Water Security: Novel Techniques in Increasing Access to Clean Water Around the World

BY JENESIS DURAN

The necessity of water cannot be denied. Consisting of over 60% of the human body by mass, it is the sustainer of life and vitality. As ubiquitous as water seems, in today’s world over 40% of the global population suffers from water scarcity, with around 783 million individuals worldwide lacking access to clean water.1 In addition, a current average of 3.4 million people die from waterborne illnesses every year.2 This is the same amount of people who die of diabetes.3 And yet, in spite of the incredible technological advancements in today’s world of water treatment, from an individualized LifeStraw to nationalized reverse osmosis, the number of countries classified as water-scarce are expected to rise from 31 to 54 countries by 2050.4 This is in large part a result of our increasing population, which will imply an additional freshwater demand of nearly 64 billion cubic meters per year.5 The gravity of this situation demands global attention and cooperation in order to thoroughly implement effective water treatment techniques around the world. 

The importance of water security that has drawn concern from both developing and developed nations alike. But they generally have very different approaches to the problem, for a key reason: the use of water is dramatically greater in the developed world than in the developing world. Developed countries use and average of 450 liters of water a day per person, whereas the average person in developing countries uses 20 liters of water.2 A variety of sources categorize developed and developing nations under different precepts. For example, The World Bank classifies countries into low, middle, or high income status based on the gross national income per capita. A developing nation is thus considered one that has a gross national income per capita of $4,085 or less.6 The United Nations classifies development based on gross national income per capita, a Human Assets Index, and an Economic Vulnerability Index.6 Countries in the Middle East and Africa are most susceptible to the effects of water scarcity due to their climate. It is important to note that the definition of water security is often described as global access to safe water at an affordable cost, whilst ensuring environmental protection.7

 In order to understand how water security functions in the modern world, we can consider historical methods of water treatment and how they have evolved. Initially, each country relied on its own methods for treating water. For example, the hand-dug qanat tunnels provided 70% of water and 50% of Iranian irrigation in the 1980s.7 These tunnels were underground channels that transported water from underground water sources to the surface level. Over time, however, nations began to substitute individual national practices with international policy. In 2002, the universal right to water was affirmed by the United Nations. The following year, the Chief Executives Board (CEB) for the United Nations established the UN Water agency to coordinate on all freshwater and sanitation related issues. The General Assembly then proclaimed an International Decade for Action, “Water for Life”, campaign that would last from 2005-2015.1 This project would result in the provision of safe drinking water for nearly 1.3 billion individuals in developing countries. 

Despite the progress made, issues still persist around the world. As of 2015, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report deemed the ensuing water crisis a part of the top ten global risks that threaten economic growth.8 The water crisis has even been prioritized by the UN as a part of its Goal 6 sustainable development plan.1 Just recently, the United States, which is widely recognized as a developed country, has grappled with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and the current harrowing aftermath of the 2017 hurricanes. In the developing world, due to the lack of access to safe water and sanitation, Sub-Saharan Africa alone has encountered economic loss estimated to be around $28.4 billion a year.5 In the Middle East, control over the Jordan River and the effects of the Six-Day war between Syria and Israel in 1967 have caused ongoing tensions to persist in this region over the notion of water security.7 Countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have experienced difficulties with their water supply due to population and economic growth, urbanization, and industrialization. It seems as if the common denominator that bridges the gap between these vastly different nations is the pursuit of water security. In order to resolve this issue, global collaboration and novel techniques must be established. 

Ongoing novel techniques include technologies and policies that have been found to be both beneficial and effective. This includes desalination techniques that now comprise of an additional greenhouse solar energy based desalination method. In Tanzania, financing has been allocated towards the acceleration of solar water pumping.9 Reverse osmosis is also a technology that is widely used. In addition, the investment in foreign land for food and the production of genetically modified organisms (GMO) have served as beneficial short term methods. The goal has been to genetically modify plants to make them resist drought and transpire less.6 Beneficial policies that have contributed to water security include the efforts of the Millennium Development Goals, The Global Water Partnership, and the Integrated Water Resources Management plan (IWRM).  

For countries with adequate resources, one effective form of water treatment is desalination. Since the planet consists of 70% salt water, the  desalination method is widely used.8 The cost of desalination, however, has prevented it from being used more frequently. The most important users include countries in the Middle East and in North Africa, as well as the United States.10 In Israel alone, the cost for this method is 53 cents per cubic meter. An estimated 12,500 desalination plants were being used in 2002 in 120 countries. The production of these plants was about 14 million cubic meters of freshwater per day.10 The greenhouse solar energy based desalination method uses solar energy to desalinate seawater. Meanwhile, desalination plants convert seawater to drinking water on ships and in arid regions by using the natural properties of the water cycle.

Even more effective than desalination is reverse osmosis. Reverse osmosis is a technology that is used to remove contaminants from water by pushing water under pressure through a semipermeable membrane.11 Reverse osmosis is an effective method for producing demineralized or deionized water. This novel technique was first commercialized in the United States in the 1960s, but it wasn’t widely used until twenty years later due to its expense. The cost since then has decreased significantly. In California, the average residential monthly charge was $36.39 per 1500 cubic feet of drinking water.12 Despite the decrease in cost, the method of reverse osmosis is still seemingly unaffordable for developing nations to prescribe to. 

In order to establish a more equilateral approach that is separate from individual technologies, effective policies, like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), have been implemented across borders. A specific objective of this plan was to indicate water and sanitation as a part of overall environmental sustainability. The goal was to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”5 This proportion was monitored by observing the proportions of those using improved water sources and improved sanitation facilities. The MDGs was established by the World Health Organization in 2000. The eight goals were agreed and collaborated upon by a total of 191 UN member states.

Another policy that has contributed to global water security has been the Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) approach. This approach is in accordance with the definition of water security in that it seeks to manage water resources in an equitable manner that doesn’t compromise environmental sustainability.8 The three pillars of this approach include creating environmental sustainability legislation, establishing institutional framework for effective implementation of said legislation, and the provision of necessary management tools for these institutions.8 It is important to note that the IWRM, unlike the MDGs, is a long term initiative, rather than a short term pursuit. 

Challenges that are to be expected fall within the realm of social, political, economic, and ecological concerns. Socially, it will be challenging to inspire empowerment and participation in developing communities to take charge over this predicament. This is in part due to the political influence of certain world leaders who have led their communities to rely solely on the government’s power. Economic challenges include accountability for costs. The most affected regions are developing countries who are unable to afford the expensive desalination and reverse osmosis technologies. This issue, along with the costs of providing effective structures and management resources should be considered. Lastly, ecological challenges will include the abundance of freshwater, which is limited, and the risk of climate change and its associated natural disasters. 

The failure to exercise appropriate concern over these matters may result in extensive negative repercussions. In addition, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has estimated that the total cost of water and sanitation infrastructure may be as much as  $200 billion per year.5 The following quantities will only increase upon negligence. Fortunately, the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that for each $1 investment in safe drinking and water sanitation, a return of $3-$34 dollars is received.5 The negative and positive affects of this predicament should serve as an incentive to increase global collaboration and the search for novel techniques. Only then will we have the ability to establish a global foundation for long term water security. 

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References:

  1. Water. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/water/index.html
  2. Lewis, K., & Yacob, L. (Eds.). (2004, January). Water Governance for Poverty Reduction. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://www.undp.org/content/dam/aplaws/publication/en/publications/environment-energy/www-ee-library/water-governance/water-governance-for-poverty-reduction/UNDP_Water%20Governance%20for%20Poverty%20Reduction.pdf
  3. Diabetes kills 3.4 million people every year: WHO. (2012, November 14). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/2012/11/diabetes-kills-3-4-million-people-every-year-who/
  4. Achieving Water and Sanitation Services for Health in Developing Countries. (1970, January 01). Retrieved October 28, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK50770/
  5. Water in a Changing World. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://www.unesco.org/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/SC/pdf/WWDR3_Facts_and_Figures.pdf
  6. Water Security in Developing Countries. (2013, November 24). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://12.000.scripts.mit.edu/mission2017/water-security-in-developing-countries/
  7. Gürsoy, S. I., & Jacques, P. J. (2014). Water security in the Middle East and North African region. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://www.kysq.org/docs/WatSec_ME.pdf
  8. The Water Challenge. (2017, February 15). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://www.gwp.org/en/About/why/the-water-challenge/
  9. Projects & Operations. (2017). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://projects.worldbank.org/search?lang=en&searchTerm=&mjsectorcode_exact=WX
  10. Perlman, U. H. (2016, December 2). Saline water: Desalination. Retrieved October 15, 2017, from https://water.usgs.gov/edu/drinkseawater.html
  11. Ultrapure Deionized Water Services and Reverse Osmosis Systems. (n.d.). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from http://puretecwater.com/reverse-osmosis/what-is-reverse-osmosis#reverse-osmosis-performance-trending-and-data-normalization
  12. Seawater Desalination Costs. (2011, September). Retrieved October 15, 2017, from https://watereuse.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/WateReuse_Desal_Cost_White_Paper.pdf

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