Dwindling Water and You: Problems and Solutions

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Following the recent national political conventions, CFR‘s Peculiar Progressive column noted five realities facing our future which the candidates didn’t face in their speeches. The first one was water.

Today, IBM released a study: Fixing the Future: Why we need smarter water management for the world’s most essential resource. The 20-page report cites specifics of water’s importance, problems we’re facing with supply, brief case studies from the East and West, and suggested actions governments can take.

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The study was prepared by IBM Global Services, and written by Dr. Mary Keeling, a senior managing consultant and manager of the IBM Institute for Business Value Center for Economic Analysis, and Michael Sullivan, the global segment executive for IBM Smarter Water Management.

The study clarifies how water is vital to every phase of our lives: essential for the world economy, has direct impact on individual health, a key for food production, and a factor in creating goods and services. A graph shows its vast involvement in making goods, e.g. it takes 10 liters of water to make one sheet of paper, 40 liters of water to make one slice of bread, 1,000-4,000 liters to make one liter of diesel fuel.

Challenges

The report cites these five interrelated and critical problems:

1. More people are living where supplies do not meet demand. “Population growth and urbanization are driving a significant increase in water usage, while water availability is decreasing,” the study notes. “The intensity of water use is also rising – water use increased at twice the rate of population growth between 1900 and 1995.” Between 2005 and 2030, the number of people living in areas with water shortages is expected “to have increased by almost 40 percent, from 2.8 billion people to 3.9 billion.”

2. Insufficient and aging water infrastructure is widespread. “In the United Kingdom, 3.4 billion liters of water are lost daily through leakage. In Mumbai, India, 700 million liters of water are lost daily through leakages and illegal connections…It is estimated that between 2011 and 2025, US$1 trillion is required to fix aging water infrastructure problems in the United States, where, for example, 5,365 dams will have exceeded their design life by 2015.”

3. Significant human and financial costs of intense, frequent floods. “Globally, between 1980 and mid-2012, more than 4,000 flood disasters affected 3.5 billion people, killed 6.9 million and caused US$559 billion of damage.”

4. Water quality and wastewater problems are worsening. “Two million tons of sewage and industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water every day. In the United States alone, sewer overflows discharge up to 850 billion gallons of wastewater annually. Over 780 million people worldwide do not have access to safe water.”

5. The water industry is facing a skills crisis. “In the United States, for example, the average water utility worker is 44.7 years old and will retire at age 56 with 24 years experience with the same utility. In terms of scale, this is anticipated to lead to a loss of between 30 and 50 percent of the workforce by 2020.”

Solutions

How do we solve such problems of water supply, facility repair, and personnel hiring and training in a world economy that appears near collapse? Smarter water management will help greatly, says IBM. The computer giant provides brief case studies to show what governments are doing in Dubuque, IA; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; at both Dublin and the Marine Institute, Ireland, and Singapore.

These specific case studies lead IBM to offer some general suggestions for governments, cities and businesses, and include some practical actions. E.g., the study notes “…there are nearly 53,000 water agencies in the United States alone. But there is no coordination of these agencies, despite the fact that they are all managing a shared resource.”

Obviously collaboration is needed to coordinate efforts throughout and beyond the nation. “Collaboration could include, for example, proactively reaching out and expanding partnerships and coordination efforts with other governments, international water management organizations, the private sector, civil society and academia.”