Contending with freshwater scarcity

Most countries continue exploiting their freshwater sources callously, without much care for equitable access

Syed Mohammad Ali April 09, 2021
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

While water is vital to life, over two billion people live in countries experiencing major water stress. Our changing climate, growing global population, and reckless pollution have combined to create a major water crisis. This existing situation will worsen in coming decades around much of the world, but especially in regions like the Middle East, South Asia, North Africa, and parts of China.

We need freshwater not only to drink, but for agricultural production, rearing livestock, and sanitation purposes. Inadequate and unsafe water supplies are causing serious health problems and have begun to worsen food insecurity. The likelihood of water-related conflict is also a serious concern, especially in countries like India and Pakistan, which share glacial waterways being eroded due to global warming. 

Besides glaciers, human beings get freshwater from underground aquifers, from rivers and lakes, which are all replenished by rain and snow. There is still ample freshwater available on earth if it were to be used well and distributed fairly. However, most countries continue exploiting their freshwater sources callously and without much care for equitable access.

There are, however, growing international efforts and research being dedicated to resolving the freshwater crisis. As saltwater makes up around 97% of the globe’s water supply, the process of removing salt and other impurities from water via desalination seems like an evident solution.

Two methods of desalination include boiling water and collecting the vapour (thermal desalination) or forcing water through a membrane to separate water from salt and other impurities (reverse osmosis desalination). Both methods are energy and capital intensive. However, researchers in the US have recently found a way to make desalination more efficient, potentially cheaper, and accessible. This breakthrough should be good news for poorer countries like Pakistan which have been trying to muster up the resources to set up a reverse osmosis plant in Karachi.

At present, the majority of the nearly 20,000 or so desalination plants are found in the Gulf states, which are producing most of the freshwater consumed by these oil-rich states. If desalination is not done well, it can create its own set of ecological problems. For instance, thermal desalination requires a lot of energy, which is obtained largely via fossil fuels that are in turn producing greenhouse gases. The desalination process also produces toxic contaminants which are being pumped back into the ocean, damaging the marine environment and increasing the cost of future desalination.

Paying more attention to UN and other environmental groups guidelines for addressing the environmental impact of desalination plants is needed. The use of solar and other renewables powered desalination is being experimented with in countries like India which could prove useful. Experts are also pointing out how it would make sense to focus on desalination of brackish water, which is less salty than seawater, and to make more efforts to ensure wastewater reuse.

Besides promising to better protect freshwater resources in their agricultural supply chains, major corporations are turning their attention to addressing the problem of freshwater supply. DuPont Water Solutions, for instance, is experimenting with various desalination and water purification products. There is much money to be made in addressing water scarcities. The killing that companies like Nestle or Pepsi’s Aquafina, Coca Cola and other corporate giants have made by the selling of bottled water indicates that investing in water supply has major business potential. The benefits of corporate investments in freshwater production will probably not reach poorer people, who cannot afford to pay for water.

Instead of waiting for the corporate sector to come to our rescue, governments need to focus on saving water and increasing its productivity. Preventing water pollution, conserving water resources, regulating use of groundwater, recycling and increasing efficiency of water use in industry and agriculture are other viable options which merit greater attention.


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