No More, Dirty and Way too Much:
3 Big Water Challenges (and what we can do about them)
Our world is facing water challenges that are only expected to grow. What can we do when the tap runs dry? Or when our cities flood? When our water is too dirty to use? Here's a snapshot of three major water issues and how nature can help address them.
1: No More Water
More people and less water are leaving both urban and rural inhabitants high and dry. The World Health Organization reports that by 2025, half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas. The gap between the demand for water and a readily available supply is expected to grow wider and wider through the century, creating a 40% water deficit by 2030. Climate change is only expected to exasperate these impacts.
Lose the watershed, you lose the water.
The Guandu Watershed
More than 9 million people in Rio de Janeiro rely on the Guandu River basin, but the city's water supply is threatened by degradation, deforestation, industrial development, and urbanization. The basin is the singular source for 85-90% of the water used throughout the region.
The Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area is home to more than 9 million people
Protect the watershed, you protect the people.
The great challenges faced outside of Rio don't mean there isn't hope. Through forest restoration projects, strategic partnerships with local organizations - like the Earth Institute for Environmental Preservation (ITPA in Portuguese) - and implementation of the Freshwater Health Index, Conservation International in Brazil is working to protect the Guandu River basin. Forest conservation and the creation of a green belt around rivers can help ensure Brazilians get the water they need as well as protect diversity and sustainable livelihoods.
CI Brazil and ITPA partners monitor reforestation projects in the Guandu Basin in October 2017
2: Dirty Water
Whether it's unmanaged drainage from industry, an oil spill, or improper hygiene and sanitation services, water pollution leads to big - and expensive - challenges. Contaminated water leads to health issues for people and wildlife and results in the destruction of habitat and seafood stocks.
Sometimes it's the direst situations that can lead to the greatest positive change: in the United States, it was the iconic Cuyahoga River on fire that spurred the National Environmental Policy Act and later the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act in 1970. But we shouldn't have to wait for an apocalyptic-style wake-up call to clean our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
According to the World Bank, globally 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services and 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services. Unsafe drinking and irrigation water is often connected to improper sanitation or pollution and has health impacts on local communities. The World Health Organization estimates that contaminated water is estimated to cause 500,000 deaths yearly. Isn't that enough of a wake-up call?
WASH interventions such as this dry composting latrine help improve family health in rural areas
The lack of good quality water can be addressed: good water and hygiene are among the most cost-effective health interventions. Securing safe and clean water, especially in developing nations, is an ongoing effort. Conservation South Africa, a CI affiliate, is aiming to improve water quality through the One Health Initiative.
Along the uMzimvubu River, CI associates work with local communities to integrate water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) interventions with ecosystem restoration and improved farming practices. These integrated efforts promote clean water, improve ecosystem health and human health.
3: Too Much Water
While some places struggle to have enough water, others are inundated by heavy rains, sea-level rise, and salt-water intrusion. Flooding is increasing in frequency and severity.
September 2017: during the rainy season in Mexico City, flooding shuts down major roads
The risks posed by too much water are especially felt in coastal, low-lying regions. By 2100, sea-level rise is expected to turn hundreds of millions of people into climate refugees.
The effects of sea-level rise are worsened by the destruction of mangrove forests, marshlands and coral reefs, natural buffers to coastal areas. Not only do these ecosystems help prevent erosion and reduce storm impact, but also they are rich in biodiversity, help store carbon that mitigates climate change, and are key to providing income and food for millions. Despite this importance, in just the last 50 years we've lost 50% of all mangrove forests.
Low-lying coastal cities and nations like Singapore are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge
Restoring mangrove forests and coastal marshlands can help mitigate the impacts of too much water. Through the Blue Carbon Initiative, CI and partners work to do just this.
Safeguarding flood-prone communities take the form of planting mangroves, marshlands, and seagrasses, collaborating with local stakeholders, and engaging in scientific study. Their work is slowing the loss of these ecosystems and providing coastal buffers to minimize impacts to coastal communities.
Climate change, increasing populations and improper resource management are changing water for the worse. We can only go so far in engineering solutions to deal with these three major water challenges. Protecting natural systems, the green and blue infrastructure of this planet is and will be increasingly key.
Nature-based solutions, like those championed in conservation, watershed restoration, WASH interventions, and coastal protection, can help us tend to and improve our relationship with this essential resource. Our well-being, that of our communities, and the ecosystems we rely on depend on it.
During 2017-2018 I am serving as the Water Forest Project Officer with CI México and supporting other nature-based water resources development and conservation efforts within CI.