Patricia Fernández de Lis, Science Journalist, interviews Fernando Valladares, Research Professor at CSIC, where he heads the Ecology and Global Change group at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, on one of the most important resources for human life: water.
Water is a resource that we often take for granted and don’t take enough care of, don’t you think?
Yes, I would agree with you and an indicator of how little we value water is its low price. It’s somewhat odd that in Europe the countries with the cheapest water are those where it is most valuable due to its scarcity, such as Italy and Spain. While low water prices have an important social dimension, they also contribute to waste and a lack of appreciation of the resource. Raising the price of water will not necessarily solve all the problems associated with it, but there are aspects such as irrigation and the quality of water used for different activities that could be improved to have a more responsible relationship with this finite and valuable resource.
Water scarcity threatens the homes of 1 in 3 people in the world and is associated with climate change. What problems can this situation cause?
The global figures are alarming. 1 in 3 people suffer from serious limitations in terms of access to water, and when it comes to sanitary and well-regulated water, the statistics are even more worrying. Climate change, changes in land use and increased water demand for agriculture and mining are making water even more limiting for human populations in many areas. In fact, water is already generating wars in places such as the Near and Middle East, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel. There are also water problems in places like the headwaters of the Nile and in cities like Los Angeles where millions of people squander water while living in a desert. Water is a valuable but poorly distributed resource and its availability does not match the distribution of human populations. Climate change is only going to make this situation worse.
Why don’t we do it when it would be so easy to be located close to such an important resource as water?
It is a matter of scale. In the past, when human settlements were small, they were well distributed in relation to water availability. However, as cities and urban conglomerates have grown, we have moved away from this availability. With our characteristic techno-optimism, we have thought that we could bring water from other places through water transfers and aqueducts. But this has led us to a disconnect with water limitation and to situations like the delta drought.
Half of our species is on the move due to climate change and largely because of its effects in arid areas with low water availability. This affects crops and causes migratory movements in places like the Sahel or Central America.
We are beginning to experience health tensions, war conflicts and major global problems because we are not organizing ourselves properly and because we are not using water rationally. There is still enough fresh water for all of us and even more people, but not if we continue to consume and distribute water the way we do today.
Is there a solution to this complex problem, which has both economic and political factors behind it? Is the predicament we have put water in reversible?
Everything has a solution, even though it may not be a solution to everyone’s liking. Not everything is reversible, however. For example, groundwater is emptying at alarming rates and this has irreversible consequences. Mexico City sinks several meters every year due to the compression of the clays and this cannot be recovered even if it is filled with water. In India, at the foot of the Himalayas, earthquakes are increasing because there is no groundwater to buffer them.
Ground water takes a long time to replenish and we are using it very quickly. In places like the Arab Emirates and other oil-rich nations, even the deepest fossil water in the ground has been consumed. This water must remain in the ground considerably longer to recharge properly.
In terms of solutions, there are several measures that can be taken to reduce water consumption and improve its distribution. Domestically, water-saving devices can be used, rainwater can be harnessed, leaks can be repaired, and awareness of consumption habits can be raised. On an industrial and agricultural level, more water-efficient technologies can be used and sustainable practices can be adopted.
It is also important to improve water management through effective policies and regulations. This includes the creation of river basins and cooperation between countries for the shared management of cross-border water resources.
However, these solutions require significant changes to our current systems and consumption patterns. Some processes may be irreversible, but we can limit the impact and prevent the situation from worsening through preventive and corrective measures.
How long can we continue to use technology to exploit water that is no longer replenished?
Technology allows us to increase the efficiency of water use and to extract it from more remote places. However, it has its limits. We are already at rock bottom and improvement through technology is very small.
The solution lies in a more rational use of water. We can classify different types of water and use them more efficiently. The rational use of water is what can give us the most promise and future.
It is not so much a question of technology as of habits and awareness. The water cycle is limited and we must accelerate its replenishment and purification to maintain its availability in good conditions.
What steps can we take in our daily lives to improve the water situation?
It is important to factor the concept of water footprint, the cost in terms of water, into our decisions. For example, when choosing food in a restaurant it would be useful to know its water footprint and be able to choose options with less impact.
We can also look for trade-offs in our consumption. If we treat ourselves to a steak, we can compensate in the following weeks with foods that have a smaller water footprint.
With these individual actions, we empower ourselves and equip ourselves with rights to demand changes on a collective level. If we all do our part, we can make a significant impact.