Global Wake-up Call on Water Scarcity
Water scarcity around the world reached unprecedented levels in 2020. Yet amidst a global pandemic, no one seemed to notice. Approximately two-thirds of the world is affected by water shortages at least one month a year. Yet 95% of farmland is irrigated with the least efficient method; simply flooding the fields. As water becomes more scarce, we will realise that it is a precious commodity, not a disposable, infinite resource. If we don’t take decisive personal and political action now, water shortages will be the defining existential challenge of the 21st century.
Overlooked Connection to Climate Change
In 2020, climate change activism was very much in vogue – but water is not always a part of the conversation. Governments and corporations are setting their ‘carbon-neutral’ goals. Schoolchildren globally have taken to the streets in protest. Red meat is becoming taboo. But who are our water activists? When will we see water-neutral declarations from the agriculture industry? Where are our G20 water conventions? Climate change and water scarcity are inextricably linked. As temperatures rise, evaporation increases which lead to further temperature rise. This causes droughts, floods, hurricanes and the expansion of arid land. So we cannot focus on climate change without remedying its most pressing effect: water scarcity.
Real and Immediate Consequences
Water scarcity is not merely a hypothetical problem. Its effects are now severe; it is the invisible hand behind many humanitarian crises. For example, Yemen is one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, leading to social and political upheaval. In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s insurgency in 2010 came out of a demand for clean drinking water. One pivotal yet neglected driver behind Syria’s civil war was drought and water scarcity.
Inadequate Valuation of Water
Water is a precious life-giving commodity; it becomes more scarce because it isn’t treated as such. Unlike gold, oil or gas, it is not priced in relation to its global scarcity. As a result, companies like Mcdonald’s can produce a Big Mac Meal (which uses approximately 5,000 litres of farmwater) and put it on your plate for about £3.19. This is because our most precious, essential resource is priced as wholly disposable and renewable.
The Problem with Wasting Water
It’s not only the private sector but also governments willing to use wastewater. The City of New Mexico, for example, is facing an acute water shortage crisis. Yet official figures suggest that over a third of the water transported in the city’s pipes is lost due to leaking, equating to a loss of a billion litres a year. However, some understand water’s status as a valuable commodity. Goldman Sachs has said water could be the ‘petroleum of the 21st century’. As a result, hedge funds are now buying up water supplies in a bid to turn a profit as the scramble for water intensifies. It has been suggested that commercialising water and sending a ‘price signal’ would force governments and the agricultural industries to use it more wisely.
However, access to clean drinking water is a fundamental, unassailable human right and should not be commercialised. If the price increased, the poorest people in the world would be priced out of what is a right, not a luxury product.
Water access can be protected and increased through suitable investments and policies. In agriculture, more efficient irrigation, cover cropping and agroforestry can reduce the water impact of the industry. Like a carbon tax, we could implement a water tax for large multinationals that subsidises water infrastructure investment for the world’s poorest. Material recycling is now a common feature of the Western day-to-day routine, but water recycling remains alien to most. This must change. We should also raise more investment for organisations like the little-known UN Water organisation. Smaller charities and organisations can also play their part on the ground.
Ultimately we will need to reframe the water problem in 2021. When South Africa faced its water storage crisis in 2017, the media and government started to refer to ‘day zero’, i.e. the day the country would run out of water. After extraordinary efforts from the South African people to conserve water, ‘day zero’ kept being pushed back. Perhaps what we needed in 2021 is the threat of a global ‘day zero’. Once big businesses, governments and individuals understand that without action, our day will come, the problem might start to get the attention it deserves.