Think water stress only affects developing countries? Think again.
Wealthy countries are becoming more aware of the impacts of water stress. Here’s how four nations struggling with water scarcity and are adapting to sustainable water management.
When we think of people and places affected by water stress, it can be easy to think of desert nations, or rural regions in developing countries. But water stress is by no means limited to poorer nations. Wealthy countries may have the means to navigate the challenges of water stress more easily, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t affected.
What is water stress?
Water stress occurs when there is a lack of freshwater resources – a scarcity – to meet demand. This can arise through environmental changes, such as drought, but can also be caused by a lack of adequate infrastructure to enable people access to water, and by mismanagement of sources. We look at four developed nations facing a water stressed future, and how they are adapting.
The Netherlands is at increasing risk of drought which affects farming, and has put thousands of homes at risk of subsidence. It’s also, ironically, bad news for flood protection. Many of the country’s dykes are made of peat, which shrinks when it becomes too dry.
Local initiatives are being developed to combat water scarcity. In Vechtstromen, streams and rivers have been diverted to fill ditches to slow surface run-off and give the water time to seep into the ground. And farmers in the province of Zeeland have adapted by growing less ‘thirsty’ crops, such as kidney beans. However, the country will need to make bigger changes. Ideas include creating a new lake for water storage by diverting the river Rhine, and artificially infiltrating water into depleted soil to create groundwater aquifers.
In May 2019, the Menindee Lakes basin on the Darling River – one of Australia’s major rivers – held only 1.1% of its capacity, and a report released in 2019 showed that the country’s demand on groundwater is outpacing its replenishment. Australia’s water problem is having a knock on effect as it coincides with other ecological challenges – regions of wildfire activity correlate to water scarce areas. In some places, there is just not enough water available to fight the devastating flames.
To combat some of these challenges, Australia has become one of a small number of countries to institute markets for trading water. It is hoped that conferring monetary value on water means its value will be recognised by governments, communities and industry.
Japan has recognised the challenge. They have made a number of technological innovations to help ensure safe water is available in the necessary quantities. This includes building desalination plants to turn seawater into freshwater; upgrading the country’s sewage recycling system; and tap water purification in areas previously only using chlorination. However, changing demographics are leading to new challenges: for example, because the country’s population is ageing and shrinking, fewer younger people are entering the workforce. A shortage of qualified workers could threaten the upkeep of, and innovation in, water infrastructure.
And the water that does flow is running through old infrastructure. Flint, Michigan made global headlines when citizens developed lead poisoning from old water pipes. The average age of water and sewer pipes in the US is 45 years.
Additionally, for many Americans affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, water bills have become unaffordable, and their water has been shut off.
The US has taken notice. Local Governments are set to spend $300 billion dollars renovating piping infrastructure over the coming years, and the US Senate is set to vote on a bill to cancel utility debts for the poorest Americans. Moves to protect water sources are also underway, including a 30-year, $7.8 billion rescue plan to protect Florida’s everglades, and plans unveiled by The Environmental Protection Agency to expand the number of waterways that receive protection under the country’s Clean Water Act.
Lessons to learn
Wealth and development cannot protect a nation from water stress. While many countries are bringing in changes to the way water is managed, individual projects will have limited effect. The biggest benefit will come from interconnected, holistic policies which recognise the value of water, the importance of protecting water sources, the infrastructure that enables access, and wider ecosystems.
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