There are general solutions to these problems, whilst other solutions are far more specific to a local region or city (as different regions and cities around the world have different natural conditions/climates, and water supply related variables to deal with)
Solutions can also be implemented across many levels, including but not limited to the global, national, State, city, sector, and individual levels.
In this guide, we outline a range of these solutions, and also include examples of what cities are already doing or have done to address their own water stress and scarcity problems.
Summary – Solutions To Water Scarcity & Other ‘Lack Of Fresh Water’ Related Problems
- Different States, regions and cities within a country deal with different variables and factors that impact their water supplies and resources
- With this in mind, solutions and strategies for addressing water scarcity and high water stress (in both the short term and long term) will need to be custom to the water situation in a specific region or city within a country, at a specific time period. Solutions and strategies should also take into account the socio-economic consequences of different decisions
- One of the most common and effective solutions to addressing water scarcity and high water stress is managing/preserving water supplies via water restrictions – which essentially preserves water resources when they get to a certain level that is deemed low
- When financing and the right conditions are available, modern technology like desalination can also be effective in creating freshwater from salt water, although, desalination does have it’s own set of pros and cons, and energy efficient desalination (perhaps powered by renewables) will be required long term. Waste water treatment, water recycling/re-use, storm water capture and re-use, and rain water harvesting are becoming more common too (although, making and meeting regulations to make sure treated and re-used water is safe and clean can be a barrier)
- Cities and towns will have to continue to adapt to their local climate and local conditions into the future, as climates and conditions change
- Different regions around the world have different capacities to deal with their fresh water situation – it can depend on factors like level of income, and competence of governments and institutions in charge of making decisions about water management
- Once example of a water scarce city who addressed at least the security of their drinking water resources was Perth, Western Australia
- You can read more about how cities around the world can ensure a sustainable fresh water supply into the future in this guide
*Other relevant notes to consider about water scarcity and water stress:
- You may want to read about the definitions, as well as the differences and similarities between water scarcity and water stress in this guide
- Different regions and States within a country can be experiencing different levels of water stress or scarcity to each other at any one time – regions may experience different levels of water stress at during different time periods, depending on external variables like yearly rainfall, but also internal variables how sustainably they withdraw from their current water supplies
- Drinking water (potable water), and non drinkable water (non potable water) are two different types of freshwater. One can be scarce, while the other can be secure at the same time. So, solutions should really be aimed at having a secure and sustainable supply of both types (and not just one).
- Not all high water usage and high water footprints are bad. Sustainable water use can lead to significant economic, environmental and social benefits. Also, water use that is primarily composed of direct rain fall (such rain fed agriculture), can be far more sustainable than water that comes from water stressed fresh water sources like surface water and ground water. Furthermore, some countries and regions have abundant fresh water resources and rainfall, and in these countries and regions, based on demand and forecasted demand, it’s almost impossible for some of these countries and regions to get close to being water stressed or water scarce
Some Of The Most Effective Or Common Solutions
It depends on the city in question, but, some of the more common major solutions for cities around the world to address water stress and scarcity have been:
- Better awareness and data analysis on indicators, stressors and triggers of water risk, and being able to measure and sustainably manage different aspects of water resources supply
- Restricting, rationing and controlling water withdrawals so water supply levels don’t go below a certain point, or don’t outpace renewal rates
- Adapting to the local climate – if it’s a hot (high surface temperature) and dry (low or variable rainfall) climate for example, or if it has a strong frequency and intensity of natural events like droughts that impact rainfall. Cities and towns can get around this by using climate independent technology like desalination, waste/grey/storm water treatment and recycling, and so on (options that don’t depend on rain, aren’t affected by droughts, and other climate related factors)
- Diversifying to more than one source or type of water supply source – to diversify risk, and gain the benefits of different types of water supplies
Note though that sustainable water supply management strategies are an ongoing thing, and constant effort must be maintained to ensure potable and non potable fresh water supplies into the long term future.
A List Of Other General Solutions
- Have water sources that are independent of rainfall, the climate and natural variability, and natural events (like droughts) – for example, desalination is independent of rainfall and natural factors. This protects against climate change, natural variability, and other factors that can lead to inconsistent ro inadequate water supplies
- Don’t rely on just one water source, or just one type of water source – diversify to several water sources, or several different types of water sources (e.g. surface water sources, ground water sources, desalination, replenishment schemes (for aquifers), waste water treatment and re-use, water recycling plants, rain water harvesting, generating water from the atmosphere/air with an atmospheric water generator, and so on)
- Sustainably manage withdrawals from both surface water and ground water sources, and especially be mindful of overwithdrawing from ground water sources (this has been a problem in countries like India).
- Consider increasing total renewable fresh water supply capacity if required – per capita, and total volume. And, weigh this up against current demand, forecasted future demand, replenishment rates, and other relevant factors
- Look for ways to generate new fresh water from salt water – from desalination for example
- Look for ways to re-use and recycle water (with water recycling plants for example), and specifically treat and re-use waste water (with waste water treatment technology, and processes to re-use waste water where possible). Incentivize farmers and industry to treat and re-use waste water – at the moment, it’s cheaper and easier to simply use new water (wri.org). But, there’s big potential here, and 80% of the world’s waste water is discharged into nature without treatment
- Look for ways to use water more efficiently across the agricultural (by upgrading irrigation systems for example – like what has happened in California, see circleofblue.org), industry (by looking into dry cooling for example for thermo electric power plants for example, or CO2 cleaning in factories and manufacturing spaces as opposed to water cleaning), and municipal areas of society (one big area people might save water is through wasting less food as food has a large water footprint for individuals. But, we may also reduce water loss through public supply pipes by upgrading and maintaining them, or by using pipe leak detection and alarm sensors and software). Flood irrigation and water intensive wet cooling use more water than necessary right now (wri.org)
- In addition to efficiency, we can look to use water in the most effective ways – consider what uses of water provide the best results and returns
- Maintain and upgrade water infrastructure where required – treatment plants, pipes, sewer systems, and so on
- Consider the benefits of agriculture and industry in particular investing in water saving, water conserving and water efficient technology, systems and equipment
- Look for ways to minimise water leaks, loss and waste across all areas of society – can involve identifying where we leak, lose and waste the most water, implementing detection processes, and implementing new technology or equipment that minimises it
- Address water pollution and contamination, and increase water quality – degraded water quality reduces the amount of available water. So, reducing pollution and contamination, and treating water that can be brought back to an adequate condition to be used or consumed, increases the amount of available water
- Reduce the frequency of cross contamination of fresh water sources from salt water (Miami is an example of where this happened). Address contamination when it happens
- Have emergency plans in place specifically for natural events and disasters like droughts, floods, and hurricanes – all of which can impact and disrupt water supplies
- Consider the effectiveness of educating consumers on their consumption habits, lifestyles and the associated water footprints – as societies get more wealthy or the middle class grows, they may consume more water intensive products like fossil fuels and meat
- Ensure individuals have basic drinking water and fresh water rights and water is affordable to all, but, re-assess how the different types of water are priced across the whole of society and consider if high users should pay more (is water underpriced as a resource considering it faces scarcity concerns now and in the future?). When the price of receiving clean water is closer to its actual service cost, efficient water use will be incentivized, and there will be more incentive to invest in effective and efficient water use (wri.org)
- Find more ways to capture/harvest rain water and use it
- Find more ways for the different parts of society to holistically use, treat and re-use water – so, water use becomes more circular and involves more recycling as opposed to linear usage (e.g. consider how waste water and used water from hydro electric plants, sewage treatment plants, etc can be re-used – like for example, for energy)
- Increase the social and cultural awareness about the true value of fresh water
- Increase the awareness of the general public and governments about global water issues
- Increase awareness about the utility of drinking recycled water
- National, State and local water policy that is in line with short term and long term sustainable water resource management goals
- Making use of backyard bores when public water infrastructure and supplies are inadequate
- Using the natural environment where possible to assist with aspect of in the fresh water water lifecycle – like for example, using fine sand for water filtering and water storage outside of some cities (Perth is one example of this)
- Consider water efficiency and conservation training and assistance for businesses and farmers. Also, consider how the biggest water users can plan, put into practice, track and forecast their own sustainable water usage strategies
- Consider tiered pricing water withdrawal and consumption rates for the highest users of fresh water in society (industries and agriculture being the main two)
- Consider penalties, incentives, credits and initiatives for inefficient and efficient water users
- Consider tracking and monitoring annual water footprints for the biggest water users in society
- Better address political and institutional conflicts of interest when it comes to national and regional water supply management
- Better balance of environmental, economical and other priorities when it comes to water management and use (priorities can conflict – e.g. growth vs conservation and preservation)
- Better balance urban and rural water needs (as each can be different) – for example, rural communities in California suffer more in regards to drought related water issues than urban areas
- Ensure laws, regulations (such as the Clean Water Act) and testing related to water serve goals related to sustainability
- Co-operation and management strategies between countries, States, cities and populations that share water resources
- Co-operation and management strategies between countries, States, cities and populations that participate in interregional water transfers
- More openness to increased research and development, and innovation in water infrastructure and water technology, and the short and long term benefits in doing so
- Forming public private partnerships between business and governments for new water initiatives and projects where it seems smart to do so
- Put more focus into maintaining healthy eco systems and natural infrastructure like plants, trees, vegetation, forests and so on – that is responsible for clean, plentiful water (through filtering pollutants, buffering against floods, and regulating water supply), replenishing groundwater, etc. One way to do this is by limiting deforestation, overgrazing, urbanization and so on
- Placing more emphasis on, and putting more action into rebuilding and maintaining soil health across all types of land, but especially farm land, forests, open fields, and areas where water can filter, be retained and flow. Just one example of this is in farming, where by eliminating tillage and planting cover crops, farmers can build the soil’s carbon content and enable it to store more water. Soil, wetlands, and ecosystems play an important role in regulating water in different ways, and vice versa, water benefits them
- Preserve forests for the sake of watersheds
- Making water conservation a school subject in primary and secondary school
- Work on transboundary, as well as international agreements in sustainably managing water – from un.org ‘Around two-thirds of the world’s transboundary rivers do not have a cooperative management framework’
- Transfer technology and working sustainable water practices from country to country, and from developed countries to developing countries
- Consider what the maximum population number a city can support is, in terms of sustainably providing water for those people, and manage populations in those areas as required
- There a list of specific water scarcity solutions across a range of areas in industry and society available in this resource – https://www.waterscarcitysolutions.org/
From UNwater.org (via PDF file):
- Reducing water stress can be achieved by, for example, improving water-use efficiency and shifting economic activities to less water-consuming sectors
Some general solutions from weforum.org about how the world can avoid a water crisis:
- [Cities and businesses can use initial screening tools to identify future water risks and water crisis events, and these tools can be improved to better account for certain water risk factors, and also both chronic and acute water risks and triggering events such as low reservoirs, and basic hydrology, just to name a few]
- [Places like urban LA that get far less rain fall than a place like Chennai are having less water scarcity problems as they invest in technology like storm water capture] – [elaborated on further at wired.com]
- [A cities water infrastructure must be maintained, as well as their water absorbing wetlands]
- [Cities should have access to adequate water data for making water management decisions that impact the future, and to forecast future water demand]
- [Cities should ensure good water management by eliminating corruption and political or institutional inadequacy, understanding their water cycle, understanding the requirements and differences of surface and ground water, and understanding how to incorporate all this into good water policy]
- [Balance interests between competing groups who want to use water in different ways]
- [Cities can undertake initial risk assessments to understand their water risks and vulnerabilities, and their comprehensive shocks and stressors, and can implement better water management strategies and processes as a result. Implementation and responses to these assessments should address multiple water risks and not just one]
- [Cities can start to get very specific with their water management strategies, by defining answers to these types of questions …] When does a city start reducing demand? And to whom? What severity of water restrictions are residents willing to tolerate? When are new investments in supply and storage made?
- [Cities need to have water management strategies that go beyond election cycles and focus on the long term]
- The legal foundation establishing priority to water among different users, [and] the authority to enforce restrictions [needs to be clear]
- [Ultimately, although managing water risk can be complex, it is something that needs constant focus, and not just sporadic efforts and investment. It will come down to integrated water resources management of all levels of society working together – national, regional, local and individual levels]
- [Water scarcity and water stress may not ever go away or ever be fully solves – but it can be much better managed than it currently is in many parts of the world]
- Some of the keys to managing water scarcity are …
- Increasing supplies of fresh water
- Managing fresh water supplies adequately
- Using water effectively and efficiently
- Promoting water stewardship at the government and company levels with standards, footprinting, measuring, and so on
- Protecting wetlands
- And, adapting to the climate and the potential effects of climate change
- [Diversification of water sources is a key, as well as relying on more climate independent sources]
- [There’s many types of new water technology available like desalination, waste water recycling, generating water from the atmosphere, and so on … but, each one of these has pros and cons]
- [Ultimately, we have to also combine the above things with conservation, and a mindset of valuing water more]
- [Countries like Australia have shown it’s possible to decouple water consumption from economic growth, where] water consumption declined by 40% between 2001 and 2009 while the economy grew by more than 30%.
- [Governments need to stop investing in inefficient, costly, and expensive mega projects, and other solutions with major environmental or economic problems]
- The most cost-effective way of decoupling water use from economic growth … is for governments to create holistic water management plans that take into account the entire water cycle: from source to distribution, economic use, treatment, recycling, reuse and return to the environment.
- Developed countries can share cost effective solutions with developing or underdeveloped countries, and also information on hydrological transport modeling
- Both developed and developing countries can increase protection and health of ecosystems that absorb, filter, and hold/store especially wetlands and riparian zones
- Individuals can reduce water over consumption
- Companies can focus on local, low-tech solutions such as solar power to distill water
- Water has to be treated as a scarce resource, with a far stronger focus on managing demand. Integrated water resources management provides a broad framework for governments to align water use patterns with the needs and demands of different users, including the environment.
- National and local governments must [address climate change]
- Governments must also respond with [water] management and conservation practices that will help protect essential sustainable water resources …
- [Governments can import agricultural items instead of growing them locally in an attempt to outsource their water footprint and consumption, and save water]
Again from WRI.org:
- [Roughly 82% of waste water isn’t re-used in the Middle East & North Africa – there’s potential in this regard]
- [Some water stressed countries though are making use of this option … ] Oman treats 100% of its collected wastewater and reuses 78% of it. About 84% of all wastewater collected in Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) is treated to safe levels, but only 44% goes on to be reused.
- [India has set up a national government ministry just to deal with water issues]. And, other solutions India could pursue are more efficient irrigation; conserving and restoring lakes, floodplains, and groundwater recharge areas; and collecting and storing rainwater.
- Proper management of water is the key to all water security issues
- Saudi Arabia sets water prices to incentivize conservation and has a program set up to set water conservation targets
- Namibia … has been turning sewage water into drinking water for the past 50 years.
- And Australia nearly halved domestic water use to avert its own Day Zero moment during the Millennium Drought. The country’s water-trading scheme, the largest in the world, allows for smart allocation of water among users in the face of variable supplies.
- Rome utilized water rationing to conserve it’s water resources
- 3 of the ways we can reduce water stress globally are via increased agricultural efficiency, investing in grey and green infrastructure, and treating, re-using and recycling water
- Read more on these 3 options at https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress
- [In the MENA region] Just 18% of the area’s wastewater is currently reused, which means it is an untapped resource that could help boost water security. Oman is leading the way and already reuses 78% of the wastewater it collects
- [Water policy needs to be tackled at the local level …] While it’s helpful for policymakers to understand and take action on water stress at the national level, water is an inherently local issue
- Water re-use and specifically re-using greywater presents good benefits and opportunities for non potable applications (addressing regulatory standards helps with this), in food manufacturing where is can help reduce water and electricity usage, and in the oil and gas industry
- Singapore, Arizona and the Carigali-PTTEPI Operating Company has had success with this
- Singapore now boasts production of more than 100 million gallons a day of recycled water for industrial, commercial and domestic use
- In the oil and gas industry … they were able to save 132,000 gallons of water and $52 million a year by reducing platform downtime with water reuse
- India can manage its water risk with the help of reliable and robust data pertaining to rainfall, surface, and groundwater to develop strategies that strengthen resilience
- In MENA (Middle East, & North Africa), the problem has more to do with recycling wastewater. Over 80 percent of MENA’s water is not reused, so if these countries create infrastructure around this idea, it could create a whole new source of clean water
- Australia is a good example of how effective management can save a country on the brink of water stress. On the way to its own Day Zero during a millennium drought, the nation nearly halved its domestic water use. That said, the country still experiences severe drought issues exacerbated by climate change
- Countries must look at individual regions and states within the whole country to come up with sustainable water management strategies
- If the world doesn’t improve its agricultural efficiency, decrease its water use and recycle and reuse wastewater, water scarcity could be a permanent stress of the future
- Libya constructed the Great Man Made River Project, which is designed water from the desert aquifers to more populated coastal regions, but, the construction time in uncertain, and the the aquifers non renewable
- Jordan has had outside funding into advanced water infrastructure, decreasing water loss and conserving water
- External groups have helped Djibouti manage water to rural areas, and prepare for disasters by improving weather monitoring systems, updating emergency plans and establishing early warning systems for both floods and droughts.
- Jordan – teaching water conservation in schools, and restricts running water to 12-24 hours a week
- Kuwait – uses desalination for 99% of fresh water
- Saudi Arabia – uses desalination, and prices water to incentivize conservation
- Eritrea – uses desalination, and is trying to make desalination more eco friendly
- Turkmenistan – opening a gigantic lake, but may have long term problems
- Oman – treats waste water and reuses nearly 80% of it
- Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia – importing water for Lesotho via a pipeline
- Qatar – depends heavily on desalination
- Beijing – water diversion projects, educational programmes, and price hikes for heavy business water users
- Mexico City – could start recycling waste water, and upgrade pipe networks that are leading to water loss
- London – heading towards hosepipe bans in the future
- Tokyo – At least 750 private and public buildings in Tokyo have rainwater collection and utilisation systems, and, recent investment in the pipeline infrastructure aims also to reduce waste by leakage to only 3% in the near future
- Some cities and places in India, such as Chennai, use water trucks to carry water into cities where water isn’t available
Key Indicators For A City’s Sustainable Water Management Strategy
Some of the key indicators a city might pay attention to in order to develop and maintain a sustainable water management strategy are:
- Assess the available internal renewable fresh water resources in the form of surface water (lakes, rivers, dams etc), and ground water sources. Consider the annual per capita supplies, and total volume of these resources. These water resources must also be of adequate quality i.e. they can’t be polluted, contaminated or brackish, or, they must be treated and purified before use to meet Act/regulation guidelines (in the case of drinking water), or independent testing (in the case of water for agricultural irrigation)
- Assess the ability to increase fresh water resource capacity (one example is building an additional dam)
- Assess the ability to generate fresh water on demand (with technology such as desalination for example)
- Consider the rate at which fresh water sources are replenished from rain fall. Part of this may consider studying rainfall, evaporation, the hydrologic cycle, effectiveness of catchment areas (their response to rainfall), and inflows and stream flows. Note that ground water is usually replenished (via percolation of water from rainfall or surface water sources through spaces in the soil and rock profile) at much slower rates than surface water (ground water can take 5 years or more to see meaningful change). Also, consider year to year variability in rainfall, and events like droughts that can impact replenishment rates
- Withdrawal & Consumption Rates – consider the rates at which water is both withdrawn and consumed from fresh water sources … and, compare this to the replenishment rate (look at rates, but also pure volume). Note that withdrawal may involve re-use of the water or returning it to it’s original source, whilst consumption means the water is permanently gone from it’s original water source. Also, consider the major sectors and businesses that are withdrawing and consuming water, and consider usage regulations/policy, and increases in efficiency for major users.
Re-Use & Recycling Indicators
- Assess the ability to treat, re-use and recycle used water, and waste water (from industry, but also from storm water, run-off and rain fall)
Loss, Wastage & Leakage Indicators
- Consider the rate at which water is lost, wasted or leaks from various stages of the water life cycle. Just as one example – leaks from public water supply pipes and other water infrastructure before it arrives for it’s end use is a common source of water leakage and loss.
It’s important cities and towns invest in and continue to maintain the full range of their water infrastructure that is responsible for extracting, treating, transporting, and delivering fresh water to it’s end use. Water may then be treated and re-used again after use. Water may even be introduced to this lifecycle via additional rainwater harvesting, utilizing storm water and run-off, and so on.
Solutions On Different Levels
Solutions to water scarcity and water stress can occur on different levels.
These levels might include:
- Global – addressing climate change & it’s potential impact on the hydrologic cycle (rainfall, evaporation, etc). Rainfall is responsible for stream flow or inflow into catchment areas and surface water sources, as well as filtering into groundwater sources.
- National – national water policy, national water management, and budgets/investment allocated to water infrastructure
- State – State water policy, State water management, and budgets/investment allocated to water infrastructure
- City – every city has different water supply variables and factors to consider. Just some examples are their total fresh water capacity, demand rate (withdrawal and consumption rates), ability to increase capacity or create new fresh water, population growth, local climate, economic growth, water loss and waste rates, efficiency rates across the major water users, water pollution rates, and so on
- Sector – there are three main sectors responsible for water withdrawals. Those are agriculture (irrigation being a big one), industry (wet cooling in thermo-electric power plants being a big one), and municipal (households and public supply). Better water efficiency in agriculture and industry in particular (which take up 70% and 20% respectively globally of the withdrawals) can help as part of the solution
- Individual – Individuals have a water footprint. Food makes up a significant majority of our water footprint. Not wasting food can help minimise our food water footprint. But, apart from foods, we can also be mindful of how water intensive the products we buy are to make and operate, and also be mindful of water use in the homes (cooking, cleaning, outdoors/backyard). Consumerism in general and consumption patterns and habits have an impact on the water footprint of society
- Shared – some cities share water resources with other cities. A shared water resources management plan helps here.
- External – some cities and States rely in part on transboundary water transfers, and external water resources. Decreasing reliance on these resources and increasing reliance on internal resources can help here.
Potential Challenges & Problems Associated With Some Water Scarcity & Stress Solutions
There can be both short term and long problems with some of the solutions for water stress and scarcity.
One of the most common problems is cost, but others can be practical, logistical, environmental, social, institutional, and so on.
Those problems can include:
- Desalination – desalination can have it’s own set of pros and cons
- Water Recycling – it can often be far cheaper and quicker for industry to dump used waste water untreated and use new water, compared to treating waste water and re-using it. In addition, waste water treatment and recycling technology, and dedicated water recycling plants aren’t cheap.
Wikipedia.org outlines some of the problems with current sustainable water management solutions:
- [Some solutions are hugele inefficient, costly, expensive to run and generally environmentally sustainable nor economically viable – such as mega projects, construction of wastewater treatment plants, reducing groundwater overdrafting, and so on]
- Strict water regulations can impose barriers on treating, re-using and recycling waste and grey water
27. Downloads/642-progress-on-level-of-water-stress-2018.pdf, ‘Progress On Level Of Water Stress’ (from unwater.org)