The world to the rescue?

Water rations

A share of the relatively tiny amount of liquid fresh water, in lakes, rivers, swamps and clouds, is needed by every person, and every one of the millions of species, on Earth. We now use over 3,000 cubic km of fresh water each year, which is twice as much as the entire volume of Lake Ontario, or 8,700 times the volume of Windermere.

With this astronomic and increasing demand, supplies are falling so that, if you are 20 now, when you reach 40 your average ration will have dwindled by a third.  That is, if you can get your lips to an average ration, and most people will not, since competition for it is growing fast where most people live.

Irrigation takes some 70% of all freshwater used by people, and this demand is rising, but industry’s needs are also growing, and are expected to reach a quarter of all fresh water by 2025.  That would leave nothing at all for domestic use in cities, where half the world’s population already live, and where two-thirds will live by 2050.  When big businesses and rich people need water from a limited supply, it will tend to be the poor and vulnerable who lose out, with dire consequences for their well-being, health and livelihoods.

The net result is that the water situation is becoming critical in many places, and would be alarming even if climate change weren’t making the whole thing worse than it already is.  This is prompting calls for a new World Water Treaty.

Gold standards for fresh water

Europe shows what can be achieved in a relatively homogenous place, one with a common social system based on decades of consensus building after centuries of civil war.  In this sense Europe is unique, but also gives a hopeful signal that people can get their act together eventually.

The EU issued the Water Framework Directive in 2000, which requires integrated river basin management, and aims to ensure clean rivers and lakes, groundwater and coastal beaches throughout its territory.  This WFD is a unique ‘gold standard’ in the management of water resources.  It sets standards for river basin planning, and for the ecological quality and chemical purity of surface and ground waters.

For river basins, the aims are general protection of aquatic ecology, and specific protection of unique and valuable habitats, drinking water resources, and bathing water, and all these objectives must be integrated for each river basin.  The central requirement of the WFD is that the environment must be protected to a high level, in its entirety.

For ecological quality, water bodies are supposed to show no more than a slight departure from the biological community which would be expected with minimal human impact (the equivalent, maybe, of a Canadian lake exposed only to summer campers and duck-hunters).

For chemical purity, the WFD requires that surface waters must comply at least with all the quality standards established for chemical substances at the European level, with higher standards for particular zones, while groundwaters are, as a general principle, not allowed to be polluted at all.

The general approach is precautionary, although some standards have already been set for groundwater at the European level, for nitrates, pesticides and other biocides, and these must always be adhered to.

Using a mixture of absolute prohibitions, standards, and monitoring, reporting and restoration requirements, the WFD aims to ensure the protection of groundwater from all contamination.  For good measure, the WFD also limits the amount of groundwater that can be taken, to that portion of the overall recharge which is not needed to support connected ecosystems such as lakes, rivers and wetlands. 

Read on: People to the Rescue!