Today, Monday, March 22 is World Water Day. It’s great to see the heightened attention to water issues, even if just for the day. The Huffington Post is featuring numerous WWD-related articles and in a recent check, “World Water Day” was the 75th most popular Google search. Virtually every WWD article I’ve seen cites similar statistics, which emphasize the true magnitude of the water crisis -nearly one billion people around the world don’t have clean drinking water, 2.6 billion still lack basic sanitation, over half of the world’s illnesses are due to diseases caused by unsafe water. While these numbers are, sadly, familiar to those of us who are interested in water issues, they are as daunting as ever.
One important implication of these numbers though, is that traditional small-scale water-related interventions simply aren’t sufficient to solve the crisis. The numbers are just too big. A difficult (inconvenient, if you like) truth is that any number of small-scale interventions (wells, boreholes, pipes) will not provide water to the 1 billion plus people who are in such need. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that many groups are doing this work, and some of them are focusing on very innovative solutions. Many small-scale, village-level interventions completely change the lives of their beneficiaries, and their impact simply can’t be overstated.
At the same time though, when we read about 1 billion people, it’s obvious that we need a range of solutions. In particular, we need to look at policy changes which can have massive impacts. One statistic I haven’t seen yet today is that 70% of global freshwater consumption (and much more in developing countries) goes to agricultural water use. In addition, this use tends to be highly inefficient. The upshot of this: small changes in agricultural water use can have huge impacts, by freeing up tremendous quantities of water which can then be used to meet household needs. A policy that encourages efficient water use in the agricultural sector (whether in California or India) will have big dividends in providing water for household use. In addition, such “more crop per drop” policies also have income-related benefits, and increasing incomes, particularly in the developing world is a critical factor in allowing for water access.
Another sometimes overlooked area in the water related discourse (and also something I haven’t seen discussed today) is the importance of climate prediction. Put simply, you can build lots of rainwater cisterns, but what happens if it doesn’t rain? Or what happens if a canal system is built, but river flows decrease to such an extent that the canals become useless? These types of predictions, already complicated, are being made even more so by increasing climate variability. They are also being made more urgent by increasing population s, which are pushing again, and in some cases have already exceeded, natural constraints. As Manu Lall and I wrote in an earlier blog post, “we need advances in seasonal and multiyear climate forecasts, and to increase our skills in using them to make decisions on water allocation and system operation.
These types of projects aren’t as sexy as digging wells, or providing piping to schools, and it’s incumbent on scientists and policy makers to explain why they’re necessary. Yet policy changes (particularly focusing on the agricultural sector) and improved predictions are every bit as necessary. If we’re going to provide water to 1 billion people, it will have to be an all hands on deck effort.