Sustainability for water is an issue of worldwide concern. Global warming and population growth are driving up demand. Yet, the problem is not that rainfall and water supplies are drying up, but that access to fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce.
Today, more than 844 million people do not have reliable access to clean water. That’s 1 in 10 people. This is due to a mix of poor water management, population growth, pollution, and changes in the environment.
Therefore, sustainability for water consumption must become a priority. In this article we look at just how prepared we are to deliver this most necessary ingredient for life.
What is water stress/water scarcity?
Water stress or scarcity occurs when demand for safe, usable water in a given area exceeds the available supply. There are two types of water scarcity: physical scarcity (shortage of water because of the local ecology) and economic scarcity (a result of poor water infrastructure).
Sustainability for water in production
Everything we produce needs water. Your morning cup of coffee may contain less than 0.2 L of liquid. However, 140 litres of water will have been used in its production from the coffee plantation to the shelf. Your clothes don’t contain a lot of water either. Yet, the fashion industry consumes some 32 million olympic-sized swimming pools of water each year.
There’s a huge annual demand for water in all kinds of activities. 70% is used in the agricultural industry alone, and it’s simply not sustainable.
As a result, experts predict that England’s demand for water will exceed its supply in just 25 years (Taylor). Population growth and mismanagement of water is the primary cause. Poor management is also creating environmental and health hazards. Iran, for example, is experiencing greater respiratory illness and eyesight problems due to salt storms. Lower rainfall and poor design is causing large sections of its salt lakes and waterways to dry up, which creates a serious airborne hazard when the wind blows. (Kalantari et al., 2020).
Sustainability for drinking water
Achieving universal and fair access to safe, affordable drinking water is one of the United Nation’s major targets. The goal is part of its 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (UNESCO, 2019).
On current trends, 1 in 4 people are expected to face recurring water scarcity issues by 2050.
Sucking water from the air
Zero Mass Water is one such innovation. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos have backed the start-up which uses solar panels to harvest water from air vapour to the tap. The project aims to remove infrastructure barriers to water supplies (Bendix, 2019). However, it currently only delivers up to ten bottles of water. Still, it remains a cheaper alternative to plastic water bottles in the long run.
Sustainability from Sea Water?
A larger-scale solution is producing fresh water from the sea using desalination. This process has been in some form of practice for thousands of years, capturing steam from boiled saltwater (Planete Energies, 2019).
As it is, heat from sunlight naturally evaporates fresh water from the ocean (Delbert, 2020). However, for large scale processing, reverse osmosis is the most popular method to desalinate seawater. Desalination plants using reverse osmosis filter saltwater through a series of incredibly fine filters or membranes, producing fresh water and a very salty brine by-product.
Desalination plants are used in arid countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. (CNBC, 2019). As a result, they have become a vital part of the water supply for some communities (CNBC, 2019). However, despite the abundance of saltwater, it is unlikely to be a sustainable solution.
This is because desalination produces 1.5 times as much brine as it does freshwater (Jones et al., 2019). The brine is dumped back into the ocean. As a result, a build-up of salt on the seafloor greatly increases water salinity and the destruction of marine life. In addition, desalination plants require enormous amounts of energy to run.
Solutions for water sustainability
Increasing supply is vital for improving water access. However, the focus needs to be on managing the water that we have.
Setting water usage limits and standards across all industry sectors will get us some way towards that goal. However, effective and sustainable change must come from increasing the value we place on water.
The World Economic Forum’s Global Water Initiative, for example, is seeking to reframe the dialogue on water security. This initiative seeks to reduce water waste and increase efficiency with new water recycling options.
Greater sustainability for water will come from developments like these that work to preserve existing resources.
To learn more about how the world is saving water and find out about the UN’s Sustainability Development Goal (SDG6), follow the THRIVE Project. THRIVE is a research, education and advocacy organisation dedicated to a ‘thrivable’ future. Join the THRIVE community and become a part of the solution.