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Understanding Water Shortage and the Global Water Crisis: 2023-2024 Expectations

Meredith Mejia • March 15th, 2024.

Corn experiencing drought

If we told you that there is currently a water crisis on our hands, would that surprise you? For those who live in areas where the scarcity of water is not an active concern on a daily basis, you might be perplexed to hear that the UN World Water Development Report 2023 is currently warning the world about the imminent risk that water shortages pose. That’s why it’s incredibly important that we address water scarcity, not only on an individual level but also on behalf of the sustainability of business development globally. Together, let’s take a close look at the state of water shortages around the globe followed by an analysis of solutions to the water crisis followed by what people can expect in 2024 in terms of the global water shortage.

Why is There a Water Shortage?

Water shortages are influenced by a myriad of factors, but what causes water scarcity in particular? Climate change is one of many factors that can cause a shortage of water. The altered weather patterns result in irregular rainfall, which can lead to extreme droughts over time. Additionally, less rain means a reduction in the amount of snowpack experienced in mountainous regions, which is another key source of freshwater, thereby further contributing to the existing droughts.

The overuse of water resources is an example of the ways by which humans actively contribute to water shortages. When the world endures the excessive withdrawal of water for agriculture, industry, and domestic use, this overconsumption of water reduces the amount of water resources that are available for other purposes.

For instance, did you know that the agricultural industry consumes about 70% of the total global freshwater supply? Even harder to believe is that this water is typically gathered using inefficient irrigation methods due to inefficient water supplies.

Yet another way by which people worsen water shortage instances is by polluting water reserves. From industrial discharges and agricultural runoff to improper waste disposal and other modes of pollution, it’s all too easy to contaminate freshwater sources with careless actions.

Also, the urbanization of cities around the world perpetuates behavior that leads to water shortages. With urbanization comes the rapid population growth of urban areas. Meanwhile, as the demand for water increases, the natural land absorption rates and groundwater recharge abilities are squandered, creating an imbalance in supply and demand wherein water shortages are the general outcome.

Last but not least, inadequate infrastructure paired with poor water management practices works against water sustainability. These circumstances end up aging water transport systems which compromises the existence of weak regulatory frameworks. Plus, when there’s a lack of investment in water conservation technologies, the poor foundation crumbles, resulting in water shortages.

What is Water Stress?

Water stress arises when the demand for water surpasses the amount of water that is available or when the water that is available cannot safely be utilized due to its poor quality. In turn, water stress can segue into the shortage of water when the issue is not addressed sooner rather than later. Is water stress the same as water scarcity? Technically speaking, when you compare water stress to water scarcity, the former is a more inclusive and broader concept, so one is not necessarily worse than the other. Rather, water scarcity — or a water shortage — falls under the umbrella of water stress. That’s why navigating water risk issues often entails the acknowledgment of water stress.

The Global Landscape of Water Scarcity

There are many global water scarcity scenarios that can come into fruition, but as of late, shortages have created an escalating water crisis that is affecting billions. Circumstances are likely to worsen as populations grow and climate patterns become more unpredictable as well. Regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, parts of South Asia, and areas in the Middle East are expected to face more scarcity of water. This prediction is largely due to climate change, the overuse of water, and pollution levels, which critically impact the agriculture, health, and economies of these parts of the world. In more developed regions, such as parts of the United States and Southern Europe, unsustainable water practices and climate shifts can also lead to significant and noticeable stress on water resources.

Water Shortage Situation Across the Continents

Did you know certain parts of the world are more likely to experience water shortages than others? Countries where water is scarce as a baseline are prone to water shortages to a greater degree than places where a scarce water supply is either never or rarely a concern.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Home to erratic rainfall, you might think the presence of rain to any degree would be appreciated. However, the area has a lack of adequate infrastructure, making it seemingly impossible to uphold proper water storage and distribution measures.

Middle East and North Africa: This part of the world endures extreme water scarcity due to arid climates and high population density.

Central Asia: The overuse of water resources for agricultural purposes creates water scarcity for those in this region. Inefficient irrigation practices compound these matters.

South Asia: Due to the rapid rates of urbanization in South Asia, this part of the world has experienced significant population growth. In turn, the ever-growing number of people in South Asia has placed a significant strain on the subregion’s already limited water resources.

Southwestern United States: When you think of the western world, you might regard countries like the United States as void of water-related concerns given the resources available to the U.S. as a whole. However, drought conditions exacerbated by climate change have led to significant water shortages across the country. For a more thorough depiction of water shortages on a global scale, check out the top 25 countries facing extreme water stress in 2023 according to the World Resources Institute (WRI).

The Ripple Effects of Water Shortage

Health and Human Impact: Water shortages lead to health crises on a global scale. According to Water.org, approximately 771 million people lack access to safe water. Plus, an estimated 1.7 billion people do not have adequate toilet facilities. The water crisis contributes to nearly 1 million deaths each year from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related diseases alone.

Water shortages also affect the physical well-being of women and children, both of which are groups of people who often bear the burden of carrying water over long distances. Worse yet, according to a publication by Faissal Tarrass and Meryem Benjelloun, 160 million children suffer from stunting and chronic malnutrition as a result of their lack of access to safe water and sanitation.

Environmental Consequences: When water is scarce, the lack of water yields undeniable effects on the environment. Not only does less water impact ecosystems and wildlife but the overall health of our planet declines as well.

Water supplies often rely on the water found in rivers, lakes, and aquifers. However, when those resources dry up or become too polluted for use, water shortages become plentiful.

As wetlands continue to disappear, a range of ecosystem services like water filtration, storm protection, flood control, and recreation are impacted as well. This snowballs into detrimental effects for habitats and the diversity of species.

For example, the Aral Sea in Central Asia has significantly shrunk, leading to increased salinity and pollution. In turn, these events reduce local food sources, increase infant mortality rates, and lower the average life expectancy of those living in the region.

Water Being Used as a Geopolitical Tool: Water scarcity influences international relations in a myriad of ways, including issues of water rights, the accessibility of water, and the control of water between nations or regions. Countries or regions with limited water resources may face increased vulnerability and dependency on those with abundant water resources, resulting in a power imbalance due to the scarcity of water and the reliance it creates.

Water rights protester

For example, there is major tension in the Nile basin, which is where the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam by Ethiopia has raised concerns among downstream countries, such as Egypt and Sudan, regarding the availability of water. Jordan is one of the most water-poor nations in the world, and in the face of the water crisis, the country is experiencing compounded challenges due to climate change-induced rainfall declines, limited water resources, population growth, and refugee influxes.

Stress on Businesses: Businesses are not safe from the detrimental effects of water shortages. In fact, according to estimates from leading risk nonprofit CDPF, in 2020 alone, the total potential cost of reported water risks was more than $300 billion. From disruptions to operations and increased costs to regulatory challenges and more, the effects of water shortages seep into the foundations of companies of all industries and disrupt their operations.

Most notably, businesses in the manufacturing sector — as well as those in the food and beverage industry — heavily rely on water as the focal point of most processes, meaning these industries are the two that are most at risk in the face of water shortages. Similarly, the agricultural industry is also highly susceptible to disadvantages when water scarcity is present due to the agribusiness industry’s dependence on water for crop production. In short, less water means fewer crops.

In terms of the apparel and retail sector, businesses use significant amounts of water for various processes, including dyeing and finishing garments. Even the biotech, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, power, and infrastructure industries are in harm’s way due to their substantial water usage as well as the potential for cross-contamination.

How ClimateAi Assists Businesses with Climate Change Adaptation Strategies

ClimateAi helps businesses that are either facing a water shortage or trying to avoid one by providing advanced climate risk assessments and forecasting services.

By partnering with ClimateAi, businesses can better understand climate-related risks and mitigate the effects of water shortages in their operations, supply chains, or asset portfolios. AI-driven insights make it easier for businesses to actively prevent risks associated with the availability and quality of water supplies as well. For more on the results made possible by ClimateAi, you can peruse several case studies. For instance, this Global Investment Manager used ClimateLens to assess climate and water risks across its global land-focused portfolio.

ClimateAi also assisted leading seed producer Advanta in the process of adapting its business end-to-end to combat weather variability fueled by climate change.

ClimateAi’s ClimateLens is an end-to-end water and climate resilience platform that projects future water challenges and extreme weather risks. From there, ClimateAi translates this information into actionable insights, whether that’s for a year or multiple decades to come.

With ClimateAi, businesses can prepare for upcoming climate-related changes, mitigate climate risk, and also identify new opportunities, such as new areas for climate-smart expansion.

Innovative Solutions to Water Scarcity

Water management

In thinking about water shortage solutions, we must start with the foundational principle that access to clean water is not only crucial for human health but water availability is a human right. Everybody deserves fresh and clean water, not ongoing water shortages.

Furthermore, innovative water shortage solutions are a must because of the increased demand for water in households, for agricultural use, and across industries due to continuously growing populations. Climate change exacerbates water scarcity issues as well, especially due to the frequency and severity of both droughts and floods increasing over time.

Innovative solutions to water shortages can address the overexploitation of water resources due to human activity as well. In turn, they can make it possible for humanity as a whole to facilitate better water sharing agreements and management strategies, which will inevitably promote stability and peace around the world.

Technological Advances in Water Management

Let’s take a look at a handful of technology-based solutions to scarce water resources.

Water Recycling and Reuse: The NEWater system in Singapore is an excellent example of water management. This installment purifies treated sewage water with the help of microfiltration, reverse osmosis, and ultraviolet disinfection. In turn, this method makes otherwise unsafe water drinkable.

Rainwater Harvesting: In Australia, rainwater harvesting is widely incorporated within rural and urban communities. Essentially, as one of many water scarcity solutions, this process involves pinpointing the location of rainwater on rooftops and collecting water via tanks for household and irrigation purposes. Similarly, in the Rajasthan region of India, traditional rainwater harvesting methods are also common. Small earthen check dams known as Johads have been revived and modernized in areas where water is scarce.

Artificial Aquifers and Managed Aquifer Recharge: In response to the shortage of water in Adelaide, Australia, the Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) initiative was passed. It allows stormwater to be captured, treated, and infiltrated into aquifers. The Orange County Groundwater Replenishment System in California, USA, purifies treated wastewater via a three-step process. It starts with microfiltration followed by reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. From there, the groundwater basin is recharged.

Drought-Resistant Crops: The development of drought-resistant maize is in full effect thanks to the work of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project.

Data Analytics and Predictive Tools: ClimateAi offers a comprehensive solution to water risk management. With the help of its advanced hydrological model, ClimateAi provides businesses with unprecedented insights into the specific water risks that they face, both now and in the long run.

Policy and Collaborative Efforts

When brainstorming innovative solutions to water shortages, another category worth mentioning is in terms of policy and collaborative efforts.

Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM): Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) takes a holistic approach when it comes to solutions to water scarcity. It focuses on the sustainable management of water resources with social, economic, and environmental factors in mind. The IWRM gained greater prominence following the International Water Conference in Mar de Plata in 1977, ultimately evolving into the formulation of the Dublin Guiding Principles as of 1992.

Water Pricing and Incentives: The introduction of tiered water pricing has established a system where higher rates are charged for increased usage of water, which subsequently encourages more mindfulness as well as the conservation of more water. In an agricultural context, farmers are eligible for subsidies or lower water rates if they choose to adopt water-saving irrigation technologies. At the end of the day, it’s beneficial to incentivize businesses and industries to implement water-saving efforts by offering lower water rates or tax benefits.

Water Rights and Allocation: In the United States, New Mexico operates under a system of prior appropriation whereby water rights are managed through permits. Under these circumstances, certain groups, like the elderly, are granted senior water rights in the face of water shortages. As another example, when the scarcity of water is of high concern, Arkansas grants water rights to landowners whose property adjoins a body of water. Furthermore, in Texas, surface water is publicly owned, but groundwater is a private property right, and it is managed through local GroundWater Conservation Districts.

Transboundary Water Management: In the Senegal basin, shared hydropower projects generate electricity and income for those involved, which ultimately benefits multiple nations at once. Likewise, the shared management system of the Danube has led to sustainable transportation and improved water quality both along the river and within the Black Sea.

What to Expect in 2024

This year, the world is expected to experience consequences in terms of water supplies, starting with an increased rate of scarcity of water. Tensions in areas where access to fresh water is already a security concern are on the horizon, too.

Furthermore, there is great potential for Arctic water disputes, and unfortunately, rising sea levels will inevitably force millions of people to migrate, which will only exacerbate the fresh water shortages even more.

Parting Words

As we reflect on 2023, understanding and addressing the water shortage crisis is more crucial than ever. History repeats itself unless changes are made, and in order to avoid a repetition of the water challenges we faced last year, it’s even more crucial that we ensure that we won’t face the same fate in 2024 and beyond. While it’s impossible to fix the water shortage crisis all by ourselves on a global scale, we can both individually and collectively take responsibility for water conservation efforts. Spread the word about the importance of innovative policy-making and international collaboration. Also, consider expressing the urgency of integrating climate change adaptation to those in your personal life. Together, we can make a change.

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