Although climate change is already referred to as the challenge of our time, with ever increasing economic, social and environmental impacts, water management is one of the most important challenges the planet has to deal with in the coming decades. In fact, according to the UNDRR, 90% of natural disasters are related to water.
Although — for now — there is enough water in the planet for the 7 billion people that live in it, its uneven distribution, our unsustainable management, and the mentioned impact of climate change, mean that water scarcity already affects one in four people. To this we need to add that, according to the UN, three in ten people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and six in ten people lack access to safely managed sanitation facilities. In addition, the Water Resources Institute (WRI) Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas finds that 17 countries, which are home to a quarter of the world’s population, face 'extremely high' water stress, with agriculture, industry, and municipalities using up to 80 per cent of available surface and groundwater in an average year.
Water and climate change can no longer be dealt with separately when we talk about human development
Given these numbers, we cannot deny nor exaggerate the importance of water resource management for the future of mankind. The truth is water is at the core of sustainable development. The cross-cutting nature of SDG 6 on 'Clean water and sanitation' for the achievement of the remaining SDGs, mainly those relating to health, education, economic growth and environment, make water a major factor for the socio-economic development of different regions in the planet. Water and climate change can no longer be dealt with separately when we talk about human development, and the commitment can no longer be a local one: it must go beyond boundaries and be addressed jointly at the global level.
Water use and consumption has grown twice as fast as the population growth rate, and the global water demand (in terms of extraction) is projected to increase by some 55% by 2050. Therefore, ensuring the water security that the global population demands requires joint discussions on sustainability strategies, taking into account the resources and conditions of each of the countries; cooperation between them is also key. Proper water management, particularly in cities, is complex and requires coordination between sectors and local authorities to focus strategies on a more sustainable and equitable use of water resources. Among those strategies, new technologies and digitalisation offer a broad range of opportunities to face the potential waves of water crises that, as scarcity or water pollution, are taking place and have done so for years now.
New technologies and digitalisation offer a broad range of opportunities to face the potential waves of water crises
In this regard, governments, public authorities and companies must commit to a transition to a circular economy model, where water is used as many times as possible, turning to other sources such as desalination and reuse; where different water qualities are allocated to different uses — industrial, agricultural and urban — depending on the parameters established by legislation; and where resources are recovered from waste water as much as possible. However. according to the working group on 'Water and the circular economy' of the CONAMA Foundation, this transformation of the water management model also poses a series of problems: concerning access to financing both when it comes to project implementation as well as for project long term viability, which is difficult; the need to reformulate and review regulatory frameworks; and also concerning distrust and social acceptance of advances in this regard.
And new technologies have a role to play in this paradigm shift: they are key not only for the success of the circular economy in the water sector, but also for the optimisation of water use in other sectors. The digital revolution is an undeniable and tangible reality, as much as climate change is, and provides us the tools we need for the sector to manage water as efficiently as possible. Information technologies, such as big data, the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, digital twins or artificial intelligence are some of the tools that allow having data that previously we could not extract, processing all the information at breakneck speed and improving production (and predictive) processes in a way we had never imagined.
Governments, public authorities and companies must commit to a transition to a circular economy model, where water is used as many times as possible
If the circular economy is about 'doing more with less', new technologies are about 'doing it better'. With that vision, both the public and private sector must vouch for innovation, in such a way that, throughout integrated water cycle management, the environmental and economic benefits are maximised. These two aspects have social impacts.
In short, water security faces an unprecedented challenge. Only the cooperation between stakeholders at the local, regional and global level will show whether we are truly ready to tackle this new scenario where sustainable development and adaptation to climate change drive the agenda, and to what extent we are willing to change our current behaviour patterns to reconsider water management. Will we be able to do it? Only time will tell; but we don't have much of it left.