World Water Day: The Thirsty Planet

22nd March 2012

As surprising as it still seems to a people weaned on the literature of drizzle, the entire south-east is now designated as water stressed, with London officially dryer than Istanbul and Morocco. As far north as Yorkshire, east through the agrarian heartlands to the west in Wiltshire, water is running out.

The obvious manifestation of this, will, in all probability, be in the mild irritation of hosepipe bans and a standpipe or two, but a wider crisis is looming: 13 trillion litres are abstracted from the environment annually, or 15% more per person than 25 years ago. According to the Environment Agency, many rivers are now at the limit of what can be sustainably withdrawn. The River Kennet has become a poster child of the increasing malaise of water shortage; where 13m3 was once abstracted in 1960, now 10,000m3 per day can be taken to supply Swindon and its environs; the consequence is a dying river, a dying habitat.

The UN defines water stress as a withdrawal rate of over 40% of total actual renewable water resources, and shortage as withdrawal of 100%. Under current ‘business as usual’ scenarios, water demand will exceed supply by 40% within 18 years, with up to two thirds of global population water stressed by 2025 – that’s 4 billion people.

The implications are stark: water cannot be artificially created – 97.5% of all water on earth is salt-water, and of the remaining 2.5% the majority is trapped and inaccessible comprising permanent snow cover and polar ice. Whilst it is unevenly distributed (abundant in Siberia where the population is modest, severely restrained in China where 20% of the population access 7% of the world’s available water), rapid drawdown from acquifiers is outpacing natural replacement at an unprecedented rate.

This is a global crisis requiring local solutions: all water issues are essentially local, but we do see business increasingly responding. In the developed world business is the largest single user of water, often sharing constrained supply with residential and agricultural users. Fairly simple methods can often save and recycle significant amounts.

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