Water supply graphic

War on water shortage

Water supplies are facing new threats, but affordable, advanced technologies could make a difference for millions of people.

It defies belief that the most abundant compound on Earth, covering about 70 per cent of the surface of the planet, can be in such short supply, but such is the reality of water.

In this modern, high-tech world there are still nearly 800 million people who do not have access to clean water and more than 2.5 billion who have sub-standard or no sanitation. It is not just an inconvenience, but a matter of life and death: lack of clean water is responsible for more deaths worldwide than war.

One of the United Nations Millennium goals, set back in 1990, was to halve the number of people with no access to clean water and sanitation by 2015. "We have officially reached the target, but there still remains 780,000 million with no access," says Cecilia Sharp, UNICEF's senior advisor on water and sanitation. "Another big challenge is the definition of safe water. We don't know whether the access is sustainable as it is mainly rural water with fragile systems."

Sharp explains that while some of the emerging economies such as China and India have made strides to improve water supplies, although India in particular still faces difficult challenges, water scarcity is still abundant around much of Africa and South East Asia.

Even once the infrastructure is in place, operating and maintaining it is difficult. "For many countries who receive a budget for investment, it's politically attractive, but then you forget about it," says Sharp. "So it's a matter of water quality. How do we know that we are providing safe and clean water? Measurement and monitoring is the issue. How we build sustainable systems and infrastructures globally – it is a challenge for many countries, not just developing ones, but the issues are bigger there of course."

She adds: "Many times we have the innovation, the technology, the techniques, the knowledge – it is there, globally we have it, but it is the institutions that fail. We don't always have the capacity in countries, but the solutions are out there."

When it comes to sanitation, UNICEF's focus is to look at behaviour change. "There are 2.6 billion people that are still open defecators, they don't even have a pit latrine," Sharp says. "We try to change the social norm and behaviours so people start to understand that it is OK to have a toilet, and we see great health benefits from that."

Water is not an infinite resource. The growing global population – the current seven billion inhabtants is predicted to rise as high as ten billion by 2050 – means there is a strain on resources in certain areas of the world.

"There could be localised problems, but that is the same with urbanisation," Sharp says. "You can see evidence of ground droughts in certain areas because there is an increasing demand, but I would say that the greatest challenge is climate change. People cannot rely on rain water or groundwater recharge where they could before. You have a heavy drought and then flash floods where the soil is not prepared and you have soil erosion. How countries can adapt to these changes and understand them is crucial. Even though population growth is an issue, it is not the main issue."

Tackling population growth

One country that is grappling with these groundwater problems is India. It is the second most densely populated country in the world, with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy. Its economy is the tenth largest, although it is third by purchasing power parity.

Although it is one of the world's fastest growing economies, it still faces the daunting challenges of poverty, illiteracy, corruption and inadequate infrastructure.

The transformation of cities in India over the next 25 years will be incredible. The urban population is growing rapidly as millions move from villages to major cities and this will require a quantum leap in the quality of infrastructure and services.

A significant challenge for India is the availability of high quality water supply and wastewater management facilities in cities. Water resources are rapidly depleting across the country and it has, at times, been unavailable for major parts of Delhi, a city of 16 million people, due to a shortage of raw water for a major water treatment plant. This is compounded by the Yamuna River, which passes through Delhi and is polluted for 600km: an increase of 100km over the last 18 years, despite '300m being spent on improving water quality.

Most of India is extremely reliant on groundwater, but this resource is being rapidly overdrawn. A case in point is Gurgaon, a suburb of New Delhi and the industrial and financial centre of Haryana. It is one of Delhi's four major satellite cities within commuting distance of Delhi via an expressway and Delhi Metro.

There are a lot of positives for the city: it has the third highest per capita income in India after Chandigarh and Mumbai and is the only Indian city to have successfully distributed electricity connections to all its households. Over the past 25 years Gurgaon has undergone rapid development, but water remains a serious problem.

Groundwater levels have been decreasing at a rate of 2m per year and it is predicted that there will be no water left by 2017. Shallow wells around Gujarat on the west coast that were only 10-15m deep in the 1960s are now 400m deep and continuing to grow.

"About 30 per cent of the Delhi community has grossly inadequate water supply and water runs only four to six hours per day throughout the city. The water supplied does not meet international quality standards to be considered potable," Allen Gale, managing director of Parsons Brinckerhoff in India explains.

"There is an expectation in India that water should be free or at least affordable to all. Consequently the price for water is subsidised by the government and is far below the production cost, which means that it is not truly valued."

Multi-purpose water resources

Water resources for much of India are already limited and it is projected that there will be further scarcity in the next 25 years as the demand for both agricultural and urban purposes grows.

A multi-pronged approach is required for both the supply and the demand sides. "You need to consider water in an integrated manner and manage the total water cycle rather than considering water from different sources and for different uses," Gale says. "Integrated water management of storm water, surface water, groundwater, potable water, and wastewater on a catchment basin basis will result in much more effective use of water – recognising that it is 'one water' travelling around in a continuous cycle."

Maximising use of the current water supply and distribution systems is a priority along with ensuring water is available to a much greater proportion of the community. "It could be that not all areas of all cities will have a piped supply to every building, but societal pressure will force this to be the norm," Gale adds. "However, retrofitting water distribution systems in heavily built up areas will be expensive, the challenge being the ability to pay for what is required."

This all needs to be accomplished while cleaning up major waterways. "The community has the right to expect that the river or stream passing through their city be visually appealing and safe for contact, rather than a receptacle for human and industrial wastewater that separates rather than integrates the city," Gale says.

"There is a positive impact on quality of life when a waterway is integrated into the city, and this is a goal that India should seek to attain. The high costs of collection and treatment of wastewater for discharging to waterways will be offset by the social, environmental and economic benefits. Also by reusing and recycling the wastewater generated by cities, the demand on water from the waterways will be reduced."


Achievement of sustainable water management will require significant investment. Australia and the USA, for instance, invest about £70 per person per year in water and wastewater infrastructure; India invests less than £7. The country needs a much more significant investment, and the investment needs to be used effectively.

The idea prevalent in some of the developing world that water should be a free resource clashes with the traditional methods of financing the development of water infrastructure.

"From a drinking water standpoint the market is segmented by municipal drinking water activities," Ralph Exton, CMO at GE Water & Process Technologies says. "You would have small, medium or large municipalities around the world that collect revenue from their rate payers and invest that money into the infrastructure.

"But some of the developing regions don't have that infrastructure, let alone organised collection activities. So some communities in India and Africa try to band together to supply water by digging a well. There are tremendous problems associated with that, primarily around hygiene issues and the potential for contaminates being in the water. They don't have the means to analyse the water to make sure that it is safe."

When it comes to clean water filtration is traditionally combined with disinfection. The most common type of disinfection is the chlorine-based products such as sodium hydro chlorate that will kill the bacteria that is potentially in the water, but this solution has its downsides. "A lot of people have never tasted water that has a chlorine product in it and they don't usually like it," Exton adds.

"In underdeveloped areas and communities there is concern with adding chemicals to water because of their beliefs. Most companies that provide technologies to supply clean water to developing regions initially focus on the technology and the infrastructure. They soon realise that just as much time effort and investment is needed in training because if the local operators aren't doing it in the right way then the water may become contaminated."

With the UN Millennium goal achieved, the push continues to ensure that as many as possible of the remaining 800 million people without clean water are provided with this facility. From digging wells to building dams, engineers have been prime providers in meeting supply and quality needs of society. To meet current needs, which increasingly include environmental, and ecosystem preservation and enhancement demands, the methods will have to be more sophisticated. 

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