Four Billion People Experience Water Scarcity

A half a billion people around the world experience severe freshwater scarcity all year round, while 4 billion people on the planet currently experience freshwater scarcity at least one month of the year, says a new study. With us to discuss these staggering new numbers is one of the authors of the benchmark study that is titled Four Billion People Facing Severe Water Scarcity by Arjen Hoekstra and his coauthor Mesfin Mekonnen. Arjen Hoekstra is professor in water management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. His latest book is titled The Water Footprint of Modern Consumer Society. It explores the full water footprint of consumer goods.
Video and full transcript below:


PERIES: Arjen, so these are astounding numbers. Four billion, two-thirds of the world's population are experiencing freshwater scarcity. How did you come up with these numbers, and what was the previous study that a lot of people are referring to that overlooked the gravity of the problem?
HOEKSTRA: The past studies always looked at the annual water consumption, and the annual water availability. But this hides, obviously, the fact that the water availability and water demand are highly variable within the year, with water scarcity occurring only part of the year, that being a very severe part of the year. So what we did is we looked at the water footprint, the water consumption of different activities, including agriculture industry, also municipal water use, so the water footprint of different activities from place to place in high spatial resolution, but also from month to month. And then for every place we compared water footprint, water consumption, to the water availability, which shows scarcity for month to month and place by place.
PERIES: And so in your study, who is experiencing the worst case scenario, in terms of water scarcity, access to fresh water?
HOEKSTRA: Now, you see, some places have only one month per year of severe water scarcity, but other places two months, three months, up to even a full year. Now, what we see is that most of the people facing severe water scarcity live in India and in China, but there are also many small countries that face [water] scarcity year round, like Yemen, for instance, or other countries in the Middle East. So those people, they, they have really the problem of, of water supply. Particularly to agriculture, because for drinking we don't need so much water. So water scarcity primarily translates to the risk of [inaud.] of food.
PERIES: So can you talk about the main drivers of water scarcity? What is causing it, is it climate change, is it population, urbanization? What's the cause?
HOEKSTRA: Primarily it's population growth, plus the fact that we consume way more water per person. And the latter is because we have different diets nowadays, more and more meat in our diet. And a meat-based diet is more water-intensive than a diet with no meat consumption. Also we consume more and more biofuels nowadays, and the [inaud.] we produce, and also require a lot of land and water resources. So the population growth plus the increasing demand for water per capita drives water scarcity. But on top of that we have climate change, which means that particularly in dry areas, and dry periods of the year, we expect reduced water availability. In this way we see even enhanced water scarcity in those regions that are affected by climate change.
PERIES: Now, Arjen, how did you conduct the study? What was the methodology?
HOEKSTRA: We used an incredible amount of data, and then a couple models to estimate both water use and water availability. So you can imagine we used maps where crops are grown, when and where they are irrigated. We used climate data, like presentations and temperature, and soil data, and all this to estimate the water use in agriculture and irrigation. But then we also used population density maps and data industry to know where is the, the water demand of people and industries. And all that water demand, we aggregate it from place to place, and then compare to total water demand in every place to the water availability, which depends on the precipitation, minus the evaporation. And this is then the amount of water that is available for the agricultural industry and households.
PERIES: So Arjen, the numbers that the UN is referring to is much lower in terms of water scarcity and how many billions of people are affected by shortages. What is the difference between your numbers and their numbers, and why?
HOEKSTRA: Earlier studies, they looked at the annual statistics on water use and water availability, which hides the severity of the issue, because generally water scarcity is not full year round, but only during a specific period. But that can still be very severe. So the previous studies, including those cited by the UN, they show kind of an annual average of people having severe water scarcity. Well, we show it really month by month, and show that four billion people live in areas that have at least one month of severe water scarcity in a year.
PERIES: So Arjen, what's a solution? What are you recommending as a result of your study?
HOEKSTRA: Now, we have quite a different number of recommendations for both government companies, investors, consumers. Because we think that all those different people and organizations will be involved and have some responsibility. Governments, for instance, have to formulate what we call water footprint caps, their information, their months, in order to ensure that water footprints don't go beyond what the sustainable level, [inaud.] per month. We think that a company should know what is reasonable, and water use per product. So we propose water[proofing] benchmarks by product based on best available technology and practice so that companies can set reduction targets for their own waterproofing of their products, and in this way help to solve the water crisis. We believe that consumers have to kind of reconsider their consumption pattern, because particularly a misconception probably contributes to the water demand worldwide, and can be reduced by eating less meat. And finally, investors will be important because generally investment decisions are being made without considerations of the impacts on the water scarcity situation. Nowadays climate impacts are being incorporated in investment decisions. We believe that also impacts on global water scarcity need to be incorporated in those kind of decisions.
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