Global water crisis: Understanding its nature, causes and severity

on
14 June 2020
in
Water
Water crisis - day zero
WaterAid/Anindito Mukherjee

India and China both grow their most water-intensive crops in some of their driest regions. If this situation continues, by 2040 most of the world will not have enough water to meet their basic demands year-round.  Melbourne, Jakarta, London, Beijing, Istanbul, Tokyo, Bengaluru will face their Day zero.

Turn on a faucet and clean water gushes out as much as we want, and anytime we want. It is easy to forget that the quest for water has been one of the defining struggles of human history. Earth is the blue planet and there is no dearth of water. We have 326 million trillion gallons of it. Water may evaporate into the air, freeze into ice but, does not leave the planet. However, 97% of the water is salty and 2% is trapped in ice at the poles so, all of the humankind relies on just 1% of that water to survive.  Therefore, the quantity of water that you are going to get depends on where you live... for instance, Kuwait is one of the poorest countries in terms of water per capita, and Canada the richest, which has 10,000 times more! 

However, it also matters where the water is.  1% of Earth’s water that we all rely on, most of it is underground and really difficult and expensive to get to. So, human beings have mostly settled close to the source i.e. surface water, like rivers and lakes. Around 90% of the world’s population lives less than 10 kilometers away from a freshwater source. 

While we have gotten a lot better at accessing groundwater, these water deposits called aquifers, have accumulated over millennia and they will take up millennia to replenish. Unfortunately, in most places in the world, water is treated and priced like there will always be an abundant never-ending supply. So, we end up exploiting and using water in wasteful ways. India and China both grow their most water-intensive crops in some of their driest regions. If this situation continues, by 2040 most of the world will not have enough water to meet their basic demands year-round.  Melbourne, Jakarta, London, Beijing, Istanbul, Tokyo, Bengaluru will face their Day zero, when the city runs out of the water, in the next few decades unless, their water use radically changes. History has shown that water scarcity can lead to violent conflict and in the future too such conflicts may start around the world.

So how and where do we start if we want people to respect and value this finite natural resource before it runs dry? While doing so, how will we ensure everybody has enough of it?

Day Zero became the apocalyptic code name for the moment when water systems across the city would be switched off. After this moment, people would be forced to fetch their water from distribution points. Cape Town’s Day Zero was first scheduled for March 2018. But then people started conserving by adopting various measures like introducing water tariffs, enforcement of prohibitions on heavy users, prohibiting the use of municipal water for swimming pool, lawns, and similar non-essential uses. The city government implemented a new water pressure system that helped save roughly 10% of overall municipal water consumption. By early 2018, the city’s water consumption was less than half what it had been earlier and the Day Zero countdown clock was paused indefinitely. Not enough action was taken until the community started talking about Day Zero. That really got people’s attention. It was remarkable between the time that the city started to talk about Day Zero and a month later how much people cut back on their water use. 

Maybe putting a higher price on water might have its benefits. Governments might get more efficient at repairing our water infrastructure, which currently is facing about 42% leakages! Or would we see a spontaneous community-led action to judiciously use water inspiring people to act in extraordinary ways to solve the crisis. Perhaps that might the be only and lasting solution like Cape Town showed when it pushed the Day Zero clock beyond 2018 by conserving water? The fight against COVID-19 has shown that humanity can unite for saving itself, can it do the same to save its water?