Is it too late to turn the tide on water scarcity?

In 2018, Cape Town nearly ran out of water. How can we make sure history doesn’t repeat itself?

Writer: Alexander Hancock
Editor: Chelsea Tripp
Artist: Sophie Maho Chan

Under the stifling heat of the sun, residents of Cape Town line up to collect their daily water rations which have fallen to 13 gallons each. Holding large jerricans and empty containers, the city dwellers flock to the natural springs which are patrolled every hour of the day by police who stand guard, ready to quell any tussles or disruptions. After years of droughts and poor city planning, Theewaterskloof dam ‒ which accounts for half of the city’s water supply ‒ is drying out. Residents have no choice but to cut down their daily water usage and hope for rainfall. Until then, ‘Day Zero’ ‒ the point at which the government will cut most of the water supply to homes and businesses around the city ‒ looms closer. Daily rations will drop to roughly six gallons.

Water scarcity affects roughly 2.7 billion people around the world, and refers to the shortage of freshwater supplies that are needed to provide and sustain a specific area. Dwindling freshwater resources are caused predominantly by climate change, food production and population growth. As reservoirs dry up and rivers accumulate waste, poor access to freshwater could affect two thirds of the population by 2025.

The implications of water stress are far-reaching and could cause millions of people around the world to suffer from dehydration and waterborne diseases contracted from unsafe drinking water like cholera. Not only has water scarcity brought on a health crisis, its calamitous effects on the environment, economy and political relations could have profound ramifications for global peace. Geopolitical tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt surfaced after the Ethiopian Government revealed plans to construct the Grand Renaissance Dam on the River Nile, a project aimed to provide Ethiopia with hydroelectric energy. The Egyptian Government believes the dam will slow down the flow of the Nile to Egypt which is the source of 85% of the country’s water supply. Many fear this row could lead to future wars.

The environmental, health, economic and political implications of water scarcity show no signs of slowing down. So how can governments mitigate the alarming risks of water shortage around the world, whilst global temperatures soar and population figures rise?

One solution to mitigating declining water supplies is by improving irrigation efficiency. With 60% of the planet’s freshwater used for irrigated farming, strategies that reduce the amount of water used in agriculture whilst yielding optimal crop rates have been developed to alleviate the water crisis. From swapping overhead irrigation systems with drip irrigation systems, to ensuring that leaks and punctures in irrigation equipment are frequently supervised, logistical changes to farming practices could have profound global impacts on water conservation. 

Another promising solution to water scarcity is the use of desalination technologies. Desalination involves the removal of dissolved salt from water, which renders ocean water safe for human consumption. Countries with arid climates like Saudi Arabia rely heavily on this process to combat their depleting freshwater supplies. The two main approaches to removing salt from otherwise non-drinkable water are thermal desalination and reverse osmosis which involve vaporising and condensing salt water, and purifying brackish water using permeable membranes to trap salt. While the process of removing dissolved salts from saline water is a costly endeavour which often requires large amounts of fossil fuel-based energy, recent innovations including solar-powered desalination units could help to rectify these issues. Cost-effective and eco friendly, the newly developed solar-powered system could supply upwards of 1.5 gallons of fresh drinking water per hour for every square meter of solar collecting area according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Yet for all of the benefits of improving irrigation efficiency and using solar-powered desalination units, both processes are inherently flawed. Evidence suggests that altering irrigation patterns negatively affects groundwater recharge; the process by which water trickles through soil to refill aquifers. And desalination technologies, whilst providing fresh water to millions around the world, pump the resulting brine and chemicals that build up during reverse osmosis back into the ocean, which can disturb aquatic ecosystems and pollute waters. 

Fortunately, ‘Day Zero’ has thus far been avoided, thanks in large part to the introduction of strict curbs on water use during 2017 which included fines for watering plants and filling pools. The long-awaited arrival of rainfall and a shared mentality to preserve the valuable resource were just as crucial in delaying the feared day. While other countries look to hidden water supplies and technological breakthroughs to combat water shortages, it is arguably the act of looking inwards at society’s careless use of water that will solve the shrinking supply of the precious resource. In England, people use an average of 36 gallons of water each day. According to the head of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, the country’s overconsumption of the resource could lead to water shortages in the next 25 years. While many have called on the government to establish water pathways between areas with vast supplies of water to areas with low supplies, the majority argues that the fight against the water crisis begins at the micro level. Waterwise, the UK-based NGO, suggests that in order to delay England’s water crisis, the country’s daily water usage would have to drop to 26 gallons. By installing water efficient toilets, using low flow shower heads, and buying second-hand clothing, daily water usage could fall dramatically. 

Perhaps until water-secure areas ‒ like the UK ‒ are faced with the harrowing fear of living off a drastically reduced water supply, will there be any real changes to this impending crisis.

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