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25th Anniversary series: Water stress concerns for the future

July 29, 2015

Water is already scarce in many areas of the world and with a continually growing population that scarcity is spreading further. According to recent estimates from the International Water Management Institute 1.2 billion people lack proper access to clean drinking water. And a further 1.6 billion face “economic water shortage” (where although water can be found it is expensive).

Climate change is causing droughts and flooding at the same time – even in the UK. California is following Arizona in working on “groundwater banking” schemes. They are also looking at changes in flood defences which can allow aquifers to be more readily recharged so improving water availability in times of drought.

As well as physical scarcity, there are increasing risks from pollution. The International Food Policy Research Institute highlights that in 2050 up to one in three people globally are going to be exposed to a high risk of water pollution from an increase in amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous. Pharmaceuticals and pesticides are a continuing threat to water quality. Almost one in four drinking water protected areas in the UK is currently at risk from pesticides and concern is growing over the impacts of pharmaceuticals entering rivers via wastewater from sewage treatment plants.

In response, novel developments in the use of microbes, enzymes and other artificial molecules are offering some prospects of respite:
• Artificial molecules that resemble neuropeptides could interfere with insect metabolism creating “smart” pesticides – e.g. by impacting on breeding cycles .
• Existing waterway microbial populations could be harnessed to break down organic pollutants, and also provide an indication of water quality.
• Researchers demonstrated a water purification system using enzymes could be used to neutralise potentially harmful pharmaceuticals – antibiotics, hormones and endocrine disruptors (7).

Food and drink companies in particular are generally not prepared for future increased costs of water use. However, there are some innovations – “aeroponics” – which may help alleviate the position. With hydroponics, plants can be grown efficiently indoors with little soil – but lots of water. Aeroponics reduces the water demands considerably by nourishing plant roots with a nutrient-rich water mist. A 21,031 square-metre vertical farm is set to open in Newark, New Jersey in 2015, designed to grow almost a million kilos of pesticide-free produce per year. Aerofarms, the company building the farm, says it requires no soil, 95% less water than traditional farms, creates no run-off, and achieves a full crop cycle in 16 days.

More radical ideas include towing icebergs to drought areas. Way back in the late 1950’s, an oceanographer named John Isaacs suggested the icebergs be brought into Los Angeles, and in 1978 the idea of towing icebergs to the U.S. to provide freshwater was endorsed by the California State Senate. In 2011, the IET reported on a research study which concluded that would be possible to steer an iceberg weighing several million tonnes for thousands of kilometres with just one standard tug. Such an iceberg could be towed from Newfoundland to the Canaries in about 140 days. With an effective anti-melting system it would be possible to minimise the extent to which the iceberg melts, losing 38 per cent of its mass.

But given the scale of the problem, especially in scenarios with high population growth, such approaches seem futile. The Global Policy Forum expressed concerns over water conflict over transboundary freshwater reserves. More than 50 countries on five continents might soon be caught up in water disputes unless they move quickly to establish agreements on how to share reservoirs, rivers, and underground water acquifers. And droughts are a common cause of major migrations.

Perhaps the area where advances can be made is to address “economic water scarcity”. Overcoming this type of scarcity, however, requires more than just new infrastructure; it requires socio-economic and socio-political types of intervention that address poverty and socio-inequality. Is this a cause that international aid policy should address more vigorously?

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

Written by SAMI Principal, Huw Williams.

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