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A World Stressed for water

Paul Kando

One quarter of the world's population lives in areas where the competition for water resources is extreme, according to a new report from the Washington-based global research group World Resources Institute (WRI).

Water droplet on ocean

photo credit: wikipedia

Increased water stress and the climate crisis could lead to more "day zeroes," of the kind Cape Town, South Africa, recently experienced on the brink of completely running out of potable water. The picture is alarming in many places around the globe. We can't any longer pretend that the situation will resolve itself.

Globally, Qatar tops a list of 17 extremely water-stressed countries, followed by Israel, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, United Arab Emirates (UAE), San Marino, Bahrain, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Oman and Botswana. The Middle East and North Africa are home to 12 of the 17 countries suffering from extreme water stress.

Of the affected countries, India is an outlier. It is not in an arid region. It has widespread rainfall and a web of lakes and streams. But India’s total population is three times that of the other 16 countries combined. And last July, the southern Indian city of Chennai saw its taps run dry, its reservoirs empty, and its water reserves in Puzhal Lake severely diminishing. Overexploitation and mismanagement of water are the reasons for this water stress, according to Shashi Shekhar, former secretary of water resources. India is plagued by inefficient agriculture that uses up to 80% of all the available water in the country.

In the US, New Mexico ranks on par with the UAE and Eritrea with an extremely pressed water system. California, Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska are also severely water-stressed.

Water stress and drought are not the same. But in countries where people use water at a faster rate than it is replaced, serious problems arise should they hit a prolonged period without adequate rainfall. As a result of climate change, many places will see more erratic, unpredictable precipitation — too much or too little, often in the same places. Water stress could affect half the world's population in just five years. The misuse of groundwater in Indonesia is so grave that the capital city Jakarta — much of it below sea level already — is sinking, prompting the country’s president to move the seat of government to a new city yet to be built on Borneo.

Still, it is very important to note that water stress is not destiny. In light of the pressing need to replenish the world's clean water systems, the 29th annual World Water Week in Stockholm — with the theme “Water for Society: Including All” — sought to draw the world's attention to water-related challenges worldwide. Many in our societies are unaware of the vital role that water plays in realizing prosperity, eradicating poverty and tackling the climate crisis, the sponsoring Stockholm International Water Institute’s (SIWI) declared in a press release. "Together, we can change that perception and unlock the potential of water-related solutions."

More than 260 sessions were held over six late August days, with more than 3,000 representatives from 100 countries participating. One focus was on how large corporations consume water and what they can do to reduce their excess usage.

Coca-Cola, for one, is turning to a new technology that cleans bottles with air rather than water, a practice that could be adopted by breweries and bottlers of all kinds. PepsiCo is also committed to providing clean water to people in need. It has already delivered clean drinking water to more than 20 million people, teaming up with the likes of the Safe Water Network, China Women's Development Foundation and the 2030 Water Resources Group of the World Bank. The company has also partnered with the Inter-American Development Bank to support infrastructure projects in Latin America where nearly 230 million people lack adequate access to clean drinking water.

The textile industry has acknowledged outsized water use in its processes. Cotton, for example, is a thirsty crop. Indeed, according to Gap,Inc., it takes nearly 1,000 gallons of water to make just one pair of jeans. Dying and finishing fabrics and yarns are particularly water-intensive processes. The industry is responsible for adding about 20% of the pollution to fresh water sources, especially in developing countries with cheap labor and lax pollution standards.

Water is by far the most popular solvent in many industries. They could all do well by harvesting rainwater at their plants, creating new wetlands and putting back into nature as much clean water as they use each year. Ultimately, water is a common resource and access to it is a universal human right.