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What is water shortage and what can we do about it?

Change.inc ROMY DE WEERT  22 maart 2022

On World Water Day, the United Nations wants to draw attention to global water problems and solutions. Which water problems are we facing? And what can we do about it? In this article you will read all about water and the problems it faces.

The world consists of about 71 percent water. Only 2.5 percent is usable freshwater. Most of that is in ice sheets and glaciers, the other part is in the ground. Just over 1 percent of fresh water is in lakes and rivers. This fresh water is the source of life on earth.

What is going wrong with fresh water?

But much is going wrong with fresh water. Its supply is dwindling, while demand for it will rise sharply in the coming years, according to knowledge institute Deltares. Approximately a quarter of the world’s population in 17 countries runs an extremely high risk of water shortage. The risks are greatest in the Middle East and Africa. Scientists predict that freshwater scarcity will be one of the biggest risks for peace and security in the world in the next ten years.

But there are also water problems in richer countries. This is due to the decrease in river flow and declining groundwater levels. But also because evaporation and salinization (the salting of surface water, re.) are increasing. At the same time, the demand for freshwater is increasing due to the growing agricultural sector, industry and the growing world population. The balance between water demand and supply is therefore increasingly unstable.

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What does water shortage mean?

Water scarcity means that there is a shortage of sufficient clean fresh water in an area. This is because the supply and demand sides are not in balance at the time: the demand for clean drinking water exceeds the supply. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), water use worldwide has grown more than twice as fast as population over the past century.

Water shortages are caused by several interrelated factors. These include the growth of the world population, improved living standards, the consumer society (many industrial processes require water) and the increasing demand for water for agriculture. On the supply side, climate change, deforestation, water wastage and its pollution are causing an increasingly smaller supply of freshwater.

Water: What do we use it for in the Netherlands?

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In the Netherlands, we do not only consume water by showering or watering our garden. According to the Voedingscentrum, of all the water we use in the Netherlands, 85 percent is needed for the production of food and drink. Especially for the production of food, a lot of water is needed to clean machines and materials or to prepare the food, for example. In addition, water is needed to dilute used fertilizers and pesticides so that harmful concentrations are not too high. According to Natuur en Milieu, the use of artificial fertilizers leads to even higher water consumption. As a result, the soil can hold less water, making it drier and requiring earlier watering.

The average Dutch person uses about 199 liters per day by showering, washing and going to the toilet. Indirectly, about 4,000 liters are added to that. Because of the clothes we wear (making one T-shirt requires 2,700 liters of water) and the food we eat (110 grams of beef require 1,500 liters of water). In fifty years, Lake Aral on the border of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan has almost completely dried up due to cotton cultivation.

Why is freshwater shortage a problem?

We need freshwater to live. Plants, animals and people live on freshwater. But there is little water available on earth that we can really use. Only 1 percent of the world’s water is drinkable. And we have to share it with 7 billion people. Innovation and technological developments are slowly bringing about change. For example, architect Michael Pawlyn built a greenhouse in the Namibian desert where seawater is converted into fresh water. Similarly, researchers at Saudi King Abdullah University (KAUST) are developing a desalination system using coal and cotton wads.

These are projects still in their infancy, but the technology shows that solutions to freshwater scarcity are being worked on. A technology that is cost-effective and can make freshwater from saltwater on a large scale may be part of the solution.

These are projects still in their infancy, but the technology shows that solutions to freshwater shortages are being worked on. A technology that is cost-effective and can make freshwater from saltwater on a large scale may be part of the solution.

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What can we do about water shortages?

Research and innovation are therefore helping to freshen up salt water. But according to Deltares, we must also continue to monitor water availability, shortages and their social consequences. By identifying these, we can also devise more targeted solutions that will last a long time and be able to withstand an increasingly extreme climate.

The government can also intervene to counter freshwater shortages. Rijkswaterstaat and the regional water boards can do this in various ways. For example, they can temporarily raise the water level by pumping more water into a dry area. In doing so, they create a temporary reserve. In the event of a threat of a freshwater shortage, the government can also distribute the available water among the parties that need it. This is done on the basis of the so-called displacement sequence according to the Water Act. This determines which user functions are given priority in the event of an impending water shortage.

Solution: water policy should change

The interventions are temporary solutions. If we want to have a healthy water supply, water management needs to change, according to Flip Witte, former water researcher. Because although there is more rainfall than a century ago, we are facing water shortages. To Nieuwsuur he says: “Water management is primarily geared to agriculture. But farmers are now experiencing the damage themselves.” According to Witte, the policy is in fact aimed at preventing flooding for agriculture.

It’s like this: farmers want to get out onto the land in the spring, without the heavy tractors sinking into the boggy ground. Therefore, the water must be drained as quickly as possible into ditches and rivers. So they benefit from a low groundwater level. And in the summer, when it is dry, they need water. They can pump up as much groundwater as they want.

Smart use of water

Farmers see the need themselves and benefit from a healthy water supply. In Brabant they are trying to retain more water instead of draining it into rivers. Adrie Bossers of the agricultural organization ZLTO, for example, works with drainage systems. Underneath his plot there are perforated tubes, which is called drainage. The drainage ends in a pit in which the water level can be regulated. “So when there is an excess of precipitation in the winter, we can better retain the water in the soil. That has the effect of reducing drought in the summer,” Bossers tells Nieuwsuur.
According to him, we need to be smart about water. “We have been raised for generations with the idea that water is abundant. That’s true, but we have to deal with it in a smart way. Otherwise we’ll be in trouble.”

The Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management (I&W) is working on a national action plan with which it wants to create a new water policy. Not just for farmers, but for all of us. Because if we want to combat dehydration, we have to deal with water in a smarter and more economical way. Consumers and industry can also contribute to this.

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