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[Future Report] Clean Water

Global Challenge 2. How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?

(c) 2021 The Millennium Project

Brief Overview

Global warming will continue to increase frequency and duration of droughts, while increased population and industrialization are lowering water tables worldwide. However, over 90% of the world now has access to improved drinking water, up from 76% in 1990. That is an improvement for 2.4 billion people in just over 20 years. Nevertheless, that still leaves 785 million people without access, an increase of 122 million since 2015. About 45% of the world (3.4 billion) lacks access to safe sanitation.

Water consumption for about 500 million people is twice what can be renewed by nature, the volume of untreated wastewater increases every year, and about 80% of all wastewater is discharged without treatment (UN World Water Development Report 2021) and 2 billion lack improved sanitation. Nearly half of humanity gets its water from sources controlled by two or more countries. A third of humanity does not have access to a proper toilet or latrine, and 892 million people still defecate in the open.

Humanity uses 70% of its water supply for agriculture, 20% for industry, and 10% for domestic uses; however, the more developed nations use 50‑80% of their water supply for industry. As the developing world expands its industries, agriculture, and population growth, and as GDP per capita income rises, water consumption per capita will increase, making it impossible to avoid serious water crises and migrations unless major changes occur.

As income increases, meat consumption increases. This increases water and land usage causing potential rural/urban conflicts as the global population increases by 1.8 billion by 2050. It is also likely to increase meat prices making it difficult for poorer populations to get sufficient iron and protein for neural development of children. If we cut out the “middle man” (animals) in meat production and grow meat from genetic material directly to food, then water, land, and energy demand is reduced as well as GHG emissions. If saltwater/seawater agriculture is developed along the wasteland coast lines of the world, CO2 is sequestered from the air, fresh water demand is reduced, droughts are not a problem, and algae can be produced (among other things) which is a major feedstock for growing meat without animals.

World leaders have agreed to create universal access to safe water and sanitation and other related UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Actions to Address Global Challenge 2:

  • Increase R&D for lower cost of desalination.

  • Invest in the development of saltwater and wastewater products such as fertilizer, algae (for biofuel and feeding shrimp), and recovering nitrogen and phosphorus.

  • Implement WHO and UNESCO plans for universal water and sanitation access.

  • Manage all aspects of water resources to promote efficiency, equity, and sustainable development (integrated water management).

  • Create and promote smart phone apps to show water used to make products.

  • Produce animal products from genetic materials without growing animals.

  • Invest in seawater/saltwater agricultural development.

  • Promote Increased vegetarian diets.

  • Mass-produce electrochemical wastewater treatment solar power toilets.

  • Develop point-of-use water-purification technology.

Source: World Bank indicators, with Millennium Project compilation and forecast

Short Overview and Regional Considerations

Over 2.3 billion more people have gained access to safe drinking water since 1990. About 2 billion people do not have safe water access in their homes; 844 million do not have access to safe drinking water services (of these 263 million people spend over 30 minutes to collect water and 159 million drink untreated water from surface water sources). Because of falling water tables around the world, climate change, various forms of water pollution, and population growth, some of those with safe water today may not have it in the future unless significant changes are made. Some 1.8 billion people gained access to improved sanitation facilities since 1990, but 2.5 billion still lack access, missing the MDG goal by 1 billion people.

The World Economic Forum in 2015 highlighted the water crisis as the top global risk based on impact to society and the eighth global risk based on likelihood. The faster the recommendations in this report are implemented, the less suffering, disease, and conflict will occur; however, progress is not yet on the scale necessary to meet the water needs of humanity and nature. Although groundwater reminds the primary source of drinking water worldwide, it is being depleted; its use is growing twice as fast as human population growth over the past century. Water tables are falling in many areas around the world; for example, it is falling 1 meter per year in several areas of India. Aquifers are becoming increasingly polluted, and the salinity in some coastal areas is increasing.

About 27% of the people in developing-country cities do not have piped water at home. Global water withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years. Global water demand for the manufacturing industry is expected to increase by 400% from 2000 to 2050. Energy production uses about 15% of the world’s water and is expected to increase by 20% through 2035. Water scarcity due to drought, land degradation, and desertification already affects 1.5 billion people in the world today and is closely associated with poverty, food insecurity, and malnutrition. By 2030 global water demand could be 40% more than the current supply. According to OECD trend projections, half the world could be living in areas with severe water stress by 2030. Nature also needs sufficient water to support all life-forms. Hence, business as usual could lead to several billion people living in water-stressed areas by 2050. This could change with new agricultural practices, policy changes, intelligently applied new technologies, and changes in societal values and behavior. Although water-related conflicts are already taking place, water-sharing agreements have been reached even among people in conflict and have led to cooperation in other areas; however, these agreements seldom include how to improve the efficiency of water use. Nearly half the world (excluding Antarctica) gets its water from sources controlled by two or more countries; increasing water diplomacy will be need to prevent future conflicts.

Approximately 80% of diseases in the developing world are water-related; most are due to poor management of human excreta. At least 1.8 million children under five die every year due to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and a lack of hygiene. The number of children dying from diarrheal diseases, which are strongly associated with poor water, inadequate sanitation, and hygiene, has steadily fallen over the two last decades from approximately 1.5 million deaths in 1990 to just above 600,000 in 2012. Some 502,000 diarrheal deaths can be attributed to unhealthy and insufficient drinking water. Of these deaths, 88% occur in Africa and Southeast Asia. As a result of efforts put into meeting the MDG sanitation target—to halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to basic sanitation—there has been an increase in the coverage of improved sanitation from 49% of the population in 1990 to 64% in 2012, with almost 2 billion people gaining access to an improved sanitation facility during that period. Despite these improvements, 2.5 billion people (67% of whom live in Asia) still use unimproved sanitation facilities, and 1.1 billion people practice open defecation.

Aquaculture produces about half of human-consumed fish, which could be dramatically increased in many locations around the world, while being careful not to displace native fish and other aquatic biodiversity. Agriculture accounts for 70% of human usage of freshwater; the majority of which is used for livestock production. Such water demands will increase to feed growing populations with increasing incomes. Global demand for meat may increase by 50% by 2025 and double by 2050, further accelerating the demand for water per person (2,400 liters of water are used to produce one hamburger; 8,000 liters to produce one leather shoe). The UN estimates that $50–60 billion annually is needed between now and 2030 to avoid future water shortages. Some 30% of global cereal production could be lost in current production regions due to water scarcity, yet new areas in Russia and Canada could open due to climate change.

Exploitation of shale gas through fracking could contaminate groundwater, and some have reported it has even triggered earthquakes. Cooling systems for electric power plants require large amounts of water. One U.S. study showed that nuclear power plants withdrew nearly eight times more freshwater than natural gas plants do per unit of electricity generated. Energy demand may increase 40% in 20 years; coupled with increased food demands, dramatic changes in water management will be required. Power plants could reduce water use with once-through or recirculating water through on-site reservoirs, but electric utilities that switch to wind use no water, and photovoltaics use relatively little water for cleaning compared with thermal plants. Breakthroughs in desalination, such as pressurization of seawater to produce vapor jets, filtration via graphene-oxide membranes and carbon nanotubes, and reverse osmosis, are needed along with less costly pollution treatment and better water catchments.

Future demand for fresh water could be reduced by:

  • Saltwater agriculture on coastlines

  • Hydroponics

  • Aquaponics

  • Vertical urban agriculture installations in buildings

  • Producing pure meat without growing animals

  • Increasing vegetarianism

  • Fixing leaking pipes

  • The reuse of treated water

Water should be central to development and climate change strategies. If climate change results in significant sea level rise, we may see 20% of the world’s coastal freshwater become saline. In a desperate attempt to cope, people might use massive amounts of diesel to produce desalinated water, contributing further to CO2 emissions. Though large-scale solar desalination is problematic, nanotechnology has the potential to make solar efficient enough to be a real solution.

Source: World Bank indicators, with Millennium Project compilation and forecast

Development planning should consider:

  • The lessons learned from producing more food with less water via drip irrigation and precision farming

  • Seawater greenhouse agriculture

  • Improved rainwater management

  • Irrigation watershed management

  • Selective introduction of water pricing without repeating previous failed privatization programs

  • Successful community-scale projects around the world

  • Conversion of degraded or abandoned farmlands to forest or grasslands

  • Household sanitation

  • Reforestation

  • Water storage and evaporation protection

  • Treatment of industrial effluents in multipurpose water schemes

  • Use of wastewater (gray water) from washing on-site for toilet flushing and watering gardens

  • Construction of eco-friendly dams, pipelines, and aqueducts to move water from areas of abundance to those of scarcity.

And why not develop decentralized methods for final purification of water at the point of tap water for drinking, instead of total and expensive purification at the central water plant, since most water is not used for drinking? Just as it has become popular to calculate someone’s carbon footprint, people are beginning to calculate their “water footprint.”

In the past 15 years, more than 180 cities and communities in 35 countries, including Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Paris, Accra, Berlin, La Paz, Maputo, and Kuala Lumpur, have taken back their control of water services due to disappointing levels of investment and increases in water tariff. Out of $75 billion invested since 1990 in purchasing power parity (PPP) water and sewer projects, 27% have been cancelled or are troubled. Return on investment in water and sanitation services in developing regions is estimated at $5 to $28 per every dollar invested. Providing universal access would imply a potential economic gain of $220 billion per year. Achieving post-2015 goals on water and sanitation development, and on maintenance and replacement of infrastructure, will cost up $2.4 trillion per year.

The UN General Assembly declared access to clean water and sanitation to be a human right. The Marseilles Ministerial Declaration, adopted at the 6th World Water Forum, called for accelerating the recognition of safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right and implementation of obligations to ensure these rights.

Challenge 2 will have been addressed seriously when the number of people without clean water and those suffering from water-borne diseases diminishes by half from their peaks and when the percentage of water used in agriculture drops for five years in a row.

Regional Considerations

Sub-Saharan Africa: More than half of Africans have water-related diseases. Between 1% to 2.5% of GDP of African countries and $5.5 billion are lost annually due to inadequate sanitation. About 30% of Sub-Saharan Africa uses improved sanitation facilities. A global rush for farmland is actually a “great water grab,” with a number of African governments signing away water rights for decades—with major implications for local communities. There are huge amounts of groundwater available in Africa—100 times the amount found on the surface. Yet 40% of those without access to improved drinking water live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a study in Nigeria and Ethiopia found that only about 70% of the “improved” sources are safe to drink. Foreign aid covers up to 90% of some sub-Saharan African countries’ water and sanitation expenditures. Despite progress, the actual number of people without access in sub-Saharan Africa was greater in 2008 than in 1990, mostly due to population growth. Without policy changes, this region will not meet the MDG target for water until 2040 and the one on sanitation until 2076. In Nairobi, 40% of the city’s water supply is lost due to theft and leaks. Up to 90% of people in Lagos depend on private boreholes or on water vendors. Meanwhile, poor people without access to piped water pay up to 25 times more for their water. The number of Africans living in water-stressed areas is projected to be about 350–403 million by 2055 in the absence of climate change; with climate change, it could be 350–600 million people.

The Strategic Framework for Water Security and Climate Resilient Development was launched to address the twin challenges of water security and climate change. The Gibe III Dam under construction will lower water levels at Lake Turkana, possibly affecting more than 500,000 people in Ethiopia. The agreement between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt on sharing Nile River waters is a good step toward solving African challenges. The tripartite agreement signed in March 2015 is meant to pave way for negotiations relating to the usage of the dam under construction in Ethiopia, as well as the entire Nile waters. The Nile, the longest river in the world, serves 11 countries that constitute the Nile Basin Initiative born 16 years ago.

Middle East and North Africa: By 2050, an additional 1.5 billion m3 of water will be needed in the Middle East, of which about a third will be allocated to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Due to advances in desalination, water recycling, and conservation, Israel now has a surplus in water; 50% of water used in Israel is artificially produced. Iran’s water per person has fallen 50% since the late 1970s. Yemen may have the first capital city to run out of water. UAE’s renewable water resources have decreased 42% in the past 15 years, and water salinity is increasing due to salt dumping by desalination plants. Increasing water prices could spark social unrest. Fear of a political and environmental crisis may lead to the collapse of the state and an influx of refugees, especially from Yemen. To prevent this, Saudi Arabia has donated fuel to Yemen and offered to fund water projects. The economic costs of poor-quality water in countries in the Middle East and North Africa range from 0.5% to 2.5% of GDP.

Asia and Oceania: Asia has 60% of the world’s population but only 28–30% of its freshwater. A study warns that an additional 1 billion people across Asia could become water-stressed by 2050. “Dry 11,” or 11 water-scarce regions in China, accounts for nearly half of China’s GDP. China’s water situation is expected to continue to get worse for the next five to eight years under the best-case scenario, partly due to geographical mismatches in natural resource distribution. The North only has 25% of China’s total renewable water resources but 63% of the farmland and 86% of the coal reserves. China’s wetlands have shrunk nearly 9% since 2003, and glaciers in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau shrunk 15% over the last three decades. With only 6% of the world’s freshwater, China has to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s population. Driven by pollution fear, consumption of bottled water in China nearly doubled in the past five years. China plans to quadruple production of desalinated water by 2020, from the current 680,000 m3 (180 million gallons) a day to as many as 3 million m3 (800 million gallons). Beijing plans to pipe desalinated water from the port of Caofeidian in Hebei province through 270-km-long pipelines. The $2.9 billion project is expected to meet one-third of Beijing’s water demand in 2019. Forced migration due to water shortages has begun in China, and India should be next. India is the largest user of freshwater in the world even though it has only 4% of the world’s water supply and has to feed 17% of the world’s population. In India, 626 million people do not have access to a toilet. In Delhi, 24 water ATMs have been installed that accept smart cards to give water – a vending machine for water; each ATM holds 500 liters of water and provides water to residents in areas without piped water supply.

The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges, and Indus are among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. UN-Habitat has declared India’s Yamuna River “dead”—without enough oxygen to support river life. Inadequate sanitation costs the economies of four Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam) the equivalent of about 2% of their GDP. The government of Victoria in Australia has opened private competition to bid for water supply contracts. China is buying increasing amounts of agricultural land in Australia to offset carbon and is increasingly looking to Australia to export “clean food.”

Europe: Some 100 million people in Europe do not have a household connection to safe drinking water, and more than 66 million lack access to adequate sanitation facilities. Russia plans to improve water efficiency by 2.5 times by 2030. Water utilities in Germany pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies. Water losses due to bad infrastructure are less than 5% in Germany but can be as high as 50% in Bulgaria. The EU is conducting a Policy Review for water scarcity and droughts, and the Common Agricultural Policy is exploring how to achieve a more balanced management of water resources. Spain is the first country to use the water footprint analysis in policymaking. Malta, Cyprus, and Luxembourg lead in terms of EU bathing water quality. The EU has committed 35.2 billion naira to improve water, sanitation, and hygiene in Nigeria. The world’s largest reserves of freshwater are in Russia, which could export water to China and Middle Asia.

Latin America: Latin America has 26% of the world’s freshwater and 6% of its population. The region’s water demand could increase 300% by 2050, but two-thirds of the region is arid or semiarid, including large areas of central and northern Mexico, northeastern Brazil, northwestern Argentina, northern Chile, and parts of Bolivia and Peru. About 25% of the population (over 100 million) live in water-stressed areas, mainly in Mexico, Argentina, and the countries along the west coast. Puerto Rico imposed strict water rationing; 160,000 resident of San Juan have access to water only every other day. About 125 million people in Latin America lack access to sanitation services. Over 70% of water used there returns to rivers without treatment. Meanwhile, countries in the region lose nearly $6 billion every year due to delinquencies, overemployment in the industry, and water loss caused by misused or broken pipes. Brazil wastes nearly 40% of its treated water, according to UNESCO.

Puerto Rico imposed strict water rationing; 160,000 residents of San Juan have access to water only every other day. Mexico performs 85% below the OECD average for water quality but has increased investments in water systems and the “2030 Water Agenda” for universal water access and wastewater treatment. Suffering from the worst drought in 70 years, Mexican farmers have lost 2.2 million acres of crops. Costa Rica needs to invest $2.4 billion to improve water and sanitation conditions by 2030. Chile plans to build five new municipal desalination plants at an estimated cost of $280 million. El Salvador will be hit hardest by water shortages in Central America.

Ice is melting in the Andes, negatively affecting hydroelectric dams, agriculture, and urban water supplies; 68% of the region’s electricity is from hydroelectric sources. Peru will be one of the Latin American countries that will suffer more water shortages, due to over 60% of its population (about 18 million people) living in its coastal desert region, which receives water from the glaciers of mountains that have already lost more than 40% of their volume. It is expected that in 2030 there will be glaciers only at altitudes above 5,000 meters above sea level.

Water crises might occur in megacities within a generation unless new water supplies are generated, lessons from both successful and unsuccessful approaches to privatization are applied, and legislation is updated for more reliable, transparent, and consistent integrated water resources management.

North America: California is in its fourth year of record drought, forcing farmers to voluntarily reduce water use by 25%. Competition for water among agriculture, cities, and power plants is heightened due to several years of continuous droughts in much of the Southwest. Fracking, agriculture, and other private interests are buying water rights, threatening water as a public trust. Additional water withdrawals in the dry Southwest of the U.S. are being accelerated by new oil and gas extractions. According to the Ceres investor network, nearly 40,000 oil and gas wells were drilled since 2011 in this region—three-quarters where water is scarce and 55% in the drought areas. The water demand for fracking in these dry areas is expected to double over the next year or two. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity in the U.S. requires with withdrawal of about 25 gallons of water for cooling, which makes power plants the second largest water consumer in the country (39% of all water withdrawals) after agriculture. U.S. thermoelectric power plants withdrew as much water as farms did, and more than four times as much as all U.S. residents. However, the withdrawals (water returns to local rivers, etc.) are far more than what is consumed (water that does not return to local rivers, etc.) Water consumption is mostly due to evaporation; 2 gallons of water are lost to evaporation for each kWh consumed.

The U.S. EPA issued a new “Clean Water Rule” to curb pollution in the streams and wetlands in the country; the new rule covers about 60% of U.S. water bodies and protects water sources for 117 million Americans. EPA also issued a proposed pre-treatment rule for hydraulic fracturing wastewaters.The US Geological Survey and EPA are preparing an induced-earthquake modeling report (by the end of 2015) and a rule for managing hydraulic fracturing wastewaters that cold be of value for to all nations facing similar environmental hazards.

While the water infrastructure is aging (there are over 225,000 water-line-related breaks each year in the U.S.), federal funding for such improvements has fallen substantially. About 20% of drinking water is lost from plant to user. According to the EPA, $384 billion is needed for drinking water infrastructure between 2011 and 2030.

The U.S. may have passed its “peak water” level in the 1970s. More than 30 states are in litigation with their neighbors over water. About 30% of U.S. cities could be water-scarce by 2017. Some 13% of Native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, compared with 0.6% in non-native households. Mayors in the U.S. Great Lakes regions made “Sister Waters” Partnership with mayors of the Middle East to share information and technologies for managing water.

Canada has 20% of the world’s freshwater, 7% of which is renewable. The 2013 Transboundary Waters Protection Act bans bulk water exports from transboundary basins, although it allows bottled water export of up to 50,000 liters per day. Tapping Western Canada’s tar sands consumes an estimated 20–45 cubic meters of water per megawatt-hour, nearly 10 times that for conventional oil extraction. Canada is mapping its underground water supplies to help policymakers prevent water shortages. Government agricultural water subsidies should be changed to encourage conservation. North Americans use 2.5 times more water than Europeans per person. USAID has released its water development strategy 2013–18 for developing countries.


Writer: The Millennium Project of USIA Council Member Jerome C. Glenn


NOTE: USIA People have their own views and opinions that are not necessarily the USIA, and vice versa.


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