Climate change and the rise in population make for an unsustainable drain on the world's drinkable water. Conservation is key to avoiding catastrophic shortages, but can we conserve anywhere near enough?
The challenge facing the world's population between now and 2030 is both stark and transparent: supply eight billion people with water from an absolutely finite supply. Compounding an already difficult scenario is the fact that less than 1 per cent of the world's total supply of water is fresh and drinkable; it is also being managed badly, with a growing proportion wasted through despoiling and pollution.
Looking ahead, ongoing urbanisation, uncertainty over climate change and a growing middle class are all adding to the pressures on this hitherto seemingly inexhaustible resource. Climate change is projected to affect both temperature and rainfall patterns. There may be some benefits: improved dilution of some pollutants in water bodies as a result of increased winter rainfall, for example. However, significant negative effects are also likely on water availability, water quality and water industry assets.
In the UK, around 18 billion litres of water are collected, treated and supplied to customers every day, with over 16 billion litres of wastewater also collected and treated. In addition, many industrial and agricultural enterprises collect their own supplies from rivers or groundwater.
Availability is one of the biggest issues facing the UK water sector, with pressures especially evident in southern and eastern England. A number of rivers, lakes and groundwater bodies are now at risk of failing to maintain a 'good' ecological status.
Beyond climate change
While climate change directly affects availability, the projected higher average temperatures will also indirectly affect demand: the warmer the weather, the greater the need for water. Other effects may include reductions in water quality and increases in sewer flooding and spills from combined sewer overflows.
Then there is the matter of population growth and land-use changes, which may have a greater influence on water supply and demand than climate change. This leads on to another challenge for the water sector: the need to mitigate the play of these negative forces by reducing energy use while maintaining water quality and environmental standards.
"We face daunting challenges," Professor Peter Guthrie, chair of the steering group on global water security, says. "The 'perfect storm' scenario suggests that by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 per cent more food and energy, together with using 30 per cent more fresh water, while mitigating the causes of, and adapting to, climate change.
"There is no 'silver bullet' that can be adopted or applied to resolve the issues surrounding global water security; however, technologies and expertise that can aid us in confronting these problems already exist. What is required is the implementation of effective governance, financing and regulation, to allow technical solutions to take effect."
Engineers have the skills and technologies to develop effective solutions to many of the problems that surround global water security. In isolation these technologies and skills are not enough. "It is incumbent on engineers to articulate the issues surrounding water security to those outside of their usual sphere. Engineers must engage with policy makers, economists, financiers, farmers, industry and development agencies in order to build the public-political consensus needed to approach the problem of global water security," Prof Guthrie adds.
Waste, and the end of free water
The world is far from water-secure. In many regions the demand is already much greater than the available supply. This is an issue that affects not only developing countries, where water infrastructure is poor and where many people do not have access to safe drinking water, but also the developed world, where burgeoning demand simply cannot continue to be met.
Water has traditionally been regarded as a 'free' resource. Any costs for water are usually associated with the cost of processing and delivery alone, rather than assigning any inherent value to the resource. There is growing interest internationally in the use of water-pricing to reduce demand as well as to generate revenue to cover the cost of providing water supplies and maintaining infrastructure.
According to a recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, wasteful consumer behaviour is seen as the biggest barrier ahead. Across much of the world, and in stark contrast to the costs and difficulties of getting water to the tap, the precious commodity flows out of our taps at almost no cost to the user. As such, it is unsurprising that consumers, businesses and farmers have little incentive to curb their usage. Overall, 45 per cent of utilities – especially in developed markets – see this as their biggest barrier to progress, while a further 33 per cent believe that tariffs are too low to stimulate greater investment.
"The threat of global climate change has galvanised governments, organisations and citizens around the world to re-imagine our lives in ways that contribute to long-term sustainability," Rodger Smith, senior vice president and general manager, Oracle Utilities, says. "Doing so is challenging us to reprioritise issues, rethink business plans and reconsider the relationships between people and resources. Nowhere is this focus on sustainability clearer than in water utilities.
"It is clear that maintaining adequate water supplies will require action from every stakeholder including customers, governments, environmental groups, regulators and utilities themselves. Communication and comprehensive consumer education will be critical to success."
The threat of water scarcity is not an insurmountable challenge, but to overcome it, water utilities will need to make much more productive use of water available and better educate their customers about its value. Brian Gardner, senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit, explains: "Fortunately there are innovations in technology and process being implemented in both developing and developed nations to help make this a reality. We need to see water utilities, governments and consumers all contribute more to address these concerns in the coming years."