Last year, UN Water reported on progress towards Sustainable Development Goal No. 6 — clean water and sanitation for all. The prognosis isn’t good for meeting this goal by 2030. 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of whom 733 million live in highly- and critically-stressed countries. However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t progress being made. To give you a sense of how that progress happens, here are nine water scarcity solutions, and how each of them works in moving us towards clean water for all.
1. Provide clean, safe water to those who need it most.
The simplest solution to water scarcity: Give people water. (Mind-blowing, we know.) Water trucking is one of the quickest short-term solutions to a shortage, whether it’s bringing in water to a refugee camp while infrastructure in the area is improved, or delivering it to communities during a drought. This is an expensive solution and not a long-term fix for a crisis; but it can be a life-saving stop-gap.
While water trucking helps, building and rehabilitating water points in communities is like teaching a person to fish rather than giving them a fish. Sometimes we need to drill for a new water point, analyzing groundwater distribution and soil and rock structure. Sometimes, communities have already dug these wells, and Concern only needs to help with fitting in hand pumps that seal and protect the well — this makes collection easier and water safer.
In areas where grid power is unreliable (or nonexistent), solutions like solar water pumps are an economically- and ecologically-friendly solution that makes use of the most reliable resource: sunlight.
2. Protect (or improve) the quality of available water in an area.
Often the best-case scenario is that there’s a natural spring in a community. If that’s true, we work with the community to protect the source so it can continue to provide water. Protective structures can keep the land above and around the water source free from human and animal interference and contamination.
If there’s a source of non-potable water, however, there are still options to improve the quality. Seawater can be desalinated, both at a mass-scale level and individually through portable devices. Likewise, water purification tablets and other methods can be used to kill the microorganisms and pathogens that cause typhoid, cholera, and other waterborne illnesses.
3. Collect and store rainwater to use later on.
One of the lowest-tech and lowest-cost solutions to water scarcity in regions that get enough rainfall is to collect and save that rainwater. A Rainwater Harvesting System does exactly what the name implies: Using a catchment surface when it rains (a specially-prepared and designated area to collect water), we can then collect water for storage and future use.
The benefits of this, if it’s an area that experiences adequate and reliable rains, are many. Rainwater harvesting generally doesn’t require too much technology to maintain, and is easy for communities to manage. If it’s collected in the right way, rainwater usually needs less processing to make it potable. This may not be the ideal choice for drinking water needs, but it is an excellent backup for agriculture (which takes up a lot of water usage in water-stressed countries), livestock, in schools, and hospitals.
4. Understand that the impacts of climate change are not going to go away, and build resilience against climate disasters.
Climate change is here to stay and will continue to accelerate. Its impacts include water scarcity: For every 1 °C rise, 500 million extra people will face a 20% dip in renewable water resources.
At this point, we cannot undo many of the effects of climate change. However, we can build climate resilience within communities on the frontline of the climate crisis, including strategies that protect their water resources in the face of emergencies. Our work in this area includes watershed management, planting trees and reforesting areas that have been deforested, soil and water conservation, and land rehabilitation.
5. Find more effective ways of using the water we need in our day-to-day lives.
Solutions one through five on this list are all examples of the work Concern does with communities that face extreme water scarcity. However, water stewardship is a global responsibility, and we need every community in the world to help. Many of the countries where Concern works are water-stressed, but reports show that future risks for water shortages are not confined to low-income countries or areas around the Equator.
In Concern’s work with Climate Smart Agriculture, for instance, we use soil coverings to help keep water in the ground longer and protect it from evaporation. But we can all find more effective ways to use the water that fuels our daily routines, whether it’s taking shorter showers, fixing that leak in your kitchen faucet, or investing in a smart sprinkler for your lawn. Changing food habits can impact the amount of water used in agriculture. You can also contact your local and state representatives about larger water issues that affect your community and the world — we will, after all, only solve the water crisis when we adequately value how much water affects our lives.
6. Eliminate water dumping and reduce other pollutive activities and find safe and sustainable ways to recycle wastewater.
But we can’t solve the water crisis on our own as individuals. The NRDC estimates that 80% of the world’s wastewater is dumped back into the ecosystem, untreated. Governments and corporations must work together to prioritize ending water dumping and other pollutive activities that contaminate drinking water. This includes corporations based in high-income countries but that outsource production to lower-income countries. Approximately 1 billion people die each year due to water contamination—actions that ban and enforce restrictions on wastewater dumping literally save lives.
7. Build community focus and ownership around local water systems and resources…
The worst solutions to water stress are those that can’t be taken on by community members after an organization like Concern leaves. No amount of hand pumps or infrastructural improvement are a success if they fall into disrepair after a short time.
To avoid this problem, Concern invests heavily in working with the community to promote ownership and enhance skills for future management of all programs, including our water, sanitation, and hygiene projects. Establishing Water Management Committees (WMCs) helps to build local representation through elected community members who manage and oversee their local water resources. We also provide training to both WMC members and other community representatives so that they can manage their resources (resources built initially with their input).
8. …while also building local and national capacities to effectively manage water systems…
In fragile states, it’s often the case that there isn’t enough government infrastructure or capacity to deliver WASH services. This is an explanation, but it isn’t an excuse. We can — and must — work with local authorities and national governments to strengthen the capacity they have to ensure their citizens have clean water and access to other hygiene and sanitation necessities. Part of this relies on changing attitudes towards the value of water and the true cost of pollution.
In 2021, UN Water identified 107 countries not on track to have sustainably managed water resources by 2030. The current rate of progress needs to be doubled in order to meet this goal.
9. …and fostering international cooperation around shared water resources.
It doesn’t stop at the national level. Establishing a common language around and prioritization of water quality has to happen at an international level, as many rivers, lakes, and aquifers cross international borders and are shared between nations.
In the same 2021 UN Water report, only 24 countries reported that all rivers, lakes, and aquifers shared with neighboring countries are covered by operational arrangements for cooperation. That’s less than 1/5 of the way towards the Sustainable Development Goal target.
Can we solve the global water crisis?
As of 2022, none of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals are on track to be met by 2030. However, that doesn’t mean that the cause is hopeless. The UN reports that, since 2015, over 600 million people have gained access to safely-managed drinking water. Globally, three out of four people had safe drinking water in 2020. In that time, water-use efficiency has increased 10% globally.
These are great steps, but at our current rate, progress is still behind. You can help take a stand by understanding how much water you use at home and finding ways of reducing it where possible. You can also learn more about the issues both within your own community and in other communities around the world — if your hometown has a sister city, that’s a good place to start — and advocate your local representatives to take greater and bolder action towards ending water scarcity around the world.
You can also support organizations like Concern to ensure that water, sanitation and hygiene services reach those who need it most. All of these actions may seem like drops in the bucket, but those drops add up.