Cool, clean water


Without water we cannot survive. Yet billions of people still live without access to stable supplies of clean water, and a growing world population will put increasing pressure on this finite resource in years to come. How can we make better use of this precious commodity?

“When you drink the water, remember the spring” as the Chinese proverb says. But how can we do that on a global scale? How to make sure there is enough water available to grow our food, feed our livestock, play a role in our industrial processes and of course slake our thirst and be available to wash us, our clothes and dishes?

Access to water is a problem many are already facing. Significant water scarcities already exist in some regions of the OECD and in many non-OECD countries and with a growing world population, it is projected that almost half of the world’s population, or almost 4 billion people, will be living in areas with high water stress by 2030, mostly in non-OECD countries.

So what can we do about it? One answer is that if water is a precious resource, we need to place a proper value on it. Agriculture currently accounts for 70% of global water use, but in many OECD countries farmers’ water costs are subsidised – this may lead them to be less concerned about wastage and efficient use of water than if they paid a more realistic price. World agriculture faces an enormous challenge over the next 40 years: to produce almost 50% more food up to 2030 and double production by 2050. With pressure from increasing urbanisation, industrialisation and climate change also rising, proper water management will be vital.



The same is true of domestic water use in developed countries. If unlimited supplies of water are available at the turn of a tap in your own home, how to be sure you think about how much water you are using? The answer is twofold – information and education; and cost. OECD studies have shown that when people are charged for the amount of water their household actually uses, rather than a flat fee, consumption falls by 20%. Simple measures from governments can help – being able to identify washing machines, and perhaps getting a tax break to buy them; knowing how much water you save by not leaving the tap running when brushing your teeth; only being able to buy and install dual-flush toilets. Part of the solution is education and information – people need to know they can make a difference.

And what of the billions in the developing world without easy access to a safe water supply, at risk of debilitating illness or even death through drinking unsafe water or contamination through untreated waste? Water infrastructure is expensive and can take years to install, but the rewards are great. “For governments, basic water supply and sanitation services are a good investment, with the savings outstripping costs by sevenfold” says OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.


Take the city of Salvador in northeast Brazil, population 2.5 million. Bringing a sanitation and sewerage network to 90% of the city over a decade reduced diarrheal disease in children by 22%, and by almost half in previously highly-affected areas of the city.

But “people in developing countries can least afford to treat water-borne disease. Governments and the international community need to overcome the annual shortfall of USD 10-30 billion to meet the water and sanitation infrastructure goals implied by the Millennium Development Goals.” says Angel Gurria.

Infrastructure is costly and time-consuming, but in the short-term simple gestures can also help in the clean water stakes. Programmes exist to make water safe with additives, but millions are learning to rely on the power of the sun. The SODIS system, recommended as effective by the World Health Organization, requires only water, a clean plastic bottle and sunlight to destroy diarrhea-inducing bugs and make water safe to drink. And it is environmentally friendly.

In the developed world, meanwhile, existing infrastructure needs to be maintained and renewed, and water wastage needs to be reduced. The US will have to spend USD 23 billion over each of the next 20 years to maintain water infrastructure at levels which meet health and environmental standards. The UK and Japan will need to increase their water spending by 20 to 40% to cope with urgent rehabilitation and upgrading of their water infrastructure.

“Water is scarce there is a finite amount of water on this planet and we are going to be facing more and more pressures on that finite amount of water so we have to take good care of it and the fact that we have to make it available to everybody does not mean that it has to be free. Putting a price on water will increase the awareness of the scarcity and will make us take better care of it”.

“Water has to be used very sensibly, it has to be remembered that it is a scarce commodity but also because by using water appropriately we can raise productivity, we can increase overall production we can open more lands to cultivation and we will therefore be able to accommodate the nine billion people that will live on this planet in 2050”.

OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría
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Further reading on this issue:

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Greening growth

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