The science of water resource management has come a long way, but as a critical natural resource, protecting our water is more vital than ever. If you remember your high school maths lessons, you’ll know that the Earth’s surface is over 70% water and that the human body is more than 60% H2O. It’s without question that water has been and remains the key to life on our planet, enabling survival, technological advances, and population growth. However, most of our freshwater remains frozen in ice caps at either end of the world, leaving just a tiny reserve of fresh and very finite water available for immediate use. 

These reserves are found on the surface and underground. 

At the end of the hydrological cycle – where salty sea water evaporates to become rain, pours over the land, and refreshes underground aquifers – we receive a reliable supply of fresh water. The sea-to-ground-to-surface cycle is natural and ancient, but we are disrupting it with our economic systems. Still, these commercial levers may also enable us to protect and manage our water sustainably. Most of our freshwater goes to agriculture to grow the food we need, while the rest goes to industry and our households for daily needs. Of course, Earth’s freshwater reserves are unevenly distributed, with some areas, like Brazil, featuring a wealth of available H2O, while in others, including desert regions, it’s incredibly scarce. For this reason, we must move water from place to place to meet demand, which involves the extensive and expensive development of infrastructure like dams, reservoirs, pipes, and the like. Something that invariably leads to inefficiencies and waste. 

Tackling the Problems of Water Resource Management

As we’ve seen, most of our freshwater goes towards farming, but depending on the method, crop irrigation can be highly inefficient, wasting up to 50% of the water used. Traditional irrigation techniques, where water is pumped through open channels to flood an area of crops, also lead to mass evaporation, not to mention being hard on the plants themselves. These traditional techniques ultimately cause the degradation and draining of underground aquifers, which can take 6000 years to refill via natural methods. Clearly, this is unsustainable and why conservation is vital. We’ve also touched on the economic drivers, with some experts in water resource management thinking that instead of demanding a slowdown in human progress, our financial system can help improve the situation.

Theories suggest we can maximize our water conservation by offering targeted incentives and disincentives around its use, from agriculture to industry and the home. Some in the field think that as our most precious resource, the price of water is far too cheap. And while raising prices would be an unpopular idea for any politician to pursue, it may be necessary to slow down water consumption. On the flip side, and on the farm, incentives may help growers upgrade their irrigation infrastructure, from channel and flood to drip systems, significantly improving efficiency by up to 90%. Cash incentives applied in this way help offset the cost of purchasing new equipment, which is often a significant cost and a major barrier to uptake among farmers and landowners.

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Increasing the Availability of Water

The inverse of water conservation is increasing the amount of freshwater we have available. With over 90% of H2O locked up in our oceans, desalination offers a way to transform our water into a usable resource and is being used around the globe today. As a case in point, Western Australia currently relies on its reverse-osmosis desalination network for around 35% of the capital’s (Perth) water, piped to over 1.5 million residents. However, whether using reverse-osmosis or the evaporation method, desalination technology is costly and energy-intensive, making it unsuitable for many developing countries, some of whom need it the most.  

Here is a breakdown of the two methods at a glance:

  1. Seawater desalination relies on distillation: heating up, evaporating, and cooling water down to remove the salt.
  1. Conversely, reverse osmosis virtually squeezes salt from the water using specially designed membranes and a lot of energy.

Additionally, water storage is another way to increase what’s available. Reservoirs, dams, and natural aquifers have been used for thousands of years to store water for use later on, but the mammoth ones we build today tend to have adverse flow-on effects up and downstream. Damming can leave lower water levels and higher water temperatures, leading to deforestation, impacts on local vegetation and wildlife, and displacement of people by the hundreds of thousands from what were once fertile areas. While these dams or reservoirs can produce large quantities of hydroelectric power, it doesn’t offset the ecological and human impacts.  

The Future of Water Resource Management & Summary

As the Earth’s natural aquifers slowly dwindle, governments and institutions must look at new ways to conserve our water reserves. The impact of climate warming is expected to worsen the situation, leading to less rainfall and, therefore, less natural refilling of our underground reservoirs. We must look at our heaviest water users, like agriculture and heavy industry, and help them do what they can to stay productive while minimizing the considerable amount of water they waste. Making water more expensive may be one way to address many problems in one swoop, but it’s sure to be a hard sell for political leaders worldwide. 

Inversely, giving farmers subsidies for irrigation upgrades could go a long way to improving the age-old methods we rely on to grow our food. Methods that also waste incredible amounts of water. Another solution is increasing our capacity to store water, building dams and reservoirs, or leveraging underground aquifers to hold onto what we have. These mega-projects can be used to generate hydropower but also come with proven environmental and human downsides.  Finally, un-salting our water is a practice already used worldwide to combat water shortages effectively, but it costs a bomb, uses tonnes of energy, and remains unrealistic for many nations.

Combined, we can see that water resource management will depend on multiple factors, from conservation to politics, subsidies to taxes, and storage to resource creation. If we get the mix right, we can ease the strain on planet Earth and ensure freshwater remains available for everyone living on it. If water management is a prime concern for your business, check out GRT’s Water Management Solutions


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