Water security is when populations have access to safe, drinkable water. In the developed world, there are systems to source and maintain water supplies that go directly to premises, however in developing countries, their infrastructure does not always enable this. Global water supplies are not evenly distributed, and where some have a water surplus (more water than required), others have a water deficit (less water than required).
Demand for water resources is rising globally, but supply can be a challenge and this can lead to conflict. Water supply and distribution is not the only concern, but water scarcity is another problem, when there is shortage of water, either due to physical limitations or economic restraints.
Global Water Distribution
Different countries have different amounts of water due to the hydrological cycle and climates. Generally speaking the following applies, though there are exceptions!
Along the Equator, these countries have enough water due to the warm, moist climate that causes higher rainfall patterns. In contrast, countries north of the equator have physical water scarcity as there is not enough rainfall due to the colder air. Countries south of the Equator differ however as they span larger areas, meaning water can be transferred easier from areas of water surplus to deficit.
Moreover, topography can impact rainfall patterns, where those with mountainous or higher altitudes will get greater availability of water than those areas of a lower altitude.
Populations and demand can impact water scarcity, namely higher population densities will cause challenges in supply and demand. Moreover, some populations can be priced out of water, and unaffordable water means they suffer economic water scarcity. Below is a map of people living without reliable access to water (2015), where the larger areas denote little or no access.
Look at World Mapper and investigate water access and water security maps. What can you tell from the maps? What regions do not have reliable access?
Differing Water Usage
Water usage varies across different nations, where more developed nations use more water in comparison to lesser developed nations due to the industrial and domestic markets. The established infrastructure also enables greater water usage as more people have ready access to water. This is not necessarily due to greater water availability, but due to how they use the water. In developing nations, there may be less emphasis on industry and more in agriculture, therefore it may use more water towards food production.
In climates which are tropical may rely less on controlling conditions, such as water for irrigation, whereas dry and arid regions would need to use more water due to loss through evaporation and transpiration.
Differences in agriculture
In developed countries, irrigation is mechanised and irrigation systems may be automated. The use of irrigation and sprinklers not only controls the water usage and output, but increases water usage. Vast amounts of water can be used without thought. Moreover, in developed nations, their food production systems mean produce is created all-year round instead of within seasons. This means produce is cultivated outside of season when they may be more or less water available usually. The differing diets can impact what produce is grown and cultivated also, where in developed nations there is an emphasis on meat production which typically uses more water. Meat-rich diets would use more water than vegetable based diets.
In developing nations irrigation systems are not as complex or powerful, which means less water is typically used. Moreover, seasonal foods are still maintained which means certain produce will grow at the time it would do depending on the climate and conditions. This would mean where water is more available in the year, certain produce would become available. Likewise, such nations also rely on subsistence crops, which are not cultivated intensively for market, and typically consume less meat. The consumption of crop-rich diets typically means water usage is lower.
Differences in industry
Industry, especially metal works, use a lot of water for production and manufacture. Nations like India and China have a heavy reliance on steelworks for both domestic use and international export and use a lot of water. Where nations may have differing industries or small-scale industries, there is less water used. Again, water availability and increasing demands for water can impact the type of industry a nation can promote – if say a nation has no water, than they may not be able to pursue a metalwork industry.
Have a look at two different nations and compare their water usage. Review their main industries and analyse the differences in water usage and the wealth of the nations. Do they import many goods, or export more?
What affects Water Availability?
There are a number of factors that can impact water availability and distribution.
Higher rainfall means more water availability, therefore places with low rainfall, or those experiencing drought, would likely experience water deficits. When temperatures are higher, water evaporates, and can impact the amount of water available – think of a puddle on a warm, sunny day. Places which experience water surpluses will typically have high rainfall and cooler temperatures – though population density can impact supply!
Geology and rock types can impact how water is stored and where it goes. Permeable rocks, which allow water to pass through them, would mean water travels elsewhere, such as underground into aquifers. Limestone landscapes will have dryer rivers, where rivers would exist temporarily before the water dissipates underground. Chalk aquifers for example would store water for a longer period. In contrast, permeable rocks, like slate, may store or trap water, or cause it to go elsewhere, such as rivers and lakes due to surface-runoff.
Although some places have water abundance, pollution has made the water unsafe. This can come in the form of industrial waste, untreated domestic water like sewage, or eutrophication from agricultural practices that have caused further concerns on water quality. Pollution typically affects surface water, such as rivers, dams and lakes, and thus groundwater is typically safer to use. However, pollutants can travel underground despite filtration, can still make water sources unsafe to consume.
Over-abstraction is simply when more water is taken than is produced, such as when too much water is taken from aquifers, groundwater falls. As consumption increases, over-abstraction is likely to increase as sources are exploited. Over-abstraction can have an impact on the land as it may begin to subside due to declining content.
A robust infrastructure can help transport water safely and without waste – while also reducing the impact of pollution on water sources. Installing and maintaining the infrastructure can be costly as typically it requires planning and underground construction. Water pumps and extraction methods would also be incorporated into this, and this too increases the cost. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand how challenging accessing water can be challenging without a developed and willing economy.
Poverty and destitution means many cannot afford safe, drinking water. Without this access, they repeat the cycle of poverty as they are more likely to get ill or unable to work and earn or spend money. Water therefore, and access to it, is one way of resolving poverty.
Why causes Water Insecurity?
There are a number of reasons why water consumption has increased over the last 100 years, primarily an increase in populations, which increases demand in agriculture and industry, and coupled with rising economic development. In the developed world, people use more water, think of washing machines, dishwashers and daily baths! This all using drinkable water to clean items. As populations increase and rise in affluence, water usage and consumption would increase – despite water supply not increasing. There are three main culprits for increased water usage:
The biggest demand for water usage has come from agriculture, look at food security and it’s demands on increasing production and irrigation to accomplish this. The ‘Green Revolution’ from the 1940s aimed to improve farming techniques to increase yields worldwide – but this came at the cost of water usage with irrigation methods. Coupled with increased meat consumption with rising affluence, agriculture and food cultivation accounts for a significant amount of water usage.
Alongside rising agriculture, there is an increase in secondary, manufacturing sectors which also use water for production. This includes the production of textiles and clothes, as well as production of electronical goods which has boomed with the increase of personal devices since the 1990s. During the last 100 years, the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) have all increased their output and this has put serious strains on water supply.
Domestic water usage remains low in comparison to agricultural and industrial demands, however domestic usage, and wastage, still plays a role. As the world’s population increase, as does the demand on water supplies. In developed nations, a large part and standard of living relies on access to water, and usage in their daily lives – washing machines, dishwashers, showers, etc. As more of the worlds population rises in affluence and development of infrastructure, the demand on water increase. Machinery that was once a luxury now has become more and more affordable
Impacts of water insecurity
Water insecurity can have catastrophic impacts on society – without water, how would it function? Imagine not being able to drink clean water, or clean yourself or your your food. Water is vital not just for our life, but to sustain all life, therefore water insecurity can dismantle society. Many are not aware of the water insecurity even in developed nations and the actions of organisations and governments to maintain supply.
Impacts to Food Production
Without a consistent water supply, water insecurity can lead to lower levels of production, which would have an impact on food security and further impact society. If places cannot get water effectively, they would not be able to cultivate as much food and need to import them, which can be costly and unpopular with domestic farmers. Conflicts could arise if people cannot eat.
Impacts to Industry
Industry requires water as much as agriculture, and it is used throughout an industrial process. Water can be used as material itself, a coolant, a mode of transport and a source of energy. If water supplies are disrupted, it would have a large impact on industry and its output would decline. Without a consistent water supply, regions may not be able to produce effectively and could lose income, and rely on imports which can be expensive.
Without access to clean water, people are at risk of waterborne disease, including diarrhoea, malaria and schistosomiasis. Disease impacts society in that many members need to be looked after and cannot work, impoverishing many. Schistosomiasis is a parasitic worm that enters the body through the skin coming into contact with water that contains untreated sewage. Although easy to treat, if untreated it can mean the worms can continue to lay eggs in your body and affect your immune system.
Disruption of education
Without ready access to drinking water, people may have to travel long distances to obtain this. Collecting water is typically seen as a female and juvenile duty in some communities, and as such it disrupts their ability to attend education institutes and work. Therefore, lack of water can mean lower literacy and education rates, while also impacting someone’s future prospects.
Ultimately, limited access to resources leads to conflicts. Water insecurity can impact society and the economy, as this can lead to dissatisfaction and unrest. Water sources may be heavily guarded and fortified, and challenges to water access, like diverting a river for irrigation and impacting downstream, can also arise. Taking over a dam is one way of controlling water and electricity supplies.
How to increase water supply
Due to the severe impact of water insecurity, nations have been exploring options to increase water supplies, even more so as withdrawals on freshwater supplies have increased in the last 100 years. Without sustainable management of water supplies, there is a real risk that water supplies will disappear. As climate change disrupts weather patterns and rainfall, nations are desperate to find alternative and reliable methods to increase water supply and maintain a way of life without introducing restrictions water usage, like bans or fines.
Some nations have simply increased water supplies by extracting more, whether from freshwater supplies like rivers or groundwater reserves like aquifers, but there is a risk of over-abstraction. Some nations have gone further and explored fossil groundwater such as in Libya. Research has shown however that these ancient groundwater reservoirs have elements of modern rainfall, meaning there is a risk of pollution and contamination. Moreover, previously groundwater needed little treatment which made it cost-effective, however as groundwater quality has deteriorated due to increased production in some parts, it now can be costly to treat.
Dams and Reservoirs
Dams and reservoirs are a means to contain and store water, with the ambition of being able to control its movement and distribution. Although there are some naturally forming dams and reservoirs, many are man-made and aim to re-distribute water to other sectors of society. The issue of dams and reservoirs as they do not ‘increase’ supply, instead they change the distribution and can deprive other areas of water that would naturally flow there. This means waster availability can change in some areas depending on proximity to the source and further downstream. Dams however are a means to control waterflow and can also produce hydroelectricity, therefore for this reason they can be a popular but expensive method to ensure water supplies.
Desalination is an expensive method to convert salty water, such as that from the sea, to drinkable and usable water. There is an abundance of seawater which covers 80% of the world, therefore it seems logical to ‘convert’ it to drinkable water. However this process is costly and not always popular, though many coastal and arid regions have adopted this method, like Spain and the United Arab Emirates. As the technology improves and cost of freshwater decreases and declines, desalination may be the main method of obtaining water. Desalination however can have environmental consequences, including to marine life and the increase energy required.
Sustainable Water Management
Without moving towards sustainable water management, nations have a real risk of losing water supplies and endangering their society and populations. Although nations can invest in abstracting more water from current reserves, or desalinating seawater, these methods do not protect current supplies for present or future use. Nations need to look at approaches that protect current water sources and preserve them for future generations.
Water conservation is the practice of using water efficiently to reduce unnecessary water usage and reduce wasted water. It can come in many forms, but mainly revolves around better education and behaviours to prevent using water unnecessarily, and developing water efficient appliances.
You’re typically taught the following to conserve water:
- Having a shower instead of bath
- Hand-washing dishes above using a dishwater
- Running full loads on washing machines and dishwashers
- Watering plants conservatively, and using ‘dirty’ water to water the garden
- Using eco settings or installing devices to make appliances more eco-friendly
Can you list any more methods to reduce your water usage? Note how not all these techniques can apply to everyone, for example, not everyone has a dishwasher or washing machine., so how would you propose water is conserved universally?
Groundwater management comprises of ensuring groundwater supplies remain regenerated and free from pollution. Preventing groundwater contamination helps mitigate against costly treatment to use the water again. By limiting groundwater usage ensures it can replenish and be used in a sustainable way, rather than depleting the resource completely. In 2016, the Groundwater Governance Project “aimed to influence political decisions thanks to better awareness of the paramount importance of groundwater resources and their sustainable management in averting the impending water crisis” (Groundwater Governance: A Global Framework for Action, 2016). Groundwater management is primarily accomplished through tight regulation and legislation to conserve supplies.
Water Recycling / Reclamation
Recycled water is water that has been reclaimed and put to other uses. This mainly concerns sewage and drainage water that has been filtered and treated to improve its quality.
Grey water, which is waste domestic water, such as bath, sink and washing water, can be used to recycle and re-purpose water. Grey water can be used for non-drinking purposes, such as for washing machines and toilet flushing. Nutrient-rich treated waste water can be used to benefit agriculture and could lead to a reduction of fertiliser for productivity. Treated greywater can be used for other processes in society such as:
- Replenishing rivers, streams and groundwater store
- Irrigation for agriculture
- Coolant water for industrial processes
Therefore recycled water could help with food security concerns as well, as well as habitat restoration in rivers, streams and wetlands.