Top 19 Solutions to the Global Fresh Water Crisis

There are a lot of news stories on the state of our fresh water sources… these can paint a rather hopeless, depressing picture. FLOW would like to balance this information with solutions and innovations.

GlobeScan (an international public and stakeholder opinion research firm) and SustainAbility, (a think tank and business strategy consultancy) have recently conducted a survey poll on Water and listed the 19 best solutions to the global freshwater crisis from their findings.

This survey was conducted in more than 80 countries. Some 1,200 influential thought leaders from companies, governments, NGOs, and academia said that multi-faceted engagement with water will be required for companies and governments to effectively manage businesses and communities. The new SustainAbility and GlobeScan survey comes six months after a Circle of Blue/GlobeScan survey of 15,000 people in 15 countries found that water scarcity and water pollution are the top environmental concerns in the world.

A summary of the finding is that population growth, urban development, farm production, and climate change is increasing competition for fresh water and producing shortages so acute that virtually every industry in the world anticipates sweeping systemic transformation over the next decade in their strategic planning, production practices, and business models.

These findings should sound the alarm for companies that haven’t yet established robust water strategies.”
– Chris Coulter, senior vice president at GlobeScan

The Top 19 Solutions to the Global Fresh Water Crisis

*Listed in order from most promising to less promising.

Education to change consumption / lifestyle

In the end, changing the face of this crisis involves education to motivate new behaviors. Coping with the coming era of water scarcity will require major overhaul of all forms of consumption, from individual use to the supply chains of major corporations, like GE. Some regions led by India, Australia and the Southwest U.S., are already facing the freshwater crisis. The most critical task is making sure the problem is much better understood worldwide.

This is FLOW’s mission!

Water conservation technologies

In areas where aquifers are drying up and rainwater is increasingly unpredictable, innovation is needed. But as we attempt to cope with freshwater scarcity and develop conservation technologies, energy consumption is an important consideration.

Read our article on an innovation whereby mountain fog is used to provide water.

Please click here for FLOW’s Directory of technology providers.

Recycling / water treatment systems

In March, World Water Day panelists urged a new mindset for waste water treatment. Some countries, like Singapore, are trying to recycle to cut water imports and become more self-sufficient. The rich East Asian republic is a leader in developing advanced technology that cleanses waste water for other uses, including drinking.

Related articles:

The state of South Africa’s waste water treatment.

Ministers face charges over pollution.

South African rivers under threat.

Please click here for FLOW’s Directory of system providers.

Improved irrigation technologies / agricultural practices

Some 70 percent of the world’s freshwater is used for agriculture. Improving irrigation can help close supply and demand gaps. In certain cases profligate irrigation practices meant for an earlier era has weakened the ability of farmers to provide food and fiber to a growing world. Examples include the Murray-Darling basin in Australia, Central Asia’s Aral Sea, and the American Southwest. Although new technology has become an appealing solution, global water experts like Peter Gleick note that in some cases, such as the agricultural systems in California, success stories can happen by improving what’s already in place.

Appropriate pricing / water rights markets

Water pricing and rights go hand in hand, with consumers questioning the benefit of higher prices. According to experts from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international economic forum of 31 of the world’s richest countries, raising prices will help lower waste and pollution. But Circle of Blue’s May investigation into water pricing systems in major U.S. cities, show current utility pricing systems are obsolete, send the wrong signals, and need reform.

Energy efficient desalination plants

To date, desalination has been an energy-intensive solution to water scarcity. Typically the Middle East has capitalized on its large energy reserves to build desalination plants. But Saudi Arabia could be fostering a new kind of desalination with its recent announcement to use solar-powered plants.

Britain has taken a different approach with small-scale facilities for agriculture. But these innovations bring to light another needed resource—the capital for technological experimentation.

To view a programme and read about Sedgefield’s desalination plant (the largest in South Africa), please click here.

Water catchment / harvesting

Water catchment systems are essential for areas with no other reliable water sources. Pakistan and India—two countries that contend with some of the worst effects of climate change—are overhauling rainwater harvesting systems. These efforts provide independent control of water resources.

Rooftop rainwater harvesting systems are now mandatory for new buildings in 18 of India’s 28 states and four of its seven federally-administered union territories

If you are interested in harvesting your rainwater, you can contact some suppliers by clicking here.

Community-based governance / partnerships

Community organizations elevate the experiences of those whose voices merit more influence. In April, for instance, indigenous groups met at the alternative climate change conference in Bolivia, a gathering meant to foster international partnerships among underrepresented groups. Ensuring more effective governance at the grassroots-level gives communities stature, and can lead to effective policy changes on a national scale.

Better government policies / regulations

As water scarcity complicates food security and pollution, governments need to redefine their role. The U.S. government is considering expanding the Clean Water Act to ensure more protections. In Russia, meanwhile, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has approved waste discharges in Lake Baikal, one of the world’s largest bodies of freshwater. Regardless of what path elected leaders take–the Circle of Blue/GlobeScan WaterViews survey indicates they are considering multiple approaches–the survey also found that most people say it is up to the government to ensure communities have access to clean water.

Holistic management of ecosystems

Simply put, holistic management applies to a practical, common-sense approach to overseeing natural resources that takes into account economic, cultural, and ecological goals. In essence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and each facet is related to and influences the others. Good examples of holistic management are communities that operate sewage treatment plants while pursuing partnerships with clean energy producers to use wastewater to fertilize algae and other biofuel crops. The crops, in turn, soak up nutrients and purify wastewater, significantly reducing pumping and treatment costs.

Improved distribution infrastructure

Poor infrastructure is devastating to health and the economy. It wastes resources, adds costs, diminishes the quality of life, and  allows preventable water-borne diseases to spread among vulnerable populations, especially children. The problem is not confined to the developing world. Pipes burst on a regular basis in the U.S., prompting boil alerts. Sewage treatment systems regularly overflow and malfunction, causing beach closures.

To view a programme and read about how poor infrastructure is affecting South Africa’s water resources, please click here.

Corporate water footprinting / sustainable manufacturing

Industrial water use accounts for approximately 22 percent of global consumption. The corporate footprint includes water that is directly and indirectly consumed when goods are produced. As sustainable manufacturing becomes more important, given the increasing severity of water scarcity, Peter Gleick and other experts question the costs of one industry sector in particular:  bottled water.

You can read the facts about bottled water here

International policy frameworks / institutional cooperation

Binding international accords for natural resource issues are hard to achieve. The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is evidence of that point. And that’s not just because the freshwater crisis, arguably the most visible and dire of the climate change risks, was ignored. Regional agreements regarding transboundary or shared water bodies such as the Great Lakes Compact in the U.S., and Nile River basin agreement in Africa are just as difficult to ratify. But policymakers and advocates need to keep trying. Humanitarian-oriented treaties, such as the U.N.’s drinking water Millennium Development Goals, indicate that comprehensive global strategies are possible.

Address pollution to improve quality of water

Measuring and monitoring water quality is essential to human health and biodiversity. This monumental issue rears its head in many forms and can be addressed in just as many ways, whether it’s David de Rothschild’s eco-adventure in a plastic ship or Joe Berlinger’s documentary on oil contaminating the Ecuadorian Amazon. While securing the quality of drinking water and at the local level, it’s essential to build international bridges to solutions.

Public common resources / equitable access

One of the key United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is ensuring access to drinking water. While the steps to achieve this goal are debated, the thesis that water is a basic right comes into play. As countries such as Chile  attempt to reform water rights, U.S. politicians are considering how access rights translate into federal protection of Lake Michigan, one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater.

R&D / Innovation

Access to water in a water-scarce world will become a much higher priority in business decisions. Communities are likely to pursue public-private partnerships that draw on the innovative capacities of companies. One example— cities that operate sewage treatment plants are likely to pursue partnerships with clean energy producers to fertilize algae and other biofuel crops with wastewater.

Water projects in developing countries / transfer of technology

Climate change and water scarcity are producing the most dramatic consequences in developing regions, such as northwest India and Sub-Saharan Africa. One proposed solution is to transfer water conservation technologies to these dry areas. Doing so is tricky because economies are weak and there are gaps in skills that often compel government and business authorities to impose these changes on local citizens.

Climate change mitigation

Climate change and water scarcity go hand-in-hand to cause some of the biggest contemporary challenges to the human race. These issues have a reciprocal relationship, identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in which, “water management policies and measures can have an influence on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.” As renewable energy options are pursued, the water consumption of these mitigation tactics must be considered in producing alternatives ranging from bio-energy crops to hydropower and solar power plants.

Population growth control

Because of the accelerating growth in global population, parts of the world could see a supply-demand gap of up to 65 percent in water resources by 2030. Currently, more than one billion people don’t have access to clean water. And with 70 percent of the world’s freshwater used for agriculture, water’s critical role in food production must be considered as climate and resource conditions change.

Source: Circle of Blue

The list in brief:

* Education to change consumption / lifestyle
* Water conservation technologies
* Recycling / water treatment systems
* Improved irrigation technologies / agricultural practices
* Appropriate pricing / water rights markets
* Energy efficient desalination plants
* Water catchment / harvesting
* Community-based governance / partnerships
* Better government policies / regulations
* Holistic management of ecosystems
* Improved distribution infrastructure
* Corporate water footprinting / sustainable manufacturing
* International policy frameworks / institutional cooperation
* Address pollution to improve quality of water
* Public common resources / equitable access
* R&D / Innovation
* Water projects in developing countries / transfer of technology
* Climate change mitigation
* Population growth control

Sustainability Survey Poll on Water – Findings

Nearly all sectors of the economy will need to transform 
over the next decade as a result of water shortages.

Sustainability Survey Poll. Transform Economy graph.“Please rate the degree to which the following sectors will need to change their operations or business models as a result of water shortages over the next 10 years.”*

Experts have a strong preference for policy measures that reduce water demand over those that increase water supply.

Sustainability Survey Poll. Policy Measures graph.“Please rate the potential of each of the following policy measures to sustainably alleviate water shortages, both in the short- and long-term.”*

The greatest perceived barriers to sustainable water management are government policy and public understanding.

Sustainability Survey Poll. Perceived Barriers graph.“Please rate the significance of each of the following barriers to the sustainable and equitable management of fresh water globally.”*

Managing fresh water sustainably and equitably requires 
a multi-faceted approach.

Sustainability Survey Poll. Equitable Management graph.“Please rate the importance of each of the following issues in the transition to the sustainable and equitable management of fresh water globally.”*
*On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 represents “Not need to change at all” and 5 represents “Significant need to change.” The white space in this chart represents neutral ratings (3) and “DK/NA.”

Further reading: Coming Era of Water Scarcity Will Prompt Global Industrial Transformation, According to Survey of International Experts

Image: FLICKR /vilseskogen/Under Creative commons license

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