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WAE | Logo
1 May
2020
Environment
By WAE on "Environment"

Cherish or Perish: towards Water Neutrality

Climate change is already having a profound effect on global water cycles, resulting in both prolonged and more severe droughts, extreme precipitation, and flooding events. Increasing competition for finite water resources among industry, agriculture, and an expanding population is exacerbating these impacts and the underlying risks. Read to know more!

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Water scarcity and water crises are top global risks, according to the World Economic Forum. Climate change is already having a profound effect on global water cycles, resulting in both prolonged and more severe droughts and more frequent extreme precipitation and flooding events. Increasing competition for finite water resources among industry, agriculture, and an expanding population is exacerbating these impacts and the underlying risks.

Earth’s freshwater ecosystems are critically depleted and being used unsustainably, reported the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for today’s 7.7 billion population much less for the 9.7 billion we’ll be by 2050. Water challenges are escalating, and  have the potential to impact the natural environment, global health, and economic and industrial growth.

Today, 4 billion people live with water scarcity, which disrupts livelihoods and degrades ecosystems. Pollutants enter freshwater from agriculture, industry, and domestic sources, often with no treatment, and severely degrade water quality. Freshwater biodiversity has declined precipitously: Some 20% of fish species have gone extinct or are threatened. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report has repeatedly ranked water crises as one of the global risks with highest impact.

Water stress starts when the water available in a country drops below 1 700 m3/year or 4 600 litres/day per person. When the 1 000 m3/year or about 2 700 litres/day per person threshold is crossed, water scarcity is experienced. Absolute water scarcity is considered for countries with less 500 m3/year or roughly 1 400 litres/day per person. By this definition, 49 countries are water stressed, 9 of which experience water scarcity and 21 absolute water scarcity.

As the world gets wealthier, urbanized and hotter, water use will no doubt increase, making demand harder to meet. Within 15 years, half of the populace, amounting to approximately 4 billion, will be living in areas of severe water stress, predicts UNDP. Rapid population growth and urbanization could expose more people to water shortages, with negative implications for livelihoods, health, and security.

Water, now is visibly showing through as a root cause of nearly every burning issue hitting the headlines, transforming the world  geo-political order and planetary environment. According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 47% of the world’s population will face severe water shortages by 2030 and will be drive large scale  migration impacting economy and social structure.“Water is considered an ‘axis resource’, meaning it’s the resource that underlies all others. So, whether you’re building a computer chip, or growing crops, or generating power, all these things require lots of water. But there’s only a finite amount of water, and now resources are butting up against each other.” – Alex Prud’homme, The Ripple Effect.

The undeniably worrying trends in Water are increasing. Over the last few years, it is getting exceedingly clear that the governments World over , neither has will nor resources to solve this crisis. Faced with the inevitable, it is imperative now for all stakeholders to engage in solving Water scarcity and quality problems cohesively. In a landscape where the demand for water is fast outstripping supply, focusing on water neutrality has now become a critical survival strategy .“The interest in the water neutrality is rooted in the recognition that human impacts on freshwater systems can ultimately be linked to human consumption, and that issues like water shortages and pollution can be better understood and addressed by considering production and supply chains as a whole,” says Professor Arjen Y. Hoekstra, creator of the water neutrality concept.

The concept of Water neutrality is essentially the wet version of carbon neutrality. It means that Water usage can be offset by interventions to improve freshwater habitats and supply. Based on its carbon equivalent, Water neutral, according to a 2008 UNESCO report, connotes, "One reduces the Water footprint of activity as much as possible offsets the negative externalities of the remaining Water footprint."

But, while Carbon neutrality entails offsetting the carbon emissions actively by either sequestering an equivalent amount or purchasing carbon credits to make the difference, can the same be done for Water neutrality? Not exactly!

In the case of carbon neutrality, it does not matter where the CO2 emission reduction is achieved. However, when it comes to Water, offsetting is required where the impacts take place. Unlike carbon neutrality, extracting Water from one basin and neutralizing it by Water saving in some other, would not precisely redress the balance in the first location.

Unlike CO2, Water is a finite resource. Taking Water from one place and replacing it in another does not precisely balance accounts in the first location. Water neutrality, in its real sense, goes beyond 'neutralizing' the volume of water consumption. True offsetting involves a rational investment in Water-saving technologies, Water and environmental conservation, wastewater management besides curbing the water footprint as much as possible.

A study in Conservation Letters by Nel and colleagues  titled - Water neutrality: a first quantitative framework for investing in Water in South Africa presents a well-defined  model for how water neutrality should work. The investment in water neutrality requires a three?step process (known as R3) of: Review, Reduce and Replenish. Using South Africa as an example, they describe a scheme where users, communities, and business need to :

(1) review their Water use,

(2) implement a reduction strategy and

(3) replenish Water to hydrological systems through the investment in catchment services equivalent to their water use.

The strength of the water-neutral concept partly lies in its positive connotation, which may trigger communities and businesses to act where otherwise they might not have done so. A large number of individuals and companies are already aware of the external effects of their direct water use and act to reduce this water uncontrolled use. In the case of companies, a key element of water neutrality is that not only measures are taken for the operational water footprint, but also to the supply-chain water footprint. For individuals and communities, it means that they should not only focus on reducing household water use (like installing low-flow showerheads and water-saving toilets) but also start adopting water conservation practices like rainwater harvesting, grey -water recycling while consuming products labelled as water-neutral.

However, the concept can become active in contributing to the wise management of the water resources only when clear definitions and guidelines will be in place. There will be a need for scientific rigor in accounting methods and for clear (negotiated) bylaws on the conditions that have to be met before one can speak about water neutrality. Undoubtedly there will be a phenomenal market for water-neutrality and water-offsetting, comparable to the demand for carbon neutrality. To what extent this market will become effective in contributing to a more efficient, sustainable, and equitable use of the Earth's water resources will depend on the rules of the market. Without agreed definitions and guidelines on what is water neutrality, the term is most likely to end up as a catchword for raising funds for charity projects in the water sector. In that context, the term can also fulfil a useful function, but it would be 'water neutrality' in its weakest form. It will become a strong concept only when claims towards water-neutrality are measured against clear standards.

We’re all familiar with Cape Town’s day zero situation which was first scheduled for March’18. In January’18, when officials first announced that the city of 4 million people was three months away from running out of municipal water, the whole world was dazed.

But the water restrictions had a profound effect on the people of Cape Town. Residents, communities and authorities, with their extraordinary efforts, started conserving as much water as they could and Day Zero got delayed by a month. As more and more people cohesively engaged in this, the deadline was further pushed back to July 9th, then end of August and furthermore, to next year, 2019. And then, Cape Town got lucky. It rained.

While many of us have the luxury of living where clean water runs freely from the tap, where our waste is treated, and where our store shelves are always well-stocked, we are enjoying these luxuries at the cost of others. We can no longer ignore the impacts of our water footprint simply because it happens in another part of the world. We must become global citizens, prepared to care for water, wherever it is being used, to ensure that it is treated with the respect it deserves.

 

There is plenty of Water in the universe without life, but nowhere there is life without Water.    

 

The world's second-most populous country, India, is facing one of its critical and most severe water crisis. According to the Composite Water Management Index issued by NITI Aayog, 21 major cities including, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Hyderabad, are racing to reach zero groundwater levels by 2020.

Over 600 million Indians are already facing the worst water crisis. Over 820 million still not having access to piped Water, and pollutants contaminate 70% of the Water in the country. The urgency to find sustainable solutions is becoming direr.

This article was published in INDIAN EXPRESS on the occasion of WORLD WATER DAY.

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