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Water for all: How to move past 3 big stressors

October 18, 2023

By Arthur Umble

On Imagine a Day Without Water, we discuss the issues contributing to water stress and the solutions needed to secure global water availability

Will there be enough accessible water available to supply our world in the coming decades? A sustainable global water future may be simpler than we think: we must use less.

Though many people agree this is fundamental, it’s not easy to achieve. Three major stressors stand in the way that affect the availability of water. They are the growing global urban population, socioeconomic challenges associated with transboundary water regimes, and the changing climate.

Let’s explore each of these major stressors and the influence each has on the availability of water. I’d like to also look past conventional engineered solutions—i.e., augmenting existing water supplies—and toward the true answer. You can find this answer in policies that reduce our seemingly unquenchable thirst for more water and change the way we build liveable communities and cities.

Water stress is no longer just about the availability of water. It’s about our consumption of water and how that consumption is outstripping our supply.

Water stress is no longer just about the availability of water. It’s about our consumption of water. It’s also about how that consumption is outstripping our supply, how social and economic factors are influencing the imbalance between water supply and demand, and how we’re struggling as our populations grow and move into urban areas. We don’t have the infrastructure in place, particularly in many urban areas across the globe, to allow equal access to water.

It’s a timely issue. October 19 is the ninth annual Imagine a Day Without Water. It highlights the importance of water in our lives and calls for investment in infrastructure and equitable delivery of water.

Let’s discuss the three major stressors standing in the way of a resilient water future. And then we’ll talk about the solutions needed to secure reliable water access for all.

Water stress #1: Urbanization and our growing global population

Urbanization, the population shift from rural areas to cities, is a challenge for water availability. As cities grow around the world, there are hundreds of cities that don’t have enough water infrastructure—let alone water—to support that growth.

According to data from the United Nations’ Population Division, we could see an increase of 50-to-80 percent in urban water demand by 2050. That would leave more than 2 billion city dwellers facing water scarcity. In New Delhi, India, the population is expected to grow to 36 million by 2030. Currently, the water demand in India’s capital—1.1 billion gallons per day—is already outstripping supply (800 million gallons per day). Bengaluru (aka Bangalore), in southern India, has grown with new property developments as the city becomes known as a tech hub. But Bangalore’s water and sewage system infrastructure can’t keep up with the growth. What will be their water solution? 

Urbanization has created a challenge for water availability.

In the US, brisk population growth and outdated infrastructure have created stress on several water systems. We’ve seen water crises in places like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. These are places where water is available but inadequate infrastructure makes it less accessible.

Though the changing climate is a factor affecting the amount of water available, it accounts for less than 5 percent of the water stress experienced by many cities. The stress is a direct result of consumptive demand and lack of infrastructure.

Water stress #2: Transboundary waters and socioeconomic challenges

Watershed and political boundaries often are not the same. And this can lead to geopolitical stresses. This is especially true as cities grow and develop more areas of the watersheds.

For example, pretend that I’m living in Country A, and we’re downstream in a watershed. The upper portions of the watershed are in Country B. The actions of Country B can severely affect the availability of water for the downstream country.

Climate change can play a big role in geopolitical issues, too. As climate change alters rainfall patterns, it could mean that there’s less water available to either country. The upstream country will need to hold onto their water more than ever before, and that’ll have an impact on people downstream. 

Our global per capita water demand must come down. Until it does, areas under water stress will only get worse.

And because climate change has affected the predictability of water availability, countries may set up infrastructure, like a dam or levy system, to contain the water they may need. This could lead to geopolitical problems.

For example, consider what’s currently happening with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its influence on the Nile River. As climate change has affected the amount of water available in the Nile valley, Ethiopia has responded to uncertainty by building Africa’s largest dam. But this may lead to issues for the countries downstream—Egypt and Sudan—because now there’s less water. A city like Cairo has relied on this water source for millennia. How will this dam affect the relationship between countries in this region? Already, tensions are on the rise.

Water stress #3: Climate change and its impact on agriculture

Next, let’s talk more about climate change. As our population grows, there are simply more people to feed. But climate change is affecting the agricultural sector in a big way.

As the climate shifts patterns away from conventional agriculture practices, our farming productivity is on the decline. As the land’s productivity changes, farmers can no longer operate with standard methods. Will they sell their land and move to a city to find a new job? Will the generations after them continue to farm?

As our cities grow in population, there are more people to feed. But climate change is greatly affecting the agricultural sector.

Consider an example in northeastern Colorado and Nebraska, the South Platte River Basin. This basin produces 75 percent of the food grown in Colorado. But climate change has been shifting rainfall patterns, which is leading to longer dry periods and greater unpredictability in the frequency and timing of rainfall that does occur. So, the roots of plants in this basin see less “green” water—i.e., water in the upper soil zones. Overall, crop productivity is on the decline. By 2050, it’s predicted that green water will be 100 percent depleted in large portions of the South Platte River’s most productive areas. And these areas may no longer support the agricultural productivity that it provides today. As a Colorado resident, this really hits home for me.

With less reliable agriculture, food sources become more uncertain, even as there are more mouths to feed.

Our water’s future: Where will it come from?

So, how do we solve these problems? Let’s place our answers in two buckets—engineered solutions and policy solutions.

Engineered solutions include dams and reservoirs, seawater and brackish desalination, inter-basin transfers, green infrastructure, water harvesting, virtual water trading, sustainable agricultural practices, and more. Not all solutions are available in every region. But they can work well in certain situations. For many of the counties facing water stress conditions, however, affordability may be an issue. Many of these solutions can be expensive.  

So, we need to also consider water policy solutions—and this is where the true progress will come. There are many things to do. We need to monitor population growth, curtail urbanization, implement water conservation, reduce leakage losses, promote sustainable irrigation, price the full value of water, and use integrated regional community and urban planning. All these are about policy, not technology.

When we reduce global demand, we’ll have more water available.

How do we make more water available? Cut down how much you and I use. And that’s what everybody must do—people in water-scarce areas and water-rich areas. In the US, the average person uses somewhere between 80 and 100 gallons a day. That number is closer to 50 for someone living in a Chinese city. We must reduce our own personal water per capita use so that it becomes available for those who either can’t afford it or can’t access it—or both. And it’s not just about individual consumption—utilities, governments, commercial businesses, institutions, industries, and other entities must change the way they consume and use water.

Our global per capita water demand must come down. Until it does, areas under water stress will only get worse, and climate change will continue to impact agriculture in more significant ways, worsening the lack of availability. And then there won't be enough food, let alone not enough water.

I realize this sounds dire. But I hope it inspires us to action, especially around an initiative like Imagine a Day Without Water, which spotlights the responsible management of water.

When we reduce global demand, we’ll have more water available. And then we can apply those engineered solutions in ways that preserve the availability of that water. Let’s work together to ensure a future where water flows for everyone.

  • Arthur Umble

    As the lead for Stantec's Institute for Applied Science, Technology & Policy, Arthur’s position involves developing strategies and providing solutions for complex wastewater treatment challenges.

    Contact Arthur
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