3 ways countries are investing in water resilience

At least 37 countries around the world face extreme water stress, and by 2025, the World Health Organisation predicts that half the world’s population will face water scarcity or live in water-stressed areas. What can we do to adapt?

The term water scarcity is usually used to describe areas where people face a lack of water, usually measured by volume. Water scarcity can also be caused by a lack of adequate infrastructure to enable people to access water. 

Water stress is a little different to water scarcity, though they are intimately linked. In areas of water stress, water demands exceed – or are close to exceeding – water supplies. The result is a depletion of water resources, both in terms of quantity (for example the drying up of rivers) and quality (unacceptable levels of pollution). Water scarcity can be both a cause of, and a side effect of, water stress.

Climate change is making things worse

The effects of climate change on water are wide ranging. As global temperatures increase, weather systems are becoming more erratic, meaning water comes in huge downpours – causing flooding – or not at all – causing drought. Neither are good for replenishing water reserves. Rising temperatures also make water an attractive place for deadly pathogens to live, rendering the water dangerous for drinking or washing, and removing that source from water infrastructure.

Which countries are most affected and why?

Water scarcity does not always lead to water stress. Take Las Vegas: the city is situated within a desert that gets less than six inches of rainfall every year. Yet, Las Vegas has enough running water to meet the needs of locals and tourists. This is because it has good water infrastructure, piping in water from reserves.

But infrastructure is only part of the picture: water stress is ultimately down to a combination of geographic location, population makeup (particularly population growth), and water use policy.

According to the World Resources Institute, 12 out of the 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa. This makes sense geographically, as this area is naturally hot and arid, with low water supplies, but growing populations and developing economies have increased the region’s water demands for domestic and agricultural purposes.

India is another region facing a particular crisis, having a population of 1.3 billion, and still growing. It is a nation that relies hugely on agriculture for its economy, and agriculture is a massive consumer of water. Agricultural demands see farmers in rural areas digging wells to access groundwater reserves. These are not replenished quickly enough, adding to water scarcity and, therefore, stress.

How can governments bring about change?

1 – Efficient irrigation

Adapting to water stress is made easier by policies which embrace sustainable new technologies. Micro-irrigation systems, which deliver water directly to the roots of plants, help reduce water loss through surface evaporation and drainage into the soil. A World Bank study found that they can reduce water use by 30-70%.

The Moroccan government aims to equip 50% of its irrigated land with drip technology by 2022. The nation’s current drip irrigation infrastructure saves the country about 800 million cubic metres of water every year – that’s just under one and a half times the volume of Sydney Harbour.

2 – Integrating nature alongside traditional water management

Countries which have supported ‘green and grey’ infrastructure, incorporating nature with traditional installations, are among the most successful in building resilient systems to manage water.  

In Vietnam, the expansion of mangroves alongside the rehabilitation of existing sea dykes has benefitted rural communities in multiple ways: protecting them from flooding and coastal erosion and providing an environment for sustainable shrimp farming.  

Peru has also combined ‘green’ and ‘grey’ methods. Ecosystems have been protected by reforestation using native drought-resistant quenal trees and terracing of agricultural areas. Both prevent soil erosion. In parallel, the country has restored traditional water conservation systems, such as the 1,500-year-old amunas – structures which capture and channel rainwater to recharge aquifers during the rainy season.   

3 – Water recycling in Namibia

For the past fifty years, Namibia has been combatting water shortages by recycling the water it uses. Receiving only around 25 centimetres of water each year, Namibia loses around 80% of that water to evaporation. At its inception in 1968, the water reclamation system in Windhoek was a pioneering idea. It now provides 21,000 cubic metres of water every day for drinking that would otherwise be wasted. A range of different processes remove all pollutants and contaminants. It shows how water-stressed regions can reclaim water for their populations, and move toward meeting demand.

People need and use water in multiple ways, and we are edging towards a global water crisis. Thanks to new technology, sustainable policies, and innovative water conservation, governments can help people to adapt to water scarcity and reduce water stress.

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