When the New York Times declared recently that water cuts were coming to the West, the faint echoes of “The British are coming” that were sounded during the 1776 American War of Independence took on a darker tone.
Almost two and a half centuries of industrialization, growing population, and urbanization have resulted in water scarcity. This has made political boundaries insignificant as we collectively share the responsibility of using sustainable ways of finding and using water. Just as a butterfly flapping its wings can change the shape of tornadoes, a small change in water use can have an effect several orders of magnitude higher. Water scarcity in on region is bound to have repercussions for other distant locations.
Water is a shared resource. But the crisis of water has affected some countries more than others, and vulnerable communities more than privileged ones. Villages and rural areas suffer more than urban ones. Water scarcity has also worsened the inequalities poor people experience around the world.
This makes the recent news that water cuts will affect advanced countries as well more serious. How did we reach such a dire situation? What are the ways out? What is being done to resolve this problem?
The challenge of water security falls into three parts:
The Need for an Integrated Approach
What makes the problem of scarce water particularly difficult is that the challenges are connected. Increasing demand has led to increased stress on ecosystems and pollution which in turn have driven up the demand for fresh or potable water. For example, the Aral Sea in central Asia was one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. But it has shrunk and is salty due to pollution and the demand for water for irrigation and power. This, in turn, has led to land pollution, food scarcity, infant mortality, and lower life expectancy in the nearby communities.
Solutions in the Making:
An Integrated Water Resources Management plan has been offered by the United Nations Environment Program and is supported by several international organizations in many countries. The purpose is to see water holistically. For example, the use of water for irrigation results in less water for fisheries. The industrial use of water results in pollution and poor health as these industries pump out industrial waste without filtering it. An effective solution would have to ensure water for agricultural use, for the fisheries, for industrial production while also making sure that drinking water does not get polluted.
In the past, the impact of one sector’s use of water on others was largely ignored. However, by using a cross-sectoral solution, the demand for water can be met in a sustainable way while also protecting the ecosystems that are vital to water supply. In North Darfur, Sudan, the UN has transformed people’s lives through its Wadi El Ku Catchment Management Project. The seasonal rain in Sudan is collected in weirs or small dams that control the flow of water. While previously the rain would wash the fertile topsoil away, the weirs allow the water to seep into the land gradually so that even during the hot season, ground water allows farmers to continue their work. Over 4000 farmers work in the area today while before even 150 found it difficult to subsist. The Wadi El Ku Catchment Management project has improved food security, agricultural production and helped resolved conflicts in the region.
Weirs are time-tested water management systems and work well in areas that face seasonal water shortage. But the challenges faced by people in other regions who do not have access to water sometimes calls for innovation.
Going Off-Grid: Innovative Approaches
When we rely on updating outdated systems, both the time and investment can be significant. Furthermore, there are some regions and communities whose water demands cannot be met by just using updated systems. Areas that do not receive seasonal rainfall and those that have gone arid cannot rely on more efficient storage systems since there is little water to store in the first place. Rapid urbanization has resulted in construction in areas that used to be lakes and ponds. As more and more regions face the risk of aridity, innovation and novel approaches to water may be more important than time-tested methods. Refugees camps, temporary migrant housing are also frequently left out of the usual plan for water supply. Due to political and social events that dislocate people around the world, it is all the more important to have solutions that address today’s realities. All this calls for innovative solutions that use technologically advanced methods.
While it is normal to talk about off-grid sources of energy, it may be time to think of off-grid solutions for water. When large scale or even global plans and solutions continue to leave certain communities out, local solutions are the only way. One way would be to capture the humidity in the air and condense it to produce water. Harvesting water out of thin air through advanced equipment can fill the critical gaps in water supply and address local demands immediately. New polymers and hydrogels can not only harvest water from the air, but they also have a low energy requirements, making them a sustainable option as we pursue water security for everyone on the planet.
At Water Inception, this attempt has been successfully carried out in a Lebanese camp. Syrian refugees who had sought relief in Lebanon faced acute water shortage and this made their situation even more deplorable. By installing a water generator invented by Enrique Veiga, the needs of these refugees are being met even today. The generator harvests and provides 500 litres of clean drinking water a day. Plans of running it on solar panels are underway and they will make this solution not only an innovative way of helping a highly vulnerable community with water but also a sustainable way of addressing the water crisis.