What is our current water situation?
We use three trillion tonnes of fresh water each year. Irrigation takes 70% of it, but industry’s needs are growing towards 25%, leaving little for domestic use in cities, where half the world’s population now live. A billion people lack a secure water supply and 2.5 billion have poor sanitation, causing millions of illnesses and deaths every year, mostly among children.
What has caused the emergency? And why is it coming to the forefront now?
The regular supply of fresh, clean, affordable water is set by ecology and society. Catchment ecosystems absorb rain and release it into rivers, wetlands and wells. Damage catchments and run-off tends to be faster, causing floods to alternate with water scarcity. If water is diverted to irrigation and industry, or withheld for hydroelectricity, or polluted, then the price of clean, fresh water will go up and the poor will suffer. What we are seeing now is tens of thousands of local water crises, all simultaneous and all caused by ecosystem damage and the diversion, over-use and pollution of water.
Why do you think water has, perhaps, been unfairly neglected in discussions about environmental disaster?
Millions have experienced loss of water security over the last decades. What has changed now is that a critical mass of evidence and awareness has been reached that allows a global water crisis to be seen. It’s no longer about peoples or countries struggling with deserts and droughts on their own, but rather everyone realising that the whole world is changing dangerously.
In your book Water: the Causes, Costs and Future of a Global Crisis you talk about the social as well as the environmental impact of water. What is its social purpose?
Mark Twain once said “Whisky’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over”. As an essential resource, there’s nothing like water to get us bargaining over rules to govern its use. Sharing water can bond groups, and water is so important that it’s often considered sacred. But sometimes it’s just too tempting, and we see things like the conquest of Darfur, which is a water grab since it sits above 100 trillion tonnes of underground fresh water.
Is it too late to act?
No, but we must be quick to take the pressure off ecosystems and water supplies, and increase our resilience to climate change.
Have we already caused irreversible damage?
Yes, including species extinctions, the crushing of dewatered aquifers, the desertification of topsoils, the release of persistent chemicals and plastics, permanent ecological shifts due to the removal of keystone species, and a destabilised climate.
What can we do, globally, to resolve the situation?
In 2000, the EU’s Water Framework Directive set a unique gold standard for maintaining the ecological quality and chemical purity of surface and ground waters. This is brilliant for Europe, but the world as a whole would find it hard to adopt such high standards. There’s interest at the UN in a global fresh water treaty, and meanwhile there’s the goal of halving the people who lack secure water by 2015. This would take about an extra £8 billion per year, but with the world spending £50 billion a year on bottled water, we can surely afford it. But the challenge isn’t just money, it’s about ecology, society, and how they fit together. Solutions to water problems lie in dealing with local ecosystems and local stakeholders, and searching for local, fair and sustainable solutions. A global treaty could help this, and also spread knowledge about what water’s worth, where it comes from, what contracts are needed between users and suppliers, and other essential practical details. I’d like to see a global water treaty like that, one that spells out how human needs are to be met and linked to the conservation of real ecosystems.
Is there anything we can do in our daily lives to help avoid further damage?
A priority for everyone is to understand where the water we use comes from, and at what social and environmental cost. Is someone else, or some distant ecosystem, being deprived of water so that it can run from our taps? Is the money we pay for water being used to restore and maintain water catchments, and if not, why not? How proof is the water system against climate change? It may work fine today, but what if there are longer dry seasons, or more storms? In terms of action, even the littlest things make a difference, like refusing to buy bottled water, until it’s in bottles with deposits on them, and a share of the price goes to ensuring safe water for all. By setting an example, who knows what will happen? We can get informed, stay informed, and use our knowledge. We can buy less, buy local and buy green. Indeed, this is perhaps our greatest power, which we can start using immediately.