Water: Towing Ice bergs

In 2018, officials in South Africa investigated the feasibility of towing an iceberg from Antarctica to provide drinking water during a 3-year drought. 8000 miles away in Beijing, $62 billion was committed to the Chinese South to North water transfer project, reckoned to become the most expensive infrastructure project in history. In order to understand how these events are linked, we turn first to the UN. 


According to its annual water report, water use has been increasing by 1% per year since the 1980s, with this trend expected to continue until 2050, leaving annual water consumption 20-30% above current levels. With 2 billion people already living in countries experiencing high water stress and this number set to rise, countries are trying to address issues, but they are looking in the wrong place. The solutions are easier than you might think. 


In order to understand the solution, we first need to understand what’s driving the increased demand for water. Population growth, socio-economic growth and changes in consumption patterns are all having an impact. Starting at the top, the growth of world population is well documented (PICTURE OF POPULATION GROWTH), and puts obvious strains on water supplies, especially when most of the growth is expected to come in Africa and Asia – already water stressed countries. This makes the solutions even more relevant, particularly as countries in these areas of the world often don’t have the money for vastly expensive infrastructure projects. 


Next, socio-economic growth is leading to changes in much of the developing world. Take China, a country where meat consumption and designer clothing is on the rise. With cotton and beef respectively needing 9,359 and 15,415 litres of water to produce just 1kg of goods, compared to just 214 litres of water per kg of the humble tomato, the implications of these changes are profound (WATER FOOTPRINT GRAPH). 


In a similar vein, changing consumer habits also impact water consumption. We all remember the recent avocado craze. Over the 5 years from 2010, avocado consumption in the USA increased by 300% to 4.25 billion avocados per year. A kilo of avocados can require 2,000 litres of water to produce – nearly 10 times the amount needed to produce a kilo of tomatoes. However, this isn’t the only issue, with farmers doing everything they could to service demand, avocados were grown irresponsibly leading to deforestation and cultivation even in very arid regions such as Chile and Mexico, requiring massive volumes of water. It’s clear how population growth, socio-economic growth and rapidly changing consumer trends can all encourage the irresponsible use of water. 


In truth, the common denominator across most of the water shortage challenges listed above, and many that aren’t, is agriculture. It is estimated that 92% of global water usage is agriculture related, predominantly from irrigation. 


Current solutions to the water crisis are big and bold. There are now over 15,000 desalination plants worldwide, that remove the salt from sea-water via a process known as “reverse osmosis”. These plants produce over 60 million metres cubed of clean drinking water per day. Another example is the Gorges dam project in China, which flooded thousands of villages, displaced 1.2 million people, and created a reservoir of water over 600km long. These projects, ingenious as they are, do not solve the underlying issues  above. Population growth is a wider and different issue, but socio-economic growth and changing consumer habits and their related impacts can be moderated. These projects delay the problem of water consumption rather than solving it; towing an ice berg to South Africa will never change consumer habits. We should start with meat consumption and clothing. Goods should be labelled to make their water impact clear, much like cigarette packets list their health impacts. 


Additionally, there is cheaper investment that will be money well spent needed in water storage and delivery systems in the right parts of the world – Bermuda has ample rain year-round, making storage systems an attractive prospect. Water pipes should be installed to areas with poor sources, preventing people from over-using and depleting local supplies. Sanitation is crucial too – many places of the world have highly unsafe and polluted sources, such as India, and it is crucial to prevent the clean water sources that exist from becoming polluted and unsuitable for drinking. Addressing these issues will be far cheaper and more impactful than enormous infrastructure projects that carry issues of their own. 


It’s easy to get carried away trying to solve water problems, but simple things that will go a long way to solving the water crisis. Education has a key role to play, making sure people understand their impact. It should be highly encouraging for all who care about this issue to know that everyone can make an impact; eating and purchasing clothing ethically to minimize water consumption, and spreading the word amongst those who care will go a long way to meeting the water needs of future generations.

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