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Reframing the Water Scarcity Narrative

A common narrative for the water scarcity issue is that we are running out of resources because less than a finite 0.01% of earth’s water exists as available freshwater. While true, this statement can be misleading. We are not chipping away at a static pool— water is renewable, which is why this tiny fraction has lasted us hundreds of millions of years. But if so, why are we facing a global water crisis?  

There are two major factors to the issue: supply and access. Both are impacted by natural geography and climate, which dictate where and how frequently water resources appear. However, recognizing the anthropogenic elements is key to reclaiming our agency and responsibility in the issue.  

On the supply side, human overconsumption and pollution play significant roles. Water resources become scarce when they are depleted at a rate faster than they can be replaced. Meanwhile water which has been contaminated with chemicals or energy cannot serve their functional purposes and could be detrimental to human and planetary health.  

The supply issue can be resolved through responsible water stewardship. It is a matter of committing away from business-as-usual-practices and re-prioritizing. At present, almost 70% of freshwater is used for agricultural purposes, while almost 20% is used for industry, and just over 10% is used for municipal and domestic purposes. With the agriculture and industrial sectors making up the lion’s share of consumption, it is necessary to investigate how these sectors can be transformed to improve efficiency and mitigate unnecessary freshwater use.  

The textile industry provides some good examples. Consuming up to 93 billion cubic meters of water annually (equivalent to approximately 37,200 Olympic-sized swimming pools) and responsible for 20% of global freshwater pollution, the industry is in absolute need for change. In particular, dyeing accounts for approximately 85% of consumption in the textile manufacturing process and the majority of the aforementioned water contamination. Investment into and dissemination of targeted innovations such as waterless dyeing are thus imperative to reducing the impact industries have on supply.

However, even if we could create a world of water abundance, an issue of accessibility would still remain. Continued water access barriers in rural and impoverished communities include a lack of connectivity and sanitation infrastructure and low investment into relevant resources.

It is therefore important that the water scarcity issue is reframed. Humans are not passive creatures in the water scarcity narrative, they have the potential and responsibility of creating change.

<div class="story_highlight">Research is based on information from the European Parliament and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.</div>