Global Challenges Facing Humanity

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2. Water: How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?

Because water is vital to all functions of civilization and because its availability is increasingly threatened, the UN’s fourth World Water Development Report recommends much broader collaborative and integrative water management approaches. Many innovations will be needed to avoid future conflicts over water among nations and, within nations, among farmers, urbanites, energy producers, environmentalists, and industries.

Great progress has been made: over 2 billion people gained access to improved drinking water since 1990, and the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to improved drinking water was achieved in March 2012, ahead of schedule. However, 783 million people still do not have access to safe drinking water (down from 884 million last year and 900 million the year before). Water tables are falling around the world, and additional water will be needed for another 2 billion people in just 38 years. Global water withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years. By 2030 global water demand could be 40% more than the current supply. Nature also needs sufficient water to be viable to support all life. Hence, business as usual could lead to several billion people living in water-stressed areas by 2050. This could change with new agricultural practices, policy changes, and intelligently applied new technologies. Although water-related conflicts are already taking place, water-sharing agreements have been reached even among people in conflict and have led to cooperation in other areas.

Meanwhile, the world is likely to miss the MDG sanitation target by almost 1 billion people. About 80% of diseases in the developing world are water-related; most are due to poor management of human excreta. At least 1.8 million children under five die every year due to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and a lack of hygiene. Diarrheal disease in children under 15 has a greater impact than HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. Fourth and fifth grade girls approaching puberty drop out of school when there are not separate toilets for girls in their school, but they return when those are built.

Aquaculture produces about half of human-consumed fish, which could be dramatically increased in many locations around the world. Agriculture accounts for 70% of human usage of freshwater; the majority of that is used for livestock production. Such water demands will increase to feed growing populations with increasing incomes. Global demand for meat may increase by 50% by 2025 and double by 2050, further accelerating the demand for water per capita. The UN estimates that $50–60 billion annually between now and 2030 is needed to avoid future water shortages. Some 30% of global cereal production could be lost in current production regions due to water scarcity, yet new areas in Russia and Canada could open due to climate change. Exploitation of shale gas through fracking could contaminate groundwater, and some suspect it could even trigger earthquakes. Cooling systems for energy production require large amounts of water; production and distribution of water takes a lot of energy too. A U.S. study in 2008 showed that nuclear power plants withdrew nearly eight times more freshwater than natural gas plants per unit of electricity generated. Energy demand may increase 40% in 20 years; coupled with increased food demands, dramatic changes in water management will be required. Power plants could reduce water use with once-through or recirculating water through on-site reservoirs, but electric utilities that switch to wind use no water, and photovoltaics use relatively little water for cleaning compared with thermal plants.

Breakthroughs in desalination, such as pressurization of seawater to produce vapor jets, filtration via carbon nanotubes, and reverse osmosis, are needed along with less costly pollution treatment and better water catchments. Future demand for freshwater could be reduced by saltwater agriculture on coastlines, hydroponics, aquaponics, vertical urban agriculture installations in buildings, producing pure meat without growing animals, increasing vegetarianism, fixing leaking pipes, and the reuse of treated water.
Water should be central to development and climate change strategies. If climate change results in significant sea level rise, we may see 20% of the world’s coastal freshwater become saline. In a desperate attempt to cope, people could use massive amounts of diesel to produce desalinated water, contributing further to CO2 emissions. Though large-scale solar desalination is problematic, nanotechnology has the potential to make solar efficient enough to be a real solution.

Development planning should integrate the lessons learned from producing more food with less water via drip irrigation, seawater greenhouse and precision agriculture, rainwater collection and irrigation, watershed management, selective introduction of water pricing, and successful community-scale projects around the world. Plans should also help convert degraded or abandoned farmlands to forest or grasslands; invest in household sanitation, reforestation, water storage, and treatment of industrial effluents in multipurpose water schemes; and construct eco-friendly dams, pipelines, and aqueducts to move water from areas of abundance to those of scarcity. And why not develop decentralized methods for final purification of water at the point of tap water for drinking, instead of total and expensive purification at the central water plant, since most water is not used for drinking? Just as it has become popular to calculate someone’s carbon footprint, people are beginning to calculate their “water footprint.”

The UN General Assembly declared access to clean water and sanitation to be a human right.
The Marseille Ministerial Declaration, adopted at the 6th World Water Forum, called for accelerating the implementation of human rights obligations relating to access to safe drinking water and sanitation. UN Water is committed to creating a global water data system to improve integrated water management decisionmaking. Challenge 2 will have been addressed seriously when the number of people without clean water and those suffering from water-borne diseases diminishes by half from their peaks and when the percentage of water used in agriculture drops for five years in a row. Providing universal access would imply a potential economic gain of $220 billion per year.

Regional Considerations

Africa: Up to 2.5% of GDP of African countries and $5.5 billion are lost annually due to inadequate sanitation. About 30% of sub-Saharan Africa uses improved sanitation facilities. A global rush for farmland is actually a “great water grab,” with a number of African governments signing away water rights for decades—with major implications for local communities. A study by the British Geological Society found there are huge amounts of groundwater available in Africa—100 times the amount found on the surface. Yet 40% of people still without access to improved drinking water live in sub-Saharan Africa, and a study in Nigeria and Ethiopia found that only about 70% of the “improved” sources are safe to drink. Foreign aid covers up to 90% of some sub-Saharan African countries’ water and sanitation expenditures. Despite progress, the actual number of people without access in sub-Saharan Africa was greater in 2008 than in 1990. Without policy changes, this region will not meet the MDG target on water until 2040 and the one on sanitation until 2076.
The number of Africans living in water-stressed areas is projected to be about 350–403 million by 2055 in the absence of climate change; with climate change, it could be 350–600 million people. Since the majority of Africa depends on rain-fed agriculture, upgrading rain-fed systems and improving agricultural productivity will immediately improve millions of lives. Putting sanitation facilities in some village schools could bring girls back to school. The Strategic Framework for Water Security and Climate Resilient Development was launched to address twin challenges of water security and climate change. The Gibe III Dam under construction will lower water levels at Lake Turkana, possibly affecting more than 500,000 people in Ethiopia. An agreement among the Nile basin countries will be necessary to prevent future conflicts as water demands increase south of Egypt.

Asia and Oceania: Asia has 60% of the world’s population but only 28–30% of its freshwater. Cotton growers in India draw 737 billion gallons of water from Indus River per year, enough to meet domestic water needs in Delhi for more than two years. India feeds 17% of the world’s people on less than 5% of the world’s water and 3% of its farmland. Some 3,000 million liters of waste from Delhi are dumped into the Yamuna River each day. UN-Habitat has declared the river “dead”—without enough oxygen to support river life. In India, 626 million people do not have access to a toilet. Inadequate sanitation costs the economies of four Southeast Asian countries the equivalent of about 2% of their GDP. China will invest $5.5 billion over 10 years to prevent and treat groundwater contamination, but the water situation is expected to continue to get worse for the next five to eight years under the best-case scenario. According to data from nearly 5,000 monitoring sites in 198 cities, groundwater quality is "poor" in 40% of them and is "extremely poor" in 17% of them. The frequancy of "poor" quality is above 55% for the third consecutive year. The national water census found that about 28000 rivers have disappeared. With only 8% of the world’s freshwater, China has to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s population. It aims to quadruple production of desalinated water by 2020, from the current 680,000 m3 (180 million gallons) a day to as many as 3 million m3 (800 million gallons). Forced migration due to water shortages has begun in China, and India should be next. The number of landslides and other disasters around Three Gorges Dam increased 70% since its water level reached its maximum level in 2010, possibly leading to the resettlement of additional 100,000 people. The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges, and Indus are among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. The government of Victoria in Australia has opened private competition to bid for water supply contracts. China is buying increasing amounts of agricultural land in Australia to offset carbon. By 2050, an additional 1.5 billion m3 of water will be needed in the Middle East, of which about a third will be allocated to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. The Middle East Geneva Accords offers a way to resolve Israeli-Palestinian water issues. Some 2.6 million Afghans are at risk of hunger from drought. Yemen may have the first capital city to run out of water. UEA's renewable water resources have decreased 42% in the past 15 years. Increasing water prices could spark social unrest. Fear of a political and environmental crisis may lead to the collapse of the state and an influx of refugees, Saudi Arabia has donated fuel to Yemen and offered to fund water projects. The economic costs of poor-quality water in countries in the Middle East and North Africa range from 0.5% to 2.5% of GDP.

Europe: Some 120 million people do not have access to safe drinking water and even more lack access to sanitation in Europe. Russia plans to improve water efficiency 2.5 times by 2030. Water utilities in Germany pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies. Water losses due to bad infrastructure are less than 5% in Germany but can be as high as 50% in Bulgaria. The EU is conducting a Policy Review for water scarcity and droughts, and the Common Agricultural Policy is exploring how to achieve a more balanced management of water resources. The EU took Portugal to court for failing to submit river basin plans, an obligation under the EU Water Framework Directive. Spain is the first country to use the water footprint analysis in policymaking. The European Commission launched a €40-million fund to improve access to water in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The world’s largest reserves of freshwater are in Russia, which could export water to China and Middle Asia. The worst drought in the UK since 1976 affected more than 35 million.

Latin America: Latin America has 26% of the world’s freshwater and 6% of its population, yet two-thirds of the region is arid or semiarid, including large areas of central and northern Mexico, northeastern Brazil, northwestern Argentina, northern Chile, and parts of Bolivia and Peru. About 25% of the population (over 100 million) lives in water-stressed areas, mainly in Mexico, Argentina, and the countries along the west coast. Some 125 million lack sanitation services. Mexico performs 85% below the OECD average for water quality but has increased investments in water systems and the “2030 Water Agenda” for universal water access and wastewater treatment. Suffering from the worst drought in 70 years, Mexican farmers have lost 2.2 million acres of crops. Costa Rica needs to invest $2.4 billion to improve water and sanitation conditions by 2030. El Salvador will be hit hardest by water shortages in the region. Ice is melting in the Andes, affecting hydroelectric dams, agriculture, and urban water supplies; 68% of the region’s electricity is from hydroelectric sources. Water crises might occur in megacities within a generation unless new water supplies are generated, lessons from both successful and unsuccessful approaches to privatization are applied, and legislation is updated for more reliable, transparent, and consistent integrated water resources management. The region’s water demand could increase 300% by 2050.

North America: North Americans use water 2.5 times the European rate. U.S. thermoelectric power plants withdrew as much water as farms did, and more than four times as much as all U.S. residents. Competition for water among agriculture, cities, and power plants is heightened due to droughts in 2011 and 2012. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity in the U.S. requires about 25 gallons of water for cooling, which makes power plants the second largest water consumer in the country (39% of all water withdrawals) after agriculture. There is no central coordination for data and improvements for the U.S. water situation. A total of 36 states in U.S. are expected to have water deficiencies in 2013. The U.S. may have passed its “peak water” level in the 1970s. More than 30 states are in litigation with their neighbors over water. According to EPA, $384 billion is needed for drinking water infrastructure between 2011 and 2030. Some 13% of Native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, compared with 0.6% in non-native households. Tapping Western Canada’s tar sands consumes an estimated 20–45 cubic meters of water per megawatt-hour, nearly 10 times that for conventional oil extraction. Canada is mapping its underground water supplies to help policymakers prevent water shortages. Government agricultural water subsidies should be changed to encourage conservation. Tap water is regulated in the U.S., but bottled water is not; 40% of bottled water tested came from tap water.

Graph using Trend Impact Analysis; it is part of the 2012 State of the Future Index computation (See Chapter 2, SOFI 2012)

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