000+ wetlands, but more aggressive measures are needed to save wetlands and significantly reduce water scarcity.
- Improve the efficiency of irrigation
Industrial agriculture uses 70% of the world's freshwater and wastes 60% because of poor irrigation and application. Switching from flood irrigation systems to sprinkler irrigation systems would make a big difference. Better soil management tactics, such as no-till or limited tillage and mulching, reduces evaporation from the soil and subsequent water waste.
- Increase reservoir storage
Expanding reservoirs allow more space to store floodwater. This prevents floodwater from mixing with saltwater in the ocean, which would make it much harder to treat. Many states in the U.S such as California and Wyoming are contemplating increasing reservoir storage.
- Desalinate seawater
Desalinating seawater would create more usable water, as we would be taking from the 97% of seawater that covers the Earth. Researchers believe that increasing the number of desalination plants by 50 fold would greatly help the current situation.
Best things companies should do
- Improve water system assessment
Develop a water maintenance plan with employees, and regularly check to see if benchmarks are met.
- Maintain water-consuming systems
Periodically check for leaks or any spikes in water usage. If there are, call a plumber to fix the issue before it becomes more severe. Even the smallest leak can add up and waste gallons of water.
- Conscientiously use cooling units
Air conditioners consume lots of water. Only using air conditioning when they are needed would save a significant amount of water each year.
- Monitor sprinkler usage
Many times, sprinklers are used on areas that don’t need to be watered or are overwatered. Monitoring sprinkler usage can ensure that water is not being wasted. Using drought-tolerant plants and native turfs would also reduce water usage.
- Install water-efficient technologies
- Aerated faucets: provide a reduced water flow to minimize the amount of water used.
- Water heater insulation: an insulation blanket, especially on older heaters, greatly reduces heat loss.
- High-efficiency bathroom fixtures: examples of these include high-efficiency toilets and waterless urinals. They are relatively easy and affordable to install.
- Pre-rinse spray valves: these have helped food service businesses save more than $1500 a year.
- ENERGY STAR and WaterSense products: they are 20% more effective than regular models, last longer, and require less maintenance.
- Tankless water heaters: these heaters are suited to areas where water is not used frequently, and can significantly decrease storage costs and waste.
- Timers and controls: they automate the conservation effort by reducing water waste and turning off faucets after a set amount of time.
- In 2010, Ford set a goal of reducing water usage by 30% in four years. They reached the goal using key performance indicators and operational improvements. Because of the implementation of water metering, conservation behaviors were promoted and Ford saved around $5 million worldwide.
- Colgate-Palmolive worked with a water-technology company to reduce the usage of water for a plant located in a basin in Mexico. Their goal was to reduce the usage of water in processes used to make toothpaste, deodorant, and soap products and save 1.8 million gallons of water.
- Nike successfully influenced suppliers to use good water practices in a program known as the Minimum Water Program. In 2019, Nike achieved its goal of reducing fresh water usage by 20%, 18 months earlier than expected.
- The Holiday Inn San Antonio International Airport, a 236,000 square foot hotel in San Antonio, Texas, volunteered for the WaterSaver Hotel program developed by the San Antonio Water System (SAWS). Under this program, SAWS paid for high-efficiency toilets, faucet aerators, and showerheads in all 397 guest bedrooms, averaging around $100,000. SAWS used products that have the EPA WaterSense label, which met all efficiency and performance criteria set by the EPA. This venture saved 7 million gallons of water as well as 330,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. It also saved the hotel $68,000 each year, with a payback of less than 2 years.
- The Granite Park Office Complex One and Two in Dallas, Texas improved its irrigation and landscape system using Precision Landscape Management, led by Bruce Birdsong, who has earned the EPA WaterSense label. Birdsong conducted an irrigation audit, upgraded to weather-based irrigation controllers, conducted routine repairs and maintenance, adjusted sprinklers and nozzles, and installed rain and freeze sensors. These changes led to 12.5 million gallons of water and $47,000 dollars saved in 2009, and a payback time of 1.5 years.
- Increase water recycling
Water recycling can be done using modern gray water systems which reuse waste water, as well as recovery systems that capture and reuse boiler and steam condensate.
- Use leftover drinking water:
This can be used to irrigate indoor plants and outdoor vegetation.
- PSE&G, as well as other agencies, offer incentives to encourage water conservation. In a recent analysis, PG&E has found that 6 of its most used water incentive programs have saved more than 850 million gallons of water per year, which is equivalent to the water used by 5,000 homes.
Best things individuals should do
- Be conscientious of what you dump into the ground
Hazardous waste can leak into soil and pollute groundwater. These include motor oil, pesticides, leftover paint or paint cans, mothballs, flea collars, detergents, fertilizers, and more. Hazardous materials need to be disposed of properly according to local guidelines.
- Stay away from antibacterial soap and other cleaning products
Many of these products contain triclosan, which is a registered pesticide known to harm aquatic life. The American Medical Association also cautions the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria due to antibacterial soap. Regular soap and warm water are the best way to kill harmful germs and bacteria.
- Dispose of medicine properly
Like with hazardous waste, disposal of these materials must follow the proper disposal methods according to county or city regulations. Don’t flush them down the toilet or drain, as wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to remove medication.
- Fix leaks from cars
Leaks result in gasoline and other pollutants flowing into stormwater, which is used for individual and societal water needs.
- Pick up pet waste
Pet waste is also a contaminant that seeps into the ground and pollutes drinking water.
- Don’t pave property
Pavement causes water runoff to collect pollutants and cause flooding while on the way down the storm drain. Without pavement, there is more soil for water to seep into the ground and prevent flooding, contamination, and recharge groundwater supplies.
- Stay informed
Let family, friends, and neighbors know about the current water crisis, and talk to local officials about ways to conserve and protect water resources.
Water-stress and water scarcity are dire problems that will only get worse with time, especially if we continue with the status quo. Freshwater levels will reach critically low levels, causing poverty, failing economies, violence, and death. However, the currently grave situation does not imply that future risks cannot be mitigated. By acting now and following plans such as the SDG target 6.4 set by UN-Water, the most extreme of possible futures will be avoided. If everyone implements methods to reduce and reuse water, we can ensure that Earth still has water for generations to come.
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Author: Leena Zhu