12 Jan

The future of Water

Water scarcity is hardly something we worry about here in Ireland. We have anywhere between 750mm and 2000mm of rainfall annually which is healthily distributed nationally by thousands of naturally occurring waterbodies such as rivers and lakes. The recent changes in Ireland towards the provision of water services has divided the nation in an issue that is not black and white. Some Irish people have no objection to paying for water services whereas some believe it is a civil right. In debating this issue I think it is worthwhile to take an extrospective look at the issue of water provision worldwide.

There is little doubt that access to clean and safe drinking water will be the defining issue of the 21st century, much as oil has been for the 20th. Despite water covering about 70% of the earth, 97% of it is saltwater. Of the remaining 3% which freshwater accounts for, 69% is trapped in icecaps and glaciers and 30% is contained in groundwater aquifers which is not always freshwater in its entirety. That leaves less than 1% of all freshwater or 0.27% of the entirety of the world’s water easily available for human consumption in the relative sense. To compound this even further, only one 50th of this amount is in the form of rivers, which, is the most viable for human use. Therefore the concept of ‘Water, water, everywhere’ is not entirely accurate when considering the economic viability for the provision of services for humans. [1]

Another important factor to consider in the global context is that valuable waterbodies that sustain life rarely flow within local or national boundaries. Take for example the conflict over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers which originate in the Tauras mountains in Turkey. These massive rivers give life to millions in Eastern Turkey, Syria & Iraq and have been the source of conflict for decades. Turkey’s decision, like many others not to sign the non-binding United Nation’s agreement on International Watercourses further compounds the rising tensions. What is interesting about this conflict, like many others, is that it is not nation versus nation but instead the ‘Have’s’ versus the ‘Have nots’ which transcend international boundaries. Water demand is set to increase exponentially if it follows the trend in the US (domestic water demand increased from roughly 20km3 to 345km3 per year over the 20th century [2]). This type of conflict is replicated the world over in the likes of California, China, India etc. Even within Ireland, the capital’s demands for water cannot be sustained and a project to transport water from the Shannon to Dublin is currently under review. It is reasonable to deduce that economic growth, and as a result, migration patterns will follow where there is a reliable and continuous supply of water fit for human use.

Map of Tigris and Euphrates river in Turkey reproduced with thanks to transboundarywaters.orst.edu

With so many vested parties and stakeholders involved how does one determine who gets access to such a rare commodity and at what cost? First and foremost single national bodies, in states and nations where it is feasible, are required to ensure, even within a given boundary, that there is consensus on how to allocate water fairly. How can we expect to reach international unanimity if local stakeholders cannot reach agreement? Unfortunately this means a lot of tough decisions need to be made but having one decision maker whose focus is the best interests within a given state or nation, rather than local politics carrying undue sway, is the only way to ensure a fair, logical and transparent prioritisation mechanism.

Next, and central to this process, must be ensuring sustainability for future generations. Sustainability has many meanings, in some places it is seen as an optional investment to boost a company or organisational image. However sustainability, in my view, is sustained economic viability. This means sacrificing immediate profits at the expense of the environment and instead view the environment as a core asset of the business that must be protected so that long term, repeated and sustainable viability can be ensured.

It is worth noting that these challenges will not be solved by generation defining inventions, but instead by iterative innovation using the tools at our disposal today. I.T. systems built for the purpose intended; sustainability, hold the key to realising water security as they are cost effective, quick and relatively easy to implement. However they must be done correctly and not in an uncoordinated fashion.

Boy at water ATM in India reproduced with thanks to Sarvajal.com

What sparked this whole post was an article I read on ‘Water ATMs’ currently being rolled out in Africa and Asia. This is an example of innovation providing immediate solutions. In slums where the ATM’s are placed, water certainty as well as price certainty is providing for hundreds of thousands of people in a sustainable and fair manner. An interesting by product is that social behaviours are changing as a result; water collection, usually seen as a job for woman and girls is being undertaken by men and boys as they want to demonstrate how tech savvy they are!

Thinking of the struggle millions of people have to get access to clean water brings front and centre the need for us here in Ireland to have a mature, honest and frank discussion about the provision of water services for our children and children’s children.

  • David Lynch is CEO of Elm Solutions and has worked extensively in the development of strategy and IT for environmental management for the past 6 years. He has represented Ireland at environmental working groups and bilateral meetings throughout the Europe.


[1] 2015, The USGS Water Science School – http://water.usgs.gov/edu/earthwherewater.html

[2] 2015, Phys dot Org – http://phys.org/news/2013-03-demand-scenarios-global-21st-century.html