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Water, a limited resource essential to life: a social challenge

About the blog

Emilio Gabbrielli
Independent International Advisor.
  • Water, limited resource essential to life: social challenge

As we all know, water is essential for life. This means that a suitable amount of water of the right quality needs to be available to all living creatures to ensure the well-being of all people and safeguard the environment. This has become increasingly difficult given the explosion of the world’s population and the associated water demand by agriculture and industry, coupled with a disregard for the environment that has led to contamination and depletion of water resources and progressive changes of weather patterns.

Still, at the time of the first World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 1992 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, this crucial role of water was not explicitly recognized. In fact, it hardly figured on the agenda. Luckily, it was addressed in a side event of the Summit, recognizing that it is a limited resource and so must be managed as such. At the WSSD+10, which took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2002, water was finally a top agenda item, also thanks to Nelson Mandela.

Today, water is high on the political agenda, as the UN Development Goals testify. The issue of water is pervasive in most of the 17 Goals, well beyond specific Goal 6 on Clean Water and Sanitation. However, this has not meant that the world has progressed as fast as necessary in securing adequate fresh water supplies. Projections are not promising and building consensus around workable solutions and sharing of the resources is proving to be a significant challenge.

This cannot be surprising. When a resource is limited, the potential for conflict is high and even more difficult to manage in the case of a resource essential to life. Water is, and needs to be, a political issue at all levels, from transnational to local. At the same time, opinions about water—a highly sensitive subject—can be easily influenced by uninformed or partisan political campaigning so that the public is mobilized against its own interests. Over the years, my observation is that often we have the capacity and technology, but it is the social dimension that prevents or derails the adoption of the most effective solution. This means that the social aspect is a key element to avert a full-blown water crisis.

We often have the capacity and technology, but the social dimension prevents or derails the adoption of the most effective solution

The public needs to be aware of the issues and well informed. This is often hard to achieve, as I frequently see in my main field of activity, desalination and reuse. For instance, there is a common assumption that the concentrate from a seawater desalination plant is toxic and that with time extensive use of desalination will lead to an overall salinity increase of the oceans. This is wrong. There is a wealth of information showing that a properly sited and engineered concentrate discharge system prevents any adverse effects on the local marine environment. Yet, this May, the construction of a large desalination plant at Huntington Beach, California, was blocked after over 20 years of development as many in the community had become militant against it.

Luckily, there are examples where most citizens coalesced behind a sound government policy. One is Singapore, where this was mainly achieved through education: every year all students, from primary to university, had to visit the NEWater visitor center where they learned about the country’s bold water plan, which includes direct potable reuse of suitably treated sewage when necessary. In this way, they became ambassadors to their own family. Another example is the Programa Água Doce in Brazil, where 1000 small desalination units have been built in the semi-arid North-East and, against all odds, work satisfactorily thanks to the previous involvement and capacity building of the community to be served. 

Now, more than ever, we need to be ambassadors for the solutions available. Armed with a growing suite of technologies and a willingness to work with stakeholders at all levels, we have the capacity to help address the social challenges that can affect our access to clean water, an essential resource for life.

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