News

The approaching crisis: Is the world running out of water?

A current map showing water scarcity produced by the World Resource Institute. The dark red represents extremely high risk, the orange represents medium to high risk, while the lightest yellow indicates low risk.Source:Supplied
A current map showing water scarcity produced by the World Resource Institute. The dark red represents extremely high risk, the orange represents medium to high risk, while the lightest yellow indicates low risk.Source:Supplied

GROWING up in Australia, most of us probably didn't think twice about where our seemingly endless supply of water came from. In our young minds, the tap never ran dry.

But the world certainly doesn't have the luxury to think like that.

Water is absolutely fundamental to life, which makes the increasingly loud warnings about water scarcity and an impending global water crisis so concerning for world leaders.

If current patterns of consumption continue unabated, two-thirds of the world's population will be facing water shortages as a daily reality by 2025 and global policy makers are scrambling to avoid catastrophe.

We are facing a Water-pocalypse

"What's happening bit by bit is that water scarcity is becoming increasingly common all around the world, no matter where you look as country after country hits the limit of what it can use," says Professor Mike Young.

"Whether that's in Australia, California, China, India, Pakistan, or right throughout Africa."

Cities across the world are becoming increasingly thirsty as the demand for water grows and supply dwindles. From Bangalore to California scientists are offering up grim predictions.

Groundwater is being pumped so aggressively that land is sinking. Some neighbourhoods in Beijing (the world's fifth most water-stressed city) are sinking at as much as 10 centimetres a year.

The World Bank forecasts that water availability in cities could decline by as much as two thirds by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum's 2017 Global Risks Report.

Prof Young is a specialist in water policy reform and holds a Research Chair in Water and Environmental Policy at the University of Adelaide. He regularly consults with governments about how to best manage their water resources and believes time is of the essence for countries around the world to transition to a new system of water sharing agreements.

"That's a big transition that has to happen everywhere," he said.

A current map showing water scarcity produced by the World Resource Institute. The dark red represents extremely high risk, the orange represents medium to high risk, while the lightest yellow indicates low risk.

A current map showing water scarcity produced by the World Resource Institute. The dark red represents extremely high risk, the orange represents medium to high risk, while the lightest yellow indicates low risk.Source:Supplied

How did we get here?

While Earth may be covered in water, freshwater - the kind we care about - actually only represents 2.5 per cent of that. And almost 99 per cent of fresh water it is trapped in hard to reach places like glaciers and snowfields. In the end, less than one per cent of the planet's water is actually available to fuel and feed the world's 7.5 billion people.

Scarcity has largely been driven by an ever growing population and a greater demand for water as the world has become more affluent. To put that another way, a bottle of wine takes over 400 bottles of water to produce.

A secret report leaked by Wikileaks last year highlighted the fears of executives at food manufacturer Nestle about the world "running our of fresh water" in part due to a growth in meat consumption.

The report pointed out that a calorie of meat requires 10 times as much water to produce as a calorie of food crops.

"As the world's growing middle classes eat more meat, the earth's water resources will be dangerously squeezed," it said.

There's also the added complication of increasingly extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

"Climate change is talked about a lot in terms of shifting where the water is going be abundant and where it's going to be scarce, but that's just one of the many things that is going to have to be managed," Prof Young told news.com.au.

The real challenge, he says, is a political one: to establish robust sharing systems to manage and share regional water resources fairly, intelligently and carefully.

A treat to peace and stability

This month the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that by 2050 global demand for fresh water is projected to grow by more than 40 per cent and at least a quarter of the world's population will live in countries with a "chronic or recurrent" lack of clean water.

He told the UN Security Council that "strains on water access are already rising in all regions" and it was causing tension between nations.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, whose country currently holds the council presidency, noted that since 1947, some 37 conflicts have taken place between countries over water.

"Our planet, the human family and life in all its myriad forms on Earth are in the throes of a water crisis that will only get worse over the coming decades," he said.

"If current patterns of consumption continue unabated, two-thirds of the world's population will be facing water shortages as a daily reality by 2025."

It's an assessment Prof Young wholeheartedly agrees with. He says it's a scenario that if not managed properly will lead to food shortages that will drive up prices.

Meanwhile there's certainly no shortage of people heralding the potential stress and turmoil to be caused by water scarcity - and some of them are placing bets on the increasing importance of the commodity in the immediate future.

The resource has become a popular commodity for investors who are looking to profit from the growing value of water.

Most famously, Michael Burry - one of the first people to predicted the US subprime mortgage bond market would inflict the global financial crisis on the world, and made famous by Michael Lewis' The Big Short - has been focusing his investment strategy solely on the importance of water. And he's far from the only one.

Australia leading in the transition that needs to happen

Despite all the doom and gloom, Professor Young is "extremely optimistic" that the catastrophe of a true water crisis can be avoided.

"The theoretical modelling that's been done suggests there is no problem if water resources are well managed ... if we are prepared to adjust where people live and how they live," he said.

And in many cases around the world it's often farmers who are leading the charge.

"Increasingly to my surprise it's becoming more and more the farming communities who are becoming aware of the fact," he said. "There's a change in attitude as farmers start to realise these problems have to be resolved."

According to him an appropriate management system for countries sharing access to water would mean "water rights are defined as shares not guaranteed entitlements, and every person is given a water account that looks just like a bank account. As water becomes available it's credited to the account and when it's used it's debited," he said. If you want to transfer you just log onto your account and transfer the water credits.

During his time consulting with government he says they've shown a growing interest to adopt such systems but it "requires a lot of political will".

It's an area where Australia is far ahead of much of the world.

"Australia has one of the best water sharing systems in the world, particularly as a result of the reforms made in the last 20 years in Australia where we've redefined our water rights as shares," Prof Young said.

Good accounting systems, robust catchment infrastructure and the establishment of water markets in recent decades has made it much easier to allocate and trade water effectively.

"A market now boasting an annual turnover of between $1 billion and $3 billion is allowing water to move to its most economically productive uses," the Department of Agriculture website says. "Trading generates economic benefits valued in hundreds of millions of dollars annually."

The role of tech

Desalination and recycled water are playing an increased role in meeting our water needs in Australia. Cities like Perth and Adelaide have relied heavily on desalination, while the WA capital.

However at this point, due to the financial cost of desalination it does have its limitations.

"As a general rule, growing crops using desalination, it doesn't pay," Prof Young said.

But innovation and new tech are providing hope for improved water management. In particular, the harnessing of big data provides opportunity according to IT expert Sharryn Napier, who is the VP and regional director for Qlik Australia and New Zealand.

"The current era of mass data streaming and unprecedented data flow has no doubt brought about vast untapped potential in the management of global and Australian water resources," she wrote in The Australian in 2015.

"By making the shift away from static documents or siloed collections, data analysis can potentially play a significant role in resolving the world's water scarcity issues."

News Corp Australia

Topics:  editors picks technology water world



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