What is meant by the term “water stress?”
- The world has the same amount of water it has always had. The water cycle is closed, meaning that water can neither be created nor lost. Water is constantly changing forms within this cycle, and at any given time relatively little water is in a form usable by humans.
- Water stress means that we don’t have enough water where we need it, in the form in which we need it, when we need it.
- Some water stress is physical, as in areas where water is naturally in short supply. Other water stress is economic, characterized by lack of access to existing supplies.
Why is there water stress in the world today?
- The primary reason for water stress is the great population growth over the past century. More people means more demand for water. Feeding all these people takes a lot of water – not only because of the sheer number of mouths, but also because of what people are eating and how their food is being grown and processed.
- Economic development over the past century has also vastly increased the demand for water. Industry uses an enormous amount of water to provide the goods and services associated with modern lifestyles. Among the thirstiest of industrial sectors is energy production, including hydroelectricity, coal, oil, and nuclear energy.
- How humans have responded to increased water demands has also contributed to water stress. Competition for freshwater means that water is increasingly being diverted by dams and obtained in unsustainable ways that disrupt the water cycle. Climate change is altering weather patterns, causing freshwater to move more slowly or more quickly through its various forms, and altering where and when humans can access it. This is happening in ways we do not fully understand, and will likely have effects on water that we cannot yet predict.
How are the world’s freshwater resources distributed?
- Unevenly: Fully half of freshwater is located in just six countries. Some densely populated countries are extremely dry.
- Across political boundaries: Ninety percent of the world’s population derives its water from river systems that cross domestic or international borders. Managing these supplies is challenging on many levels.
- Unpredictably: Places where plentiful water supplies used to exist now experience drought; other areas now have too much water in the form of floods. Extreme weather events produce high volatility where there was once manageable variability. This is thought to be related to climate change. The effects of this volatility have been compounded by human activity that interferes with water absorption and water flows.
What happens when water supplies and demand are out of sync?
- People die: Over 3 million people die each year from water-related diseases. Hundreds of millions more are sickened or suffer physically from inadequate and/or contaminated water, most in developing countries.
- Livelihoods are lost: From destructive droughts to floods to water that is simply out of reach logistically and financially, the economic costs associated with too much or too little water range from loss of household income at the individual level, to significantly curtailed GDP at the national level.
- Potential is wasted: Girls and women in the developing world spend valuable time collecting water, time that is not spent going to school or working for wages. Health care costs associated with preventable water-related illnesses cost the global community billions each year.
- Global inequalities become more entrenched: Water stress is both a cause and a result of poverty. Poor countries have difficulty accessing and managing water supplies for a variety of reasons, which in turn curtails economic development.
Is water a public good, a commodity, or a human right?
- Water is a public good, a commodity and a human right; these multiple identities often conflict.
As a public good, theoretically water should be held by the public for the benefit of all. But, as with all public goods, a “tragedy of the commons” often results in which unrestricted individual use degrades the resource. The public sector is not always equipped to manage water; from up-front investments to maintenance of infrastructure to distribution, multiple levels of competent governance are required for effective water management.
Many believe that water should be treated as a commodity and, as such, be managed by market forces, in which pricing drives investment, distribution, and consumption decisions. This may have the beneficial result of reducing consumption, but the resulting inequities would deprive the poor of equal access to water.
Others believe because water is necessary for human survival, dignity, and potential, it should be treated as a human right. A human rights-based approach takes into consideration international norms and standards of social justice and equity. Water in this context is a basic entitlement of all people.
What will the best “solutions” to water stress do?
- The best solutions to relieving water stress should:
- Moderate demand while increasing access;
- Rationalize both personal and systemic responses;
- Balance efficiency with equity;
- Balance short-term and long-term needs;
- Use technology in ways that enhance the sustainable use of water, not simply make it easier to extract;
- Account for the needs of all stakeholders, including those who cannot pay, and treat the environment as a consumer in its own right;
- Invest equitably and creatively, sharing responsibility between the public and private sectors, and among local, national, and international bodies;
- Collect and use data effectively and transparently;
- Recognize that sometimes solutions create new problems;
- Integrate currently fragmented responses; and
- Look not only to the water industry for solutions, but also include energy, education, conflict prevention, food security, and other experts who don’t immediately come to mind when thinking about this issue.