By Francesca Merlo
“One of the biggest problems in terms of governance over water is the lack of participation by those in need. We need to find ways to give these people a voice. They are aware of their needs, and they need to be able to express them… they can help in choosing the best fit solution for their situation”.
This is the message Richard Connor, Editor in Chief on the United Nations’ World Water Development Report, has for those of us who have the power to help make a change in the water crisis.
A "global" crisis
The water crisis is not so much a “global” one, as it is often referred to. Richard Connor explains that it is more a series of “small, or not so small, crises”. The water crisis “depends on who you are and where you are”.
He explains that in some cases, the issue is that there is too much water, in others there is too little water, in some, the water is too dirty, and in some cases, the issue is all three things – throughout the year.
The dirty water crisis
Richard Connor goes on to explain what he means by dirty water.
“In rural environments”, he says, we still have large problems with herbicides and pesticides, but the largest problem is with nitrogen and phosphorus: fertilisers”. These substances, create ‘algal blooms’, which “in turn, really deteriorate the quality of the water.”
When the water is too dirty, he explains, the issue is not only that humans cannot consume it, but also that the quality of the water is too poor for cattle and other animals. The issue is then transformed into “the cost of treating the water”, which, as a consequence, increases dramatically.
In urban areas, the problem is related to the sanitation system, meaning that there are elements present in the water that when consumed lead to diarrhea and dysentery when consumed.
“Unfortunately, 80% of the world’s waste water is released into the environment without any treatment whatsoever”, says Richard Connor.
The waste water crisis
The term “waste water” is actually an oxymoron, he says. In many other languages, it is actually called what we would translate as “used water”. It is, in fact, dirty water.
“Waste water is not a waste, it is a resource”, it contains – of course - lots of water that can be reused. Even if not for human consumption it can be used, for example, for crops and for washing streets and buildings in urban centres.
The “contaminants” in waste water can also be extracted and used: The nutrients from the fecal matter in some waste water contain nutrients which can, and should, be used as fertiliser.
In wastewater treatment plants, through a process called anaerobic decomposition, the organic matter in the water is transformed into methane, which is a natural gas. This biogas can be used to actually run the treatment plants and make them energy self-sufficient. The methane can also be exported to be used, and even sold, as fuel. In Stockholm, the buses and some taxis run entirely off the natural gases produced in their wastewater treatment plant.
“Of course saving water begins at home,” says Richard Connor. He explains that when you are saving water in the house, “you’re not just saving water for the environment, you’re also saving all the energy required to purify the water, to make it potable and to actually pump the water into your house”. With the evermore-present issue of climate change, saving water in the household is a very effective way of “not only saving water”, but also of reducing energy use.
The other side to saving water is that human consumption in reality only represents around 10% of the water that we withdraw and use across the world. The vast majority of water, 70%, is used in agriculture.
Every time we consume something, “we are using or ‘eating’ the water that is required to generate” whatever it is that we are consuming.
“If you really want to be water friendly, it is a good idea to think about, for example the amount of meat you eat”, because meat has a high water footprint. Richard Connor says that if everybody in the West shifted their diet a little, by for example, replacing some of the meat proteins with legumes and vegetable protein, “it would make an absolutely huge impact on the amount of water we withdraw for agriculture.”
Water in Energy
Solar and wind power use practically no water whatsoever, in comparison to the amount of water used in nuclear and thermal power plants. “The more we switch our energy mix towards these renewables, the less water we will be using”.
If you combine what we can do at home, what we consume on our dinner plates and what we consume in terms of energy – we can make a huge change in terms of diminishing our water demands as the human population grows from 7.5 billion now to roughly 9 billion by 2050.
“There’s still plenty of water to support 9 billion people on the planet – it’s just a question of how we use it”.
World Water Day 2019
The theme for world water day this year is “leaving no one behind”, so what should we do in order to ensure that no one is left behind?
“There’s a voluntary blindness on the part of certain authorities”, says Richard Connor, because the poor, especially in slums, remain hidden. At times, they do not pay taxes; at times “out of sheer necessity”, they are renting their homes illegally. For this reason, for lack of a legal registration, the authorities will say “you’re not allowed to be here so we don’t have to fulfill the basic human right on sanitation”.
“That is a policy that completely needs to be overcome and overlooked”, says Richard Connor. "Once people have access to sanitation they are healthier, they can work more, they can work better, and they can go to school”.
This policy, Richard Connor concludes, leads to maintaining inequalities and causes people to remain in poverty, whereas inequalities need to be fought, so that everyone can have the rights that they are entitled to – including water.