The world is increasingly facing water stress. While water is of vital necessity to all living organisms, competition over freshwater resources grows as it is essential to the functioning of all industries and increasingly becoming a strategic commodity to countries. What are the risks and drivers of water stress and what are our approaches to facing a world where water is becoming scarcer and more valuable?

Our observations

  • The UN World Water Development Report was published last month in conjunction with the World Water Day. It notes that without taking action to reduce the stress on rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs, more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050, due to climate change, increased demand, and polluted supplies. Today, 2.1 billion people already live without safe drinking water at home, affecting health, education and livelihoods.
  • Agriculture accounts for 70% of the freshwater taken out of natural reserves. Research has shown that about 40% of the water used for irrigation is derived from unsustainable withdrawals that disrupt the flows of rivers. The energy industry, manufacturing industry and the public water supply are the next most water consuming domains in Europe.
  • Pollution of water is damaging ecosystems, affecting the quantity and quality of water available for human consumption. Pollution has impacted almost every river in Africa, Asia, and Latin America since the 1990s and is mainly driven by agriculture. But other industries and cities also pose a significant threat, with about 80% of industrial and municipal wastewater being discharged without treatment.
  • Drought due to climate change is currently a clear threat in Cape Town and in Bolivia, where the second-largest lake is drying up, but potential drought belts are also encompassing Mexico, western South America, southern Europe, China, Australia, and South Africa. Droughts can lead to large-scale migration. Adaptations to this ‘new normal’ include building reservoirs to store water, and switching to crops that require less water.
  • Illustrative of the golden business of drinking water are the examples of Russia’s drinking water export to China, which is struggling with freshwater scarcity, and the success of the bottled-water industry. The U.S. goes through 50 billion water bottles a year and bottled-water has outpaced milk, coffee, and juice in number of liters of drinks sold.

Connecting the dots

Although the majority of the earth’s surface is water-covered, only 2.5% of it is freshwater and desalination costs a lot of energy. The risks of freshwater stress are manifold. It can spark inequality, social unrest, and even geopolitical conflicts, as we noted earlier. Water scarcity has played a role in driving tensions in conflicts such as in Syria and Yemen. It also gives rise to tensions between countries. An example is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam located in the Blue Nile, that has caused strife between Egypt and Ethiopia. Another example is the Doklam crisis between China and India. Last year, China refused to cooperate over shared water resources, showing that the country is willing to use water as a geopolitical weapon as regional tensions unfold. As water gets scarcer and more valuable, it becomes a strategic commodity for all countries, and competition over it will rise. Meanwhile, water resources are prone to privatization. There are many controversial cases of companies privatizing the water supplies of economically depressed communities, as Nestlé has done. Finally, deregulation is another threat to clean drinking water. Under Trump, the U.S. has repealed the 2015 Clean Water Rule, which regulated and protected U.S. waterways from development and pollution.
Today’s growing water scarcity urges us to rethink our approach to water. While climate change and global warming are among the drivers behind water problems, the world’s increasing water stress is largely driven by mismanagement, pollution, and overextraction of water sources. Water experts

like Asit Biswas claim that there is no physical scarcity of water in urban areas, but that cities are facing a crisis in the management of urban water and wastewater services. In that sense, water stress is a manmade crisis. The omnipresence and fluidity of water makes it difficult to grasp and could partially explain our mismanagement. According to hydrologists, water cannot simply be ‘caught’ in one model or one solution. Water never sits still and yet we tend to make decisions emphasizing the floating, circular nature of water. For example, we drink bottled-water, a majority of the plastic bottles are not recycled, driving the pollution of our drinking water with microplastics. Indeed, the UN report concludes that the focus is now on human-built infrastructure to improve water management, while these ignore the approaches that nature presents to us; different solutions we could mimic in order to improve our water availability, like groundwater recharge and natural and constructed wetlands. Another positive development is that the depletion of freshwater resources has led to growing interest in the water sector in circular approaches to water, such as the reuse and recovery of watercycle residuals. We increasingly see initiatives to calculate the value of wastewater or to recover valuable energy and raw materials from wastewater, like phosphates.

Implications

  • The big difference in (lack of) profitability of public transport across cities suggests that cities and their operators can still learn a lot from each other. Some cities struggle with outdated infrastructure (e.g. New York City) and may need to invest in significant upgrades, but they may also have to adopt new modes of management and operational planning.
  • Mobility-as-a-service models are still in their early days and have not proven very successful yet. Eventually, they may require autonomous vehicles to realize their potential as labor costs weigh heavily on public transport in general and ride-hailing services especially.
  • Even though (European) governments traditionally invest in public transport infrastructure (and contract operators to provide the actual transport services), more recently, (local) governments are increasingly looking for private investors to invest in the new infrastructure (through public-private partnerships); e.g. in Britain and the Netherlands.