Even if you don’t buy into the climate-change doomsaying, it’s hard to dispute evidence the world seems headed for a water crisis.
Population growth and economic expansion are putting strains on global freshwater supplies. If you add the predicted impact of climate change into the mix, things will get very dry indeed in some parts of the world unless critical changes are made.
According UN figures, the median projection puts the number of people on Earth by 2050 at 9.2 billion, from the current 6.8 billion. It could range as low as eight billion to upwards of 10 billion.
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The UN’s recently released annual World Water Development Report warns global water demand is projected to increase by about 55 per cent by 2050, driven by expansion in manufacturing, thermal electric power generation and domestic use.
“As a result, freshwater availability will be increasingly strained over this time period, and more than 40 per cent of the global population is projected to be living in areas of severe water stress through 2050,” the report says.
“There is clear evidence that groundwater supplies are diminishing, with an estimated 20 per cent of the world’s aquifers being over-exploited, some critically so. Deterioration of wetlands worldwide is reducing the capacity of ecosystems to purify water.”
Things look even more bleak if you factor in climate change. The fifth annual report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released last March, predicted each degree of warming is projected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20 per cent for an additional seven per cent of the global population, as well as increase the risk of major flooding.
Less surface and groundwater will “exacerbate competition for water among agriculture, ecosystems, settlements, industry and energy production, affecting regional water, energy and food security,” the report says.
Although some two billion people have gained access to clean drinking water in the last two decades, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute, almost 900 million are still getting their drinking water from unimproved sources. Current trends suggest the effort to ensure clean water for everyone will only get more difficult but the hardship will not be evenly distributed.
The areas now already dealing with “water stress” – principally North Africa, the Middle East, Australia and parts of Europe – will see the problem increase.
For example, soil scientist Hans Schreier, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and a longtime researcher into global water issues, notes the Middle East’s population is expected to triple to 900 million by mid-century, straining its already parched water reserves.
Australia is already dealing with water shortages. Its role as a rice exporter has disappeared and the country’s wine industry is looking at shifting production to Tasmania as other regions become too hot and dry for grapes, Schreier says. Even France’s vaunted wine producers are scouting locations outside the country, he adds.
Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of droughts in areas already prone to the problem and affect streamflow and water quality.
“Except in areas with intensive irrigation, the streamflow-mediated ecological impacts of climate change are expected to be stronger than historical impacts due to anthropogenic [human-caused] alteration of flow regimes by water withdrawals and the construction of reservoirs,” the IPCC report says.
In plain English, that means scientists question whether trying to maximize the exploitation of existing water sources will be enough to meet the projected demand.
There are no magic bullets for this developing crisis. Researchers have recently confirmed the presence of water deep beneath the Earth’s crust, embedded in minerals called ringwoodite and wadsleyite equal or exceeding water in the world’s oceans. But it’s located some 400 kilometres underground and no one realistically is talking about tapping that anytime soon.
The IPCC report has some good news for Canada, which is already among the top five countries in the world in terms of renewable freshwater resources.
“Water resources are projected to increase at high latitudes,” the report says. That's us.
But like elsewhere in the world, the impact will be felt disproportionately. While British Columbia and parts of Prairies, Central and Eastern Canada will need to cope with increased water runoff and flooding risks, already drought-prone Alberta will have to deal with the potential for both increased dry spells and flooding.
While the threat of adverse impacts from climate change is there, experts believe Canada’s in a good position to benefit from global changes despite its own population growing to an estimated 42 million by 2050 from the current 33 million.
But that will require Canadians to think more strategically about water, something surveys show they believe is important but still take somewhat for granted.
Canadians still waste an incredible amount of water compared with other countries. We use an average 483 litres daily per capita for all purposes, including 251 litres for residential and municipal uses, according to 2011 Environment Canada figures published last year.
Yet Canadians pay among the lowest water rates in the world.
“We pay about 63 cents per cubic metre [a thousand litres],” Schreier says. “In Europe it’s all between two and seven dollars for the same amount.”
About a third of Canadian water supplies also leak away through its aging distribution and sewer systems (in some countries it’s up to 40 per cent) – money that literally goes down the drain. But tight budgets and the fact infrastructure renewal is inherently unsexy make it hard for governments to do wholesale upgrades.
“Politically it’s not a priority because they can’t cut a ribbon on a sewage pipe," Schreier says, adding that can only change if we priced water at a level that would encourage conservation.
But it goes even deeper than that. Canada is one of the few countries with the potential to boost its food exports as global demand and climate change combine to strain production elsewhere by mid-century. It may require modifying the mix of commodities we produce to fulfil demand for food water-stressed countries can no longer provide for themselves.
Why do we spend so much money creating all this purified bacteria-free water and then use half of it for watering lawns? That’s crazy, right?
— Hans Schreier, professor emeritus at UBC
“We should be exporting food that is water efficient, has high value, has least environmental impact and has minimum greenhouse gas emissions,” says Schreier.
You’ve probably never heard of virtual water. It means the volume of water needed to produce a food or other product, part of its overall “water footprint.”
Some countries, such as China, have already begun adapting their agriculture sectors to respond to climate change, including virtual water as a factor in production to minimize the draw on domestic supplies.
“Their strategy is they only import water-intensive food,” such as meat and soybeans, Schreier says.
And Saudi Arabia has halted its program to grow wheat domestically because of the crop’s demand on water. Much of the country’s supply comes from desalination plants that convert seawater to freshwater. The process, though fairly simple, is very expensive even for an oil-rich country, so most of that water is reserved for domestic consumption and essential industries.
Canada, then, is positioned to fill those needs. But to profit from the change, it must also make better use of available water because while it’s abundant, it isn’t always accessible where it’s needed.
According to a report by Canada’s Blue Economy initiative, the annual water yield (roughly the amount of water available in a given watershed over a set period) fell by 8.5 per cent in southern Canada between 1971 and 2004.
There’s little appetite for costly, large-scale projects to pipe water long distances to meet demand. California became the fruit and vegetable basket of North America mostly by drawing water from further and further away, but that hasn’t prevented a sustained drought from wreaking havoc with the industry.
In Alberta, where future water shortages are most likely to occur, the focus has been on managing available supplies, says Kim Sturgess, chief executive of Alberta WaterSmart, which works with government and industry on the issue.
“We believe in a watershed approach,” she says. “It’s generally considered not a good way to go to transfer water across a basin.
“I think Alberta’s done a very good job in the last few years of looking at ways to be more prepared for situations of drought, and obviously for flood.”
While the devastating floods that hit Calgary and High River last year put a spotlight on the issue, Sturgess says the province has been working on watershed management under changing climactic conditions for more than a decade.
In 2006, the province put a moratorium on the sale of new water licences in the South Saskatchewan River Basin, which supplies water to much of the southern half of the province. An applicant who has a new use for water now must negotiate a transfer of water rights with an existing licence-holder. Only about 65 such arrangements, most of them small, have been made, Sturgess says. Often as not, no money changes hands.
“We do not have a water market,” Sturgess stresses.
Despite environmentalists’ preoccupation with water used in oil sands extraction, Sturgess says irrigation-based agriculture is by far the biggest water user in Alberta. In 2012 it used 2.5 billion cubic metres, compared with 160 million cubic metres used in oil sands production.
Regardless, Sturgess says the health of the Athabasca River system, which supplies water for oil sands and other resource industries in northern Alberta, has to be considered because of concerns about contamination.
“There’s certainly a drive to do that now, especially after the failure of the [Obed coal] mine tailings pond just outside of Edson last year,” she said. “All of a sudden people went, 'holy cow, we can’t just think about the oil sands.'”
The problem for Canada, says Schreier, is its abundant water reserves have removed any sense of urgency on the conservation side of the equation. While experts ponder flood mitigation strategies, optimal water utilization still seems like a low priority.
In B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, for instance, about 50 per cent the domestic water supply is used to keep residential yards green despite the growing region’s nearly maxed-out water reserves. In Vancouver, it’s 45 per cent, he says.
“Why do we spend so much money creating all this purified bacteria-free water and then use half of it for watering lawns?” Schreier asks. “That’s crazy, right?”
Municipalities need to get more creative in using waste or greywater, he says.
For example, Schreier says some two million Australians now get their drinking water from rooftop harvesting, using rainwater passed through a home mini-treatment plant.
In Singapore, which has among the world’s smallest water reserves, 40 per cent of the city state’s drinking water comes from treated sewage to a very high level, he says. Authorities overcame the ick factor through massive public education. The program was tried in drought-ravaged Orange County, Calif., but met with resistance.
“So what they did instead is they treated it to a very high quality, then injected it into groundwater,” says Schreier. “Then you pump out the groundwater and treat that. That way, you can actually make it acceptable, but it’s very expensive.
“If you think about it, you’re drinking water where dinosaurs peed into it.”
The key, experts say, is to get people thinking about the value of freshwater reserves. Value, not price, Sturgess points out, because price implies water is a commodity and that raises the whole export bogeyman.
“A price assumes that you’re going to buy and sell,” she says, while value looks at water as a factor in the cost of producing things.
Value opens the door to conserving bluewater, the rainfall that flows into lakes, rivers and groundwater, and greenwater, which feeds plants but often evaporates too quickly if soil isn’t managed to increase water retention. Value also brings greywater into the picture through investment in enhanced water treatment and separation of solids to make fertilizer, Schreier says.
All these aspects would ensure Canadian agriculture has the water it needs to take advantage of the anticipated world demand for food in the coming decades.
“Western Canada is going to be one of the few places in the world by 2050 that actually will have the capacity to produce a higher food yield than we have today,” says Sturgess.
“All the other major breadbasket countries in the world will be less able to produce food in 2050 than they are today. So there’s a huge pressure on us in Western Canada to meet our obligation to make sure that we’re producing the food for the world.”
(Photo courtesy AP Canada. Graphics courtesy Stephen Leahy, Your Water Footprint)