acqua pianeta crisi idrica

How to address the global water crisis

Sustainable water management is a global issue, made even more critical by the impact of climate change over the planet.

by Sabato Angieri
26 May 2021
6 min read
by Sabato Angieri
26 May 2021
6 min read

Climate change and the rapid growth of urban populations have led to an increase in water crises in recent years. Contrary to popular belief, the scarcity of drinking water does not only affect developing countries or desert areas. The city of São Paulo, Brazil, was forced to cut off its water supply for twelve hours per day in 2015, forcing its twenty million inhabitants into months of severe rationing. An historic drought that lasted for over a year and had many economic, as well as social, repercussions, it led to the closure of companies and industries.

Water, a precious resource

In 2008, Barcelona had to import containers of water from other Spanish regions and France to cope with a drought that had reduced its water reserves to a quarter of normal capacity. Of course, as with all crises, when the problem occurs in areas already suffering other types of difficulties, the consequences are very visible. For this reason, in places such as Africa, water scarcity is becoming an endemic problem not only in areas near the Sahara. In Cape Town, for example, with a presence of almost four million inhabitants and a growing economy, 2018 was one of the worst years in terms of water supply.

With a dry climate, despite the presence of the ocean, a three-year drought led to an unprecedented water crisis and the need to rethink the entire water system. It was firstly decided to ration the supply to 50 litres per person per day (consider that a British citizen uses an average of 150 litres of water per day, and an American 375), and it was then later reduced by half. For months, the inhabitants of South Africa's capital were faced with a seemingly endless emergency that put a strain on the entire western region of the republic. At the same time, local politicians and global experts questioned the causes and possible solutions to this urgent and worsening problem. First, a myth must be dispelled: domestic use is not among the main culprits of water waste.

According to the Water Footprint Network, an organisation that monitors water use for major individual activities, domestic use affects water resources by only around 3%. This is not to say that domestic waste is not influential and that old transport networks do not affect water dispersion. The point is that the manufacturing activities, such as agriculture, energy production and industry, in this order, use more than 90% of the total water at our disposal. The lack of attention to the type of products that are grown leads to considerable water waste where, on the other hand, less "thirsty" crops should be opted for. 

Sustainable management

Moreover, ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation is the sixth of the seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the planet, which were also ratified by COP21 in Paris in 2015. In other words, the problem is already known, but in many cases it is still difficult to recognise. Also because there is not only the scarcity of water – there is also its opposite, that is, excess, which creates as much damage, albeit in a different way. In fact, the unpredictability of extreme water-related weather events such as floods and storms has increased sharply over the past two decades.

Everyone will remember the images of Louisiana and Texas after Hurricane Harvey, which in 2017 destroyed entire towns with torrential rains (in some cases dropping as much as 40 cm of water per day) and flooded waterways, causing thousands of people to be displaced and billions in damage. Or even the 2002 floods in Nepal that killed nearly 500 people, leaving 250,000 homeless. Indiscriminate population growth, construction on flood plains or depressed coastal regions, and climate change are among the main causes of these catastrophic phenomena. The melting of glaciers is seriously endangering many coastal cities around the world, and significant migrations to the inland regions of the states most exposed to these phenomena are expected in the coming decades. 

Water conflict

In addition, there is a risk that wars will take place in the future with a desire to takeover waterbasins. The African continent is certainly the territory most afflicted by this problem, and the desertification of entire new sub-Saharan regions only exacerbates the crisis. But the disastrous wildfires that struck the Amazon, California and Australia in recent years have given us a different picture, extending the risks beyond even the poorest areas of the Earth.

The latest UN estimate indicates that as many as five billion people could experience water shortages by 2050. For this reason, six research institutes have designed and developed a new alert system created to predict potential water conflicts. This is the "Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Global Early Warning Tool", funded by the Dutch government and presented during the United Nations Security Council meeting held in January 2020. 

As The Guardian, explains: “The device combines environmental variables, such as rainfall and crop failures, with political, economic and social factors, in order to predict the risk of violent water-related conflicts a year in advance”. Therefore, it is the first tool that combines environmental data with socio-economic variables in order to construct plausible predictive schemes, and also provides probabilities and statistics. At present, WPS analyses will focus on areas in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It is estimated that the system will have an 86% success rate in identifying conflict zones that might produce at least 10 victims, and the first worrying predictions concern Iraq, Iran, Mali, Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

The author: Sabato Angieri

Graduated in European Literature at the University "La Sapienza" of Rome, he is a freelance journalist and editorial translator, he has collaborated in several cultural and artistic projects as an author and writer. He currently collaborates with Media Duemila, Lonely Planet as an author and with Elliot Publishing.