With a seemingly new geopolitical disaster lurking around every corner, Fiona Harvey’s opening text in the ‘Guardian’ last month offered little comfort.
“The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40 per cent by the end of this decade, experts have said on the eve of a crucial UN water summit.”
On the face of it, this might sound like yet another existential threat to lose sleep over. It is also an avoidable one thanks to the significant R&D and investments made in understanding how we as a planet can support water security while exploring new water-centric frontiers to improve health and wellbeing.
In accordance with the hierarchy of needs, it is perhaps best to start with the three most pressing issues
- How are we improving water conservation?
- How are we innovating new ways to treat water to meet surging demand?
- How are we adapting the global logistics industry to ensure sustainable access?
It is no secret that despite the majority of the world being covered in water, only approximately 0.5 per cent is fresh, available, and potable – a figure under increasing pressure due to agricultural proliferation, pollution, and a burgeoning population.
With more than 1.8 billion people expected to live in water-stressed regions by 2025, headlines from recent weeks such as ‘Water ban in drought-stricken Tunisia adds to growing crisis’ or ‘Malta’s drinking water supply is under threat’, only support The Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ estimates that overall water infrastructure will require an additional $22.5 trillion by 2050 to make par.
The promise of agritech
As the most culpable industry when it comes to consumption, the agricultural sector has been under increasing pressure to find more innovative ways to use water and while best practices such as storing rainwater, optimising water times.
Opting to grow more drought-tolerant crops such as water-efficient maize, figs, okra, pole beans and Swiss chard have provided marginal gains, more significant progress has been made through the application of tech.
As a sector notoriously reticent in exploring new ideas, the last decade has shown a wider adoption of agtech solutions, with digitalization proving to be a front-runner in supporting greater precision farming and automation.
Products such as Bayer’s Climate FieldView offer an integrated digital tool that provides farmers with a comprehensive, connected suite capable of delivering accurate irrigation, reduced pesticide runoff into freshwater sources, and a range of data points to support higher yields.
Other high-growth products, such as Smart Irrigation, have been suggested to save over 406,000 litres per hectare, significantly increase yields and reduce labour requirements while identifying a broad range of crop abnormalities. According to one source, the sector is tipped to grow by 286 per cent, reaching a value of $5.57 billion by 2030.
Repair over replace
With 68 per cent of the world’s population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, another significant area of progress has been the repair of ageing infrastructure. In England and Wales, just under three billion litres of water is lost to leaks daily – the equivalent of 1,180 Olympic swimming pools.
In response, technology has played a crucial role in reducing losses through installing thousands of sensors, with companies such as United Utilities, one of the UK’s largest water companies, rolling out 102,000 sensors across its network in the northwest of the country.
As an additional step, the company has started working with Fido Tech to refine an AI system trained on identifying leaks with more than 90 per cent accuracy, scoring them from low to high probability. Major suppliers such as Thames Water have claimed a 10.2 per cent reduction in water leakage in 2021/2022 while remaining committed to a 20.4 per cent reduction between 2020–25.
When the answer is infrastructure
As highlighted during the recent UN 2023 Water Conference, robust logistical strategies are also a critical challenge for ensuring wider accessibility to water-stressed regions. While road haulage has been a temporary solution, more sustainable and permanent measures such as direct piping and reservoirs have also been investigated to support less accessible communities.
As a method that helped the American West thrive just over a hundred years earlier through projects such as the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the prospect has become more challenging in recent years. That being said, the success of the Turkey-Northern Cyprus water pipeline could offer hope.
As a unique project delivered in 2015, it continues to supply 75 million cubic metres of water per year under the Mediterranean from the Anamur River, providing drinking water and irrigation for food security.
Closer to home, neighbouring Qatar successfully invested in delivering the world’s largest water reservoirs as part of the peninsula nation’s water security program. Equipped with enough water for seven whole days, Kahramaa has access to 6,500,000 cubic metres of potable water storage.
While a smart investment for arid regions such as the GCC, wetland and river restoration is by far a more cost-effective solution if available. According to ‘Water World Week’, ‘reservoir construction cost is 40 per cent more expensive per square metre than a wetland restoration and 400 times higher than a river’.