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.