No country is immune to the world's growing water crisis

Once deemed a problem for poorer nations, water scarcity is back on the international agenda

Australian water scarcity activist Mina Guli, centre, holds a banner with supporters after completing her 200th marathon outside UN headquarters, ahead an international water conference in New York this week. Guli ran 200 marathons in the span of a year to draw attention to the water crisis. AFP
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For many people in high-income countries, having clean water at the turn of a tap is something taken for granted. Drought, pollution or a lack of sanitation are too often thought to be problems for the underdeveloped countries – remote, far away, out of mind.

If this week’s international water conference in New York – remarkably, the first such meeting since 1977 – has achieved anything, it is to issue a wake-up call to the fact that water scarcity, and the many other serious challenges tied to it, is an issue that is certain to affect everyone on the planet. This is a call that needs to be heard.

Amid some dramatic language from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who described humanity’s overuse of water resources as “vampiric”, the conference heard how it is cities that will bear the brunt of the crisis. UN research suggests that a billion people in cities around the world already face water scarcity, with that number to more than double by 2050.

According to the World Bank, nearly seven out of 10 people will be city dwellers by that time. If this trend is combined with worsening water shortages, it could spell ecological, economic and social disaster.

People collect drinking water from a donated tank on World Water Day in Sanaa, Yemen on Wednesday. The World Bank says about 18 million people in Yemen lack access to safe water and sanitation. EPA

Although the signs are ominous, there is a growing understanding among international bodies that water scarcity is connected to and drives many other issues. It is frequently contextualised as part of a triple crisis: that of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Each of these can fuel conflict, displacement and uncontrolled migration, creating security crises for countries that are already struggling.

It may be disheartening to look at nations suffering from drought, such as Iraq, Somalia and Yemen – which is thought to be the first country in the world that will simply run out of water. But there are technical advances that could turn the tide, provided national governments and the international community are serious about backing green technology.

One example is CityTaps, a team based in France, Kenya and Mexico that developed a smart pay-as-you-go system that allows low-income populations to pre-pay for their water in micro amounts, avoiding debt and disconnection. Another is Solvay Solution’s Oxystrong 15 peracetic acid that disinfects waste water with a lower environmental impact, allowing it to be used for irrigation.

Amid these high-tech solutions, there has also been a renewed focus on the wisdom of previous generations who, it seems, managed their water resources somewhat more responsibly. These so-called nature-based solutions, for example using forests, wetlands and grasslands to filter water, regulate water flow, and protect communities from floods and droughts, have been employed by indigenous communities for centuries.

And although competition for resources can spur conflict, because water is so essential for life, pragmatism can often trump confrontation. According to Richard Connor, editor-in-chief of the UN water report published this week, 153 countries share nearly 900 rivers, lakes and aquifer systems, and more than half have signed co-operation agreements.

International action such as the UN’s High Seas Treaty that was signed earlier this month, and the continuing engagement on climate action before Cop28 in the UAE later this year is encouraging. Hopefully, this UN water summit will lead to similarly resolute steps – but there is no more time for complacency.

Published: March 24, 2023, 3:00 AM