Exploring the Looming Water Crisis

Loïc Fauchon, president of the World Water Council, speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about the causes of water scarcity around the world and his thoughts on implementing sustainable solutions.

Interview Published 28 November 2019 Updated 24 July 2023 8 minute READ

Loïc Fauchon

President, World Water Council

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

One-quarter of humanity faces a looming water crisis, including the prospect of running out of water, which may seem inconceivable when 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is water. Yet, up to 80 per cent of surface and groundwater is being used every year and water demand globally is projected to increase by 55 per cent by 2050. Why is the world facing a crisis of water scarcity?

The first reason that is causing water stress around the world is the growing human population at the same time as the water supply has remained the same. Given that there are almost one billion more inhabitants on Earth every 15-20 years, this has led to a progressive deficit in the global water supply.

The second reason is due to the uneven concentration of the global population. There is not a clear link between the presence of the population in some regions and the presence of water, in other words, water is not where we want it to be every time.

For example, there is, what we call, a ‘triangle of thirst’ from southern Spain, to Pakistan, to the Horn of Africa and back again. In this triangle, you have around two billion people in a very water-scarce region.

Comparatively, if you go to Russia or Canada, they have more water than they need in terms of the size of their population. So, this is another crucial reason we are facing a crisis of water scarcity in some regions of the world, but not everywhere.

Climate [change] will be the fruit on the cake. Currently, we have global population growth, but then later, we will have climate change affecting water availability. But, at this very moment, however, my view is that the problem for water suppliers and for political leaders is the demographic crisis we are facing, not the climate.

Water use has grown at more than twice the rate of the human population over the last century, in part, due to industries, such as agriculture, which account for 70 per cent of global freshwater use.

Given that food production will need to grow by up to 70 per cent by 2035 to feed the growing human population, how do we balance the use of water, with the need to provide food?

There are some solutions. The first is that we need to improve water efficiency in the agricultural sector. We need to have all around the world, but mostly in developing countries, a better capacity to increase the water efficiency of agriculture without increasing the use of industrial chemical products and to move, step-by-step, to an economical system of organic farming. It will take time – it will not be done in one or even five years but more likely over a generation – but it is the best way.

Secondly, which could be a faster solution, is that we have to reduce all kind of food waste which represents around 30-40 per cent of all agricultural production. Agriculture is a large sector involving the growing of crops but also livestock. There’s not only waste in terms of consumption but also during the production line, for example, during the transportation of food products. So, there is this, sort of, waste cycle which is very important to consider. If you are able to reduce the water waste during the production line by 30-40 per cent, then you use less water, obviously.

The third solution is to be able to, step-by-step, change our consumption patterns. Use less meat and all kinds of agricultural products which need a lot of water. I think we will be obliged to do this over the next couple of decades, and we will probably have low animal protein diets in the future, which will mean we have to think of different ways to be able to provide food to the increasing global population.

There are other industries that are water-intensive that also need to be looked at in terms of their water waste such as the clothing and automobile industries. One piece of paper, for example, takes about 100 litres of water to produce, while one litre of milk, takes about 1,000 litres of water. Another example is that one cup of coffee takes 150 litres of water – just one cup of coffee – that’s because there is not only the water you are drinking but the water needed to prepare the coffee beans and the water used in the materials that make the coffee cup and so on.

So everything consumes water and that’s why humans will be obliged to consume less water over the coming years.

More than one in three people globally do not have access to safe drinking water and more than 4 billion people lack adequate sanitation. Do you think global goals to provide everyone with safe and clean drinking water are still realistic?

In French, we use a phrase, parent pauvre, which means poor relative. Most of the decisions concerning access to water are not acceptable in the long term. That’s why we, at the World Water Council, are pushing for the financing of water and sanitation goals [concurrently].

For example, if you have a programme for a city to increase access to water for its citizens, they also need a sanitation programme. If we don’t do that, the mismatch that currently exists between water and sanitation will remain.

There’s also another important solution which political leaders will be obliged to invest more in which is having more water coming from water reuse. If you produce water from water reuse processes then it means that it will likely have undergone sanitation treatment already which is a win-win solution [for providing safe and clean drinking water].

It’s all moving slowly but I’m optimistic concerning the increasing consciousness of people regarding water pollution – the pollution of our rivers, seas and oceans – and I think we will move faster in the sanitation area than in the water access area over the next decade.

Personally, I do not think that global goals to provide everyone with safe and clean drinking water [are the best solution]. I am more in favour of national and local commitments rather than global commitments. National and local efforts are stronger than [the rhetoric] around global goals where there is no authority to oversee the progress they are making. Only the population of a country or of a city can see if their leaders have done their job regarding providing access to safe and clean water.

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People queue up to collect water from taps fed by a spring in Newlands in 15 May 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. South Africa's Western Cape region declared a drought disaster on 22 May 2017 as the province battled its worst water shortages for more than 112 years. Photo: Getty Images.

People queue up to collect water from taps fed by a spring in Newlands in 15 May 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. South Africa’s Western Cape region declared a drought disaster on 22 May 2017 as the province battled its worst water shortages for more than 112 years. Photo: Getty Images.

— People queue up to collect water in Cape Town in South Africa. South Africa’s Western Cape region declared a drought disaster on 22 May 2017 as the province battled its worst water shortages for more than 112 years. Photo: Getty Images.

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With the depletion of global water supplies, how can the world avoid the politicization of water, as seen in cases such as the Nile River Basin and across the Middle East, to avoid conflicts over water?

This is a complicated issue because politicians will always do politics so it will always be difficult to avoid attempts to politicize situations. But the key is dialogue, dialogue and dialogue. That is the only way to solve water conflicts as well as the better management of water because, in some regions, some of these conflicts are arising from the mismanagement of water supplies rather than because of water scarcity.

If you look at Egypt and the US, people are consuming around 800 litres [of water] per day whereas in Europe people are consuming around 200 litres per day. But why is [water consumption] in Egypt, rather than Europe, the same as in the US? Because they have considerable water losses in industries such as agriculture.

In addition, in the main cities like Cairo, there is not an adequate range of water networks, so, if in the future those living in Cairo are able to consume less water, they will need less water coming from the Nile River which will make politicization of water by politicians less likely.

In the future, social unrest from water shortages is likely, however, I do not think it will ever lead to wars.

Countries across the Middle East have invested in modern techniques, such as desalination plants, as an answer to water scarcity but this can have a negative impact on marine life. In contrast, some of the more ancient techniques, like rainwater harvesting, are being repurposed in cities around the world. What is your view on some of these solutions?

There are a lot of solutions and desalination is among them. Currently, probably 100 countries in the world are using, or preparing to use, desalination as a solution so it surely is an important solution. But, at the same time, reused water is developing fast and is a much cheaper option than desalination.

Nevertheless, the price of desalination has been decreasing over the past 20 years and is now less than $1 a cubic metre, whereas 15 years ago, it was $10 a cubic metre.

Some of the negative impacts of desalination exist when you are separating the water from the salt, which can lead to disasters, for example, what has happened in the Persian Gulf. When Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar first used desalination treatments, the temperature of the sea was around 30°C, whereas today, it can be up to 40°C. This increasing sea temperature as a result of desalination plants has contributed to changes in biodiversity. 

Furthermore, in some regions, we need to keep in mind that desalination is not only along the coast but it’s also in the middle of the land too. For example, in the Sahara region, like in Algeria or Morocco, the water coming from the ground is salted so you need to have desalination plants inland and not on the coast. But where they keep the salt inland, that salt mixes with the rain and enters the ground, thereby destroying some of the biodiversity there too. So it must be used prudently.

Rainwater harvesting is a technique from centuries ago and I am a great supporter of it as a solution to water scarcity in India, particularly in Rajasthan, and I think it could also be part of the solutions in some places across Africa.

That’s why I believe there needs to be an exchange of solutions because something which is successful here could be successful somewhere else too. In this way, we need to be able to show a Senegalese farmer a solution which has been implemented elsewhere, such as in India, and show him this can work for you too. It’s sort of like when the Japanese built the Toyota by looking at the British Land Rover.

With billions of people threatened by the looming water crisis, increased water stress could lead to more ‘Day Zeroes’, a term used in 2018 as Cape Town in South Africa came dangerously close to running out of water. In your opinion, what will happen if the world doesn’t adequately address the global crisis of water scarcity?

The increasing absence of water would mean, not only the migration of humans to more water-abundant regions, but also the absence of socioeconomic growth in some places. Water scarcity will pose a risk to businesses who will be forced to move to new areas, from small businesses like a hairdresser, to factories that are unable to produce any goods. So not tackling the water crisis means not being able to tackle our own capacity to prosper by not protecting the environment we depend on.

In Cape Town, there was a lack of rain in the city which contributed to the water crisis there but there was also a lack of water management. They knew they could have a lack of rain, and when you have a lack of rain, you have the obligation to prepare a reservoir of water for the next year, and so on, but that did not happen.

There is a French poem from Jean de La Fontaine about a grasshopper and an ant. The grasshopper just spends his time in the summer enjoying life but the ant keeps working hard throughout the summer to save all of his supplies for the winter. In this way, we need to be like the ant, preparing water supplies for today and for tomorrow.

In the case of Cape Town, there was also another element, which was that the water supplies were being used by the central government as a tool to isolate the regional governor there who was part of the opposition. So the lack of water management was almost used as a political tool as we discussed earlier.

Some say that the water scarcity we are seeing is because of climate change. Yes, it is, but there is also a lack of water management by humans. If you look at the people living throughout the centuries all the way to antiquity, you see that people around the world prepared reservoirs of water to keep water from the winter to the summer, from the one year to the next, whereas today, we are seeing bad water management. So, in this way, I believe climate change should not be a scapegoat of human error.