Water - Red Flags


Water is the elixir of life and has always been. It is also enlightening to know that the same amount of water that existed on the earth millions of years ago is still present today. So earth is a closed system that rarely loses of gains extra matter. The total amount of water on the earth is about 326 million cubic miles and of these about 70% is trapped in glaciers. Of this 70%, less than 1 % of the world’s fresh water is readily accessible. 

“In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference”.

- Rachel Carson, marine biologist and conservationist

The following validates this statement: as on date, 780 million people lack access to an improved water source1. In one day, women spend 200 million work hours to collect water for their families1; Unsafe water kills 200 children every hour1 and 80% of all illness in the world is water related2.

Why the world has reached this deadlocked situation on water? The causes of water crisis are multifaceted.

[1] Blue Planet Network - What makes water so important

[2] CNN - The secret life of drinking water

At this point, it would be useful to discuss the two types of water stresses:

Physical Water Stress

This refers to the situation where physical access to water is limited. Physical water scarcity occurs when available water resources are insufficient to meet all demands, including minimum environmental ow requirements.
In some cases the land itself falls under this category where naturally the amount of water available is limited such as deserts however in certain other cases physical stress emerges because of over extraction of water and is a man-made situation. For example- the river basins of Qom (Namak Lake) in Iran or the Tuhai He (China) or river Sabarmati (India)3  are man-made situation of water stress.

[3] World Resource Institute : Worlds 18 most water stressed rivers

Economic Water Stress

This water stress refers to a situation where the particular geography is endowed is water however they do not have the required economic resources to utilize as adequate source of water. Much of Sub-Saharan Africa faces this challenge.  While the physical water stress cannot be addressed directly, however economic stress can be addressed through suitable solutions

The illustration above highlights the water use under three broad sectors by the world as a whole and further by the high income and low and middle countries

The physical stress of water helps us understand that different amount of water is available in different countries. Also, different countries use the available water differently. Some countries use more water for agriculture while others for industry. The illustration above highlights the water use under three broad sectors by the world as a whole and further by the high income and low and middle countries.  
Of the three, when we refer to the global figures and the low and middle income countries agriculture uses the largest part of water however in the high-income countries industry is the key user of water.

[3] Source: World Resources Institute - Insights: WRIs blog

The illustration below highlights how much water will be withdrawn with respect to the amount that is naturally available.
The following trends will affect fresh water use in the future:
4 billion
5 billion
6 billion
7 billion
8 billion
9 billion (est.)

a) Population Growth

The population is expected to reach over 8 billion in 2030 and to level off at 9 billion by 2050.

b) Increasing prosperity

The two countries that hold the highest population are China and India. At present, China has about 150 million people who are considered to be middle class within the next decade this is expected to have reached 500 million. By 2030 around one billion people in China could be middle class- as much as 70% of its projected population. India’s middle class on the other hand is around 50 million people and it is estimated that it will reach 200 million in the next decade. It is expected to reach 475 million people by 20304 .This implies that there will be much broader distribution of income and an increased spending power will increase the demands of goods and services including food and therefore further adversely impact the already deteriorating environment and water stress.

[4] Hitting the sweet spot

c) Climate Change

This could increase the annual precipitation and make more fresh water available in some places. Rising temperatures, however, could increase the rate of evaporation from surface waters and reservoirs and lead to the loss of freshwater held in glaciers. Furthermore, increased rainfall might come in the form of storms that lead to flooding and damage thereby doing more harm than good.

As per the report Charting our Water Future

Agriculture accounts for approximately 3, 100 billion m3 or 71% of global water withdrawals today and without efficiency gains will increase to 4, 500 billion m3 by 2030. Centers of agricultural demands are also where poor farmers live are primarily India and China. Industrial withdrawals account for 16% of today’s global demand, growing up to a projected 22% in 2030 and demand for domestic use will decrease as a percentage of total from 14 percent today to 12 percent in 2030, although it will grow in specific basins especially in the emerging markets. 

[4] EY - By 2030 two-thirds of global middle class will be in Asia-Pacific

Aggregated global gap between existing accessible, reliable, supply and 2030 water withdrawals, assuming no effiency gains

As is evident from the illustration above a large part of the water withdrawals are happening for agriculture

The annual rate of efficiency improvement in agricultural water use between 1990- 2004 was approximately 1 percent across both rain-fed and irrigated areas. A similar rate of improvement occurred in industry. Were agriculture and industry to sustain this rate to 2030, improvements in water efficiency would address only 20 percent of the supply-demand gap, leaving a large deficit to be filled. Similarly, a business-as-usual supply build-out, assuming constraints in infrastructure rather than in the raw resource, will address only a further 20 percent of the gap. Even today, a gap between water demand and supply exists—when some amount of supply that is currently unsustainably “borrowed” (from non-replenish able aquifers or from environmental requirements of rivers and wetlands) is excluded, or when supply is considered from the perspective of reliable rather average availability.

Business as usual approach will not meet demand for raw water; we therefore need sustainable solutions to managing water in agriculture!