Cities in the face of drought
More than five billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050, as a vicious combination of climate change, increased demand and wasteful inefficiencies plunge the world’s water supply under threat. The Telegraph investigates what can be done to prevent future crises.
8 AUGUST 2018 • 12:43 PM BST
Michael Burry came to fame by betting against the housing bubble. By being one of a select few who foresaw the crash of 2008, he ended up with hundreds of millions of dollars.
So astounding is his story that he was featured in the film The Big Short. The film ends with a simple description of his next investment: "Michael Burry is focusing all of his trading on one commodity: water."
Our first reaction to hearing that water could be so valuable is shock. After all, many of us can simply turn a tap on in the next minute and let water pour out of it. But forecasts shows that water will not be such an abundant resource in future.
By 2050, more than five billion people could suffer water shortages as a vicious combination of climate change, increased demand and wasteful inefficiencies place the world's water supply under threat.
The United Nations has warned that just seven years from now, there will be 1.8 billion people experiencing absolute water scarcity, where the natural water resources are unable to supply demand. Two thirds of the world will be water-stressed enough to see demands exceed supply for certain periods of the year.
Cape Town's main water supply from the Theewaterskloof dam in February 2018. The city has had the threat of Day Zero hanging over it for months
PHOTO: AP PHOTO/BRAM JANSSEN
This year has seen taps already turned off in cities as far apart as South Africa's Cape Town and the Brazilian capital of Brasília. Cape Town only just avoided Day Zero, which would have marked the day that the city officially ran out of water and turned off the valves to a million homes.
So bad is this deteriorating situation that water crisis has been ranked as one of the world's top risks by the World Economic Forum.
We humans consume about 4,600km3 of water every year - around twice as much as there is in all the planet's rivers - and this is estimated to increase by a rate of one per cent each year.
But with the sources of this water seemingly drying up before our eyes, experts are warning that we have to drastically rethink how we see water.
Newsha Ajami, Director of Urban Water Policy at the US’ Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said: "Water is vital to everything in our lives and we cannot live without access to clean water.
"Twentieth-century urban water systems were built assuming abundance - which has also conveyed the same impression to the customers - and stationarity - with no change to hydrologic and climatic characteristics over time. We now know neither is correct."
The world's drought hotspots
Cape Town grabbed the headlines this year as it approached Day Zero. It's managed to push this day back to 2019 with a raft of last-minute water-saving efforts, although the city still lives in the fear of the taps running dry.
But it's not just Cape Town: cities across the world are already suffering from water shortages. This is particularly stark in drought belts encompassing Mexico and the southwestern corner of the USA, western South America, southern Europe, China, Australia and southern Africa.
Rainfall is forecast to decline in these regions - which means there is less water to go around rising populations. Not only that, but looking elsewhere can only be of limited use. A third of groundwater supplies are already in distress, while most rivers or sites that could be dammed have already been developed.
This is a crisis that is facing many of the world's most developed cities. Among the world's most water-stressed megacities, the WWF lists Los Angeles, Beijing and Seoul.
Many of these cities rely on reservoirs and dammed rivers for their water. But satellite imagery shows that these sources are failing, with previously bountiful landscapes drying up to quench our thirst.
Near the Indian city of Chennai, the key Veeranam reservoir dried up after 2016's monsoon failed. This led to a water crisis in the city, with three in 10 of its people suffering from a drinking water shortage.
São Paulo's Jaguari Reservoir during a recent period of drought
PHOTO: PAULO FRIDMAN/ GETTY IMAGES
On the other side of the world, even a water-rich country such as Brazil has faced problems. The Atibainha reservoir that supplies São Paulo, South America's largest city, nearly dried up in 2015 when the country faced its worst drought in 80 years.
Many of the city's 20 million residents were left without water for 12 hours a day. Parts of the city saw fighting and the looting of emergency water trucks, and some municipalities declared "states of calamity" which paved the way for military intervention and emergency funds.
Wasting water: A lesson from Paris
Experts have warned that one of the key reasons that cities are facing water crises is that we are wasting the water we have.
Alexandros Makarigakis, programme specialist at UNESCO's Water for Human Settlements section, said that "everyone should look at wastewater use".
Cities like Beijing which use a lot of groundwater are already "close to capacity", he said, and should quickly look at re-using wastewater.
He pointed to the success story of Paris, where a dual-water system provides both treated, drinkable water to houses for people to use, while also supplying non-treated water for tasks such as cleaning streets or watering parks.
The water is not clean enough for human consumption, but using treated water would only be unnecessary and wasteful for many tasks. It's a model that it being heralded by Unesco for "supplying the right water for the right use".
Mr Makarigakis said: "Paris has opened up to the idea but other cities have been lagging behind. Wastewater is not being used and is instead being discharged into oceans or groundwater.
"I think that most cities that are in a vulnerable situation have to start looking at this - it's a low-lying fruit that should be picked up first."
Similar initiatives have taken place across the world. Los Angeles and the surrounding area have been looking for more realistic and cost-effective water sources for decades, which led California's Orange County Water District to begin distributing treated sewage as drinking water in the mid-1970s.
Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power released 400,000 black plastic 'shade' balls into Ivanhoe reservoir in an attempt to protect drinking water from sunlight in 2008
PHOTO: IRFAN KHAN/ LOS ANGELES TIMES
Climate change had rendered dams and reservoirs vulnerable to drought, and so the county needed new sustainable sources in order to avoid Day Zero. With groundwater already being so overdrawn that saltwater from the Pacific Ocean was seeping into it, authorities had little choice but to persuade people to drink water that was formerly sewage.
In order to dilute the treated wastewater, the county now injects it back into the groundwater supply before it goes to over one million residents. It is now the operator of the world's largest wastewater-to-drinking-water plant.
London's plumbing problems
Even seemingly rainy countries are struggling. London's centuries-old plumbing is leaking three billion litres of water every day , and there are fears that this infrastructure cannot sustain the city's rapidly growing population.
London's problems were laid bare earlier this year, when around 20,000 homes were left without running water as water pipes burst under sub-zero temperatures brought by the Beast from the East.
Thames Water told The Telegraph that the combination of Victorian plumbing, a growing population and future climate pressures mean that, if Londoners keep using water as we are today, we will need an extra 250 million litres of water a day.
Water managers say that they can meet the city's demand until 2025, but new sources will be needed after that. A shortfall of 20 per cent could be seen by 2040.
Thames Water chief executive Steve Robertson said: "More needs to be done to protect customers from the real long-term risk of severe drought. In the worst case scenario highlighted by the report, restrictions on water use in London alone could cost the economy more than £300 million a day."
To avoid London's own Day Zero, a key proposal is to build a new south-east reservoir, which is claimed will help provide a consistent supply to London's projected 11 million people even throughout drier summers.
Woodberry Wetlands in Hackney is on the site of a working reservoir
PHOTO: GETTY/ ROB STOTHARD
But with experts warning that we'll also have to tighten our belts, the future will also likely see "toilet-to-tap" recycled water like that seen in Los Angeles.
Drafted plans outline how a water reuse scheme at Beckton in east London would provide 285 million litres per day through treated sewage from the capital city. The sewage would undergo further treatment, be returned to the River Thames, re-abstracted and then treated again to produce drinking water.
Cutting down personal use, or recycling the water that individuals use, will only go part of the way. Just a tenth of the water that humans consume actually goes to households.
The biggest water guzzlers are the agriculture sector, which consumes 70 per cent of water, and industry, which consumes the other 20 per cent.
Groundwater - water which is held underground in soil or in rock crevices - has already been depleted worldwide for crop irrigation, and these abstractions are predicted to increase by 39 per cent by 2050 if we continue with business as usual, driven mainly by India, the USA and China.
This led UNESCO's Mr Makarigakis to tell The Telegraph that "the [water crisis] issue will not be solved by the water sector alone as it is not the major consumer. Water is consumed by other sectors, such as agriculture and industry, which are massive consumers.
"We have to improve agriculture's efficiency in using water. There are a lot of losses in farming practices. Considering that agriculture accounts for approximately 70 per cent of our water use, even a 10 per cent decrease in agricultural water use would free up seven per cent of our water."
A sprinkler system sprays crops with water from an irrigation canal set from Colorado river
PHOTO: BRENT STIRTON/ GETTY
He pointed to the fact that other industries have undertaken water-saving measures. "Before we needed 100 litres to do a laundry wash; now it's around 50 to 60 litres. The agricultural industry has to follow suit."
Experts say that an increase in food supply, which is needed to grow by half by 2050, cannot be sustained by a "business as usual" approach.
The UN's 2018 Water Development Report claimed that "agriculture will need to meet projected increases in food demand by improving its resource use efficiency while simultaneously reducing its external footprint, and water is central to this need."
Rainwater-fed crops is one simple example of green options that have been put forward to help improve efficiency, with the UN claiming that such an initiative could lead to a water use benefit of 1,650 km3 alone.
Clean water access means disease prevention
Water shortages are not only a problem for dehydration. We rely on access to clean water for cleaning both ourselves and our environment, essential for preventing disease.
Some four per cent of worldwide deaths are due to poor drinking-water access, unimproved sanitation and poor hygiene practices.
Even though the majority of urban dwellers have access to water for most of the year, the quality of this water can often be poor. This is particularly problematic in African countries such as South Sudan, Angola and Eritrea.
More than half of the urban residents in developing countries are still affected by diseases related to insufficient access to safe drinking water, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Diarrhoea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and polio are all waterborne diseases that plague people when the taps fail to provide clean water. These can be tackled if people have water to clean with, but even though cities have improved in the last few decades, a fifth of the urban population still lacked access to improved sanitation in 2012.
This is often concentrated among the poorest city dwellers, with clean water especially hard to access in slums and informal settlements. Owing to the dense nature of these areas, water and sewerage infrastructure is often hard and costly to install, and so the situation shows little sign of improving.
Experts warn such sanitation difficulties could get worse in the face of future water shortages. Vincent Casey, WaterAid's senior water, sanitation and hygiene manager, told The Telegraph: "The poorest and most marginalised are already paying most for water – either in actual cost, as they are forced to use black-market vendors, or in cost to health, as they may resort to collecting dirty water from ponds or rivers.
"Already 844 million people in the world don't have access to clean water close to home, and 2.3 billion don't have a decent household toilet.
"These disparities will only get worse in situations of water scarcity unless municipal and national authorities prioritise the regulation of the water supply to meet people’s basic needs, and to ensure the poorest are included."
What does the future look like?
The Chair of UN Water, Gilbert Houngbo, argued that nature-based solutions will be needed to sort the world's water crisis. He said: "In the face of accelerated consumption, increasing environmental degradation and the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, we clearly need new ways of managing competing demands on our freshwater resources.
"For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or 'grey', infrastructure to improve water management. In doing so, it has often brushed aside traditional and indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches."
As well as working with nature to improve our use of water, experts also say that the crux of the issue stands with city managers and planners.
Cape Town residents queue up to collect drinking water from taps in 2017
PHOTO: AFP/ RODGER BOSCH
WaterAid's Mr Casey said: "Improving the capacity of local government institutions and water utilities for the delivery of services, and prioritising household use while regulating water use for large scale agriculture or industry, are essential to address water stress.
"Raising awareness about sensible water use, securing additional water sources and increasing storage capacity while at the same time reducing water loss through leakages and illegal connections are more practical measures that help tackle water stress in cities."
The price we pay by not creating sustainable water supplies is clear. Experts warn that water scarcity can lead to civil unrest, mass migration and even conflict between countries.
Unesco's Mr Makarigakis is clear that we have to be ready before Day Zero hits other cities across the world, with cities' governance bodies doing more to plan for the worst before the water runs out.
"As we have seen in California and in Cape Town, a three- or four- year drought can change things drastically. The way that you go about your day can change very quickly once climate change hits.
"It's a reality. We have to live with it and plan for it."
How we go forward to deal with this reality, however, is yet to be decided.
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about