OPINION: In 2021 will we realise how endangered our global water supply is?

by Shaz Memon | Wells on Wheels
Tuesday, 29 December 2020 08:43 GMT

People collect water from a charity tap amid a shortage of drinking water supplies in Sanaa, Yemen December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 2020, climate change activism was very much in vogue - but water is not always a part of the conversation

Shaz Memon is founder of Wells on Wheels, a charity operating in impoverished rural communities in India.

2020 was the year of an unprecedented worldwide water crisis. Yet amidst a global pandemic, no-one seemed to notice. 

Approximately two-thirds of the world is affected by water shortages at least one month a year. Yet 95% of farmland is irrigated with the least efficient method; simply flooding the fields. 

As water becomes more scarce, we will realise that it is a precious commodity, not a disposable, infinite resource. If we don’t take decisive personal and political action now, water shortages will be the defining existential challenge of the 21st century. 

In 2020, climate change activism was very much in vogue - but water is not always a part of the conversation. Governments and corporations are setting their ‘carbon-neutral’ goals. Schoolchildren globally have taken to the streets in protest. Red meat is becoming taboo. But who are our water activists? When will we see water-neutral declarations from the agriculture industry? Where are our G20 water conventions? 

Climate change and water scarcity are inextricably linked. As temperatures rise, evaporation increases which leads to further temperature rise. This causes droughts, floods, hurricanes and the expansion of arid land. We cannot focus on climate change without remedying what is perhaps it’s most pressing effect: water scarcity. 

Water scarcity is not merely a hypothetical problem. Its effects are here now in brutal form; it is the invisible hand behind many of the humanitarian crises we face today. For example, Yemen is one of the most-water scarce countries in the world, leading to social and political upheaval. In Nigeria, Boko Haram’s insurgency in 2010 came out of a demand for clean drinking water. One of the pivotal yet neglected drivers behind Syria’s civil war was drought, and therefore water scarcity. 

Water is a precious life-giving commodity; it becomes more scarce because it isn’t treated as such. Unlike gold, oil or gas, it is not priced in relation to its global scarcity. As a result, companies like McDonalds can produce a Big Mac Meal (which uses approximately 5,000 litres of farmwater) and put it on your plate for approximately £3.19. Our most precious, essential resource is priced as if it were completely disposable and renewable. 

It’s not only the private sector, but governments too who are willing to waste water. The City of New Mexico, for example, is facing an acute water shortage crisis. Yet official figures suggest that over a third of the water transported in the city’s pipes is lost due to leaking, equating to a loss of a billion litres a year.

However, there are some who understand water’s status as a valuable commodity. Goldman Sachs has said water could be the ‘petroleum of the 21st century’. As a result, hedge funds are now buying up water supplies in a bid to turn a profit as the scramble for water intensifies. 

It has been suggested that commercialising water and sending a ‘price signal’ would force governments and the agricultural industries to use it more wisely. 

However access to clean drinking water is a fundamental, unassailable human right and should not be commercialised. If the price increased, it is the poorest people in the world who would be priced out of what is a right, not a luxury product. 

Water access can be protected and increased through the right investments and policies. 

In agriculture, more efficient irrigation, cover cropping and agroforestry can help to reduce the water-impact of the industry. 

Similar to a carbon tax, we could implement a water tax for large multinationals that subsidises water infrastructure investment for the world’s poorest.

Material recycling is now a common feature of the western day-to-day routine, but the concept of water recycling remains alien to most. This must change.

We should also raise more investment for organisations like the little-known UN Water organisation. Smaller charities and organisations can also play their part on the ground. 

Ultimately we will need to reframe the water problem in 2021. When South Africa was facing its water storage crisis in 2017, the media and government started to refer to ‘day zero’, i.e. the day the country would run out of water. After extraordinary efforts from the South African people to conserve water, ‘day zero’ kept being pushed back. 

Perhaps what we need in 2021 is the threat of a global ‘day zero’. Once big business, governments and individuals understand that without action our day will come, the problem might start to get the attention it deserves.