The water crisis in developing regions and beyond: three policy options

According to the World Resources Institute, 17 countries, home to nearly 25% of the World’s population, face a water crisis.[1] Regions like the Middle East, Africa and India experience “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of their available water supply on average every year. Even developed countries like Italy, Spain, Andorra, Belgium and Portugal, amongst many others, experience serious water resource shortages, where on average they use 40% of available supply every year. Such water shortages create serious vulnerabilities to the countries such as droughts and floods, limited access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and competition for limited resources between countries[2] (The water action decade). Water withdrawals globally more than doubled since the 1960s (Figure 1: water-stress world map, today) due to growing demand and this trend is expected to worsen in the coming decades. This problem requires an urgent and collaborative approach of the United Nations member states to address. Here are three specific policies that can be used.

Source: Water Risk Atlas,[3]

Increase agricultural efficiency. Agriculture irrigation accounts for 70% of water use worldwide and over 40% in many OECD countries[4] (OECD, Agriculture both contributes to and faces water risks.). Through a policy, it is important to focus on efforts that significantly increase the overall efficiency of the water use by the agricultural sector, reduce the sector’s impact on freshwater resources, and improve its resilience on water risks. Countries must set incentives and regulations for the farmers to reduce their use of chemicals and improve their water use. One effective approach is drip irrigation, a technique that saves 25%-75% pumped water compared to flood.[5] Applying the right amounts of water at the right time and at the right frequency helps use less water, drives higher crop yields, and lower food prices. It also enables lower use of fertilizer and pesticides, which leads to less underground water pollution bringing an overall positive effect on the ecosystem and improving its long-term sustainability.

Recycling and reusing water. In recent decades, there is a growing demand for water uses including energy-intensive water pumping, transportation, and industrial needs[6]. National and regional climate and policy planning must take an integrated approach to water management. Cities, industries, and other big users of water must adopt water conservation practices aimed at reusing greywater for multi-purposes and recycling, treating, and reusing water to produce a “new” water source. Through water conservation and with help of advanced technologies, 50% or more of water use reduction can be achieved. For example, the Sulaibiya Wastewater Treatment and Reclamation Plant near Kuwait City, Kuwait, is the world’s largest membrane-based water reclamation facility, where secondary water is pre-filtered with disc filters and then fed to the ultrafiltration system[7]. The plant was designed and built in 30 months, at a cost of $430 million (2004)[8]. This is a reasonable financial investment in exchange for 85% of water recovery over 30 years in the world’s most water-stressed region.

Tight water management with better information. Governments must implement new processes for tracking water, including accurate measurements of the flow, quality, storage, diversions, discharges, and uses (Manage data more tightly with better information).[9] This will allow understanding of the water availability patterns, provide reliable and transparent information for national and regional water resource planning, and enable better management of the water systems. Such policy would depend on three key pillars: (1) Adopting new technologies such as groundwater monitoring,[10] remote sensing, and improved hydrologic models to monitor and predict water flows and quality; (2) more accurate measurement and timely reporting of water diversions by major water-right-holders[11], (3) collaborative cross-stakeholder, cross-border partnership and decision making for effective water management.

[1] WRI “17 Countries, Home to One-Quarter of the World’s Population, Face Extremely High Water Stress.”

[2] UN Water: “Inform policies

[3] WRI “Water Risk Atlas”

[4] OECD “Managing water supply is key to the future of food and agriculture

[5] Ruth Shuster “The Secret of Israel’s Water Miracle and How It Can Help a Thirsty World

[6] UN Water: “UN-Water Policy Brief on Climate Change and Water

[7] Lori Lovely. “Water Reuse Technology” (Water World, 2018)

[8] Water Technology “Sulaibiya Wastewater Treatment

[9] Ellen Hanak, Jay Lund, Jeffrey Mount, Peter Moyle, Brian Gray, Barton Thompson, and Caitrin Chappelle “Policy Priorities for Managing Drought” (PPIC, 2015)

[10] Nexsense “Groundwater Monitoring Systems” (2019)

[11] Desert Sun “California adopts rules for tracking water diversions

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Julia A. Graf

Big data executive, impact investor, champion for a sustainable future