Almost one-fifth of the world’s population lives in areas where water is scarce, including 11% of Europeans. Population growth, urbanisation and higher consumption are all fuelling demand, while climate change is putting pressure on supplies, increasing the likelihood of more and more water shortages in the future.
Unless we start to use water more efficiently, within two decades the world will face a 40% shortfall in fresh water supplies – a scenario that will be fatal to humankind and ecosystems alike.
What can be done? The first, key step is to take a holistic approach to the management of water resources. Decision-makers and the public need to understand the linkages between water demand, protecting water ecosystems and measures needed to improve the availability of clean water. People must also recognise that increasing water efficiency is a matter for everyone, not just the water industry. That will require a strong political commitment at all levels of government, specific targets for water efficiency in both economic sectors and river basins, and concrete action on water, food and energy security.
A progressive approach to improving water efficiency is particularly important in agriculture, which accounts for roughly 70% of the fresh water consumed worldwide. As for industry, there are many opportunities to improve water and energy efficiency throughout the production process - from reducing the intake of raw water to waste water recycling. Businesses should not see water efficiency as a restriction. Rather it is an opportunity to save money by reducing waste. Providing industry with innovative water solutions can also offer some businesses a chance to grow. That’s not to say that all solutions have to be complicated. Often they will be as simple as fixing a leaking water pipe.
For policymakers, there are many useful tools to promote water efficiency, such as measuring the “water footprint” of economic sectors as well as production and consumption chains. Labelling and certification systems can improve public awareness of water used in the manufacture of consumer products and services. Charges and taxes on water are another option – so long as one is mindful of the needs of disadvantaged people – along with permit trading and the phasing out of harmful subsidies. Good governance will, of course, be essential. This should include the sustainable allocation of limited resources, integrated water resources management, trans-boundary co-operation and policies that reflect the costs of adverse environmental impacts.
Ville Niinistö is Finland’s Minister of the Environment.