It’s critical that water is conserved the world over – Taamara de Silva explains

Frequent and thorough hand washing is perhaps the most recognised frontline defence against the spread of COVID-19. Yet, a quarter of the world’s population lacks access to a reliable supply of water!

Water scarcity is dynamic and complex; it occurs as a result of population growth, climate change, existing H2O resources and human intervention. It’s also critical to consider how multi-sector, multi-scale economic implications can either mitigate or intensify water shortages.

Global water usage has increased sixfold over the past century and 70 percent of it is used in the irrigation of crops with the balance 30 percent being mainly for domestic use.

Interestingly, agricultural commodities are traded and consumed outside the regions in which they are produced. So changes in regional water supply or sectoral demand can go beyond geographic boundaries, making water a critical resource that holds the ecosystem together.

Water required for individual food types varies considerably. While 200 litres of water are required to produce a kilogramme of tomatoes, 15,400 litres are needed to produce a kilogramme of beef.

According to the WHO, water scarcity that’s based on individual consumption is pegged at between 50-100 litres a person each day without accounting for what’s required to produce food. Food wastage means we also waste the water and energy that is used to produce it.

Global water scarcity is a primary challenge for continued human development and achievement of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

According to the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements, there are currently 263 rivers and countless aquifers that either cross or demarcate international and political boundaries, and 90 percent of countries in the world must share these water basins with at least one or two other states.

However, the unprecedented construction of dams and water extraction by countries on major rivers is leaving many nations further downstream increasingly thirsty. This dynamic could lead to conflicts in the shorter term.

Most nations are under increasing pressure to find the most effective way to supply clean water to their people while meeting demands for agriculture and the needs of developing industries. The main challenge however, is to ensure that all components of the water ecosystem work harmoniously so that the investment is both efficient and sustainable.

Agriculture reforms are needed for preserving rapidly dwindling water reserves. Permaculture and organic farming could potentially improve the quality and productivity of soil, so that it retains moisture and minimises the need for excessive irrigation.

Meanwhile, projects that employ hydroponic, aquaponic, aeroponic and vertical farming are gaining popularity, as well as attracting impact investments.

The need to embrace sustainable purchasing patterns especially when buying clothes is a key element in reducing our water footprint. It takes about 2,700 litres of water to produce one T-shirt – that’s enough water for one person to drink for 900 days.

Resorting to a Mediterranean diet (i.e. lots of plant-based food) is another way that we as individuals can contribute to saving water.

From an economic perspec-tive, the impact of water scarcity arises when the difficulty of obtaining the precious liquid forces a change in consumption. For instance, abundant snowmelt may be of little use to farmers if the cost of retrieving and utilising such resources is substantial.

Much can also be done by freeing up more water for use through techniques such as desalination of seawater. Saudi Arabia currently meets 50 percent of its water needs through this process. Wastewater recycling can also offer a cost-efficient and easily deployable alternative, which can help farming communities that are affected by droughts.

Relatively low charges for water often means the risks associated with its use are overlooked. In many parts of the world, people have grown used to treating water as a cheap and plentiful resource rather than an asset to be treasured.

There’s a growing need for a methodology to support growth agendas of various companies that are now look-ing to optimise their water performance, mitigate risks and ensure social licenses to operate in water heavy industries.

The adoption of smart water network technologies, such as intelligent devices and advanced IT systems, can help monitor and provide insights that could deliver solutions for the conservation of water. However, the lack of access to such technology, readily available power sources and financing will result in a slow and measured transformation of the water sector

Ultimately, meeting the water-based sustainable development goals will require both institutional and technological innovations, to supply, allocate and manage water – as well as a sustained political and financial commitment to safeguard those who may be left behind.