We may think of the world as the blue planet, but a vanishingly small percentage of the world’s water is available to meet our basic needs, including drinking, sanitation, and irrigation. In the face of explosive human population growth, our freshwater supply continues to diminish, endangering a precious and indispensable resource.
Water scarcity becomes more concerning with every passing year. Globally, one in three people lives in a country that faces a nationwide water crisis, but that proportion underestimates the number of people who face severe restrictions on water availability, since various countries (including Australia and the United States) have some very dry, heavily populated regions despite not facing a water crisis nationally. More than 95% of humanity (excluding people in countries for which we have no data) lives in countries where access to water per capita is at least somewhat more limited today than it was 20 years ago, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. (See the exhibit.)
As population growth, pollution, and climate change increasingly threaten our water supply, water-poor countries have much to teach us about how to tackle what is rapidly becoming a global crisis. By analyzing what works in countries with chronic water scarcity, we can borrow effective ideas and learn to better manage this invaluable resource.
Here are three crucial lessons that water-poor countries can teach us about how to survive—and even thrive—in an increasingly dry world.
Government leaders may be tempted to lecture citizens or plead with them to conserve water. But letting the facts speak for themselves can be a much more powerful strategy. This approach yielded impressive results in Melbourne, Australia.
Between 1997 and 2009, Australia faced its worst drought in history. Water storage levels in Melbourne dropped to slightly above 26%, an all-time low. But instead of endlessly repeating the drought warning, city leaders installed electronic billboards along highways to display current reservoir levels. This simple tactic showed people just how quickly the city was running out of water, creating a sense of urgency and pulling the community together. Once citizens understood the situation, they took action—and responsibility—for themselves. By the end of the drought, nearly one in three Melbourne citizens had a rainwater holding tank in their home.
Educating the public is an important starting point, but it has even more impact when accompanied by specific initiatives that encourage people to save water. In addition to raising awareness of the severe decline in the city’s water storage levels, Melbourne city leaders wanted to encourage citizens to consume less water at home. One way to achieve that goal was for city inhabitants to spend less time in the shower. Interviews revealed that many people were reluctant to give up long showers, so the city offered them free, water-efficient showerheads. In response to complaints that the showerheads were ugly, the city developed a flow regulator for existing showerheads, enabling even more people to save water. Within four years, Melburnians had replaced more than 460,000 showerheads and had submitted 100,000 requests to the city for flow regulators. Overall, Melbourne ultimately reduced its water demand per capita by almost 50%.
Businesses, too, can empower individuals to change their habits. In the United Arab Emirates, which ranks second in the world among water-scarce countries, government officials launched a national campaign to conserve energy and water. A Heroes Business Toolkit taught companies to monitor and reduce their water consumption by installing water-saving fixtures, using water-efficiency devices, and repairing leaks, for example. The campaign worked. Hundreds of companies downloaded the toolkit, and several joined the Corporate Heroes Network, which challenged them to achieve specific reduction targets within one year. Companies that completed the challenge cut their water usage by more than a third.
Empowering individuals, communities, and companies to save water is critical but not sufficient. Countries must look beyond the status quo and take bold action at the national level. To reverse the effects of water scarcity on an entire country, leaders need to look below the surface and seek novel solutions.
In Namibia, one of the most arid countries in southern Africa, citizens have been drinking recycled water since 1968. Although many countries use recycled wastewater for irrigation, landscaping, and industrial purposes, few of them recycle water for drinking, mostly because the notion of “toilet to tap” is a tough sell. But Namibia couldn’t afford to think that way—and it has been purifying wastewater into drinking water for 50 years. The country has become a pioneer in wastewater management, easing water shortages and providing a secure supply of drinking water for more than 300,000 citizens in the capital city of Windhoek.
No single solution fits all situations. Government leaders must think creatively about how water conservation can be tailored to work within their unique context. Singapore, for example, imports 60% of its water. In 2008, to capture as much rainwater as possible, it built Marina Barrage, an enormous reservoir one-sixth the size of Singapore, in the heart of the city. Marina Barrage has boosted the city-state’s water supply by 10%, as well as alleviating flooding and serving as a focal point for recreational activities, such as biking and art and music festivals.
In Jordan, an enormous amount of freshwater once went to farmers to support agriculture. To reduce the amount of water that agricultural projects consumed, the government identified the most water-intensive crops, such as bananas, and temporarily eliminated import tariffs as a way of encouraging imports rather than domestic farming of those crops. The government also has had some success in encouraging farmers to grow drought-resistant, high-value crops, such as dates and grapes.
More than a billion people worldwide lack reliable access to safe drinking water—and this precious resource will only grow scarcer in the coming decades. But as water-rich countries gradually become water-poor, planners don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If we look at what water-poor countries have done, we’ll see that many solutions already exist. Now it’s up to each of us to take action.