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Water is more precious than we think

The UK government must do more to understand the threats of water scarcity and the way we consume water directly and indirectly.

That was the warning delivered by ICE water panel chairman Michael Norton at last week’s 2013 Dugald Clerk Lecture.

Norton’s lecture, entitled “Global Water Security: pipe dream or reality?” highlighted the long term global consequences of the increasing global trade in “virtual water” - water needed to grow crops and feed livestock and the vast quantities of water used by the manufacturing industries.

The facts are stark. Globally, the average person consumes about 1,250m3 of virtual water each year or 3,406l each day. Variations between nations are huge, and at 3,411l/day, the UK is consuming the global average. But significantly, the vast majority of this is imported.

According to non-profit foundation the Water Footprint Network, 71% of the UK’s water is imported, compared to a global average of 16%.

Of this, more than two thirds is through the importing of agricultural products.

“Water should be seen as a national resource with economic opportunities”

Michael Norton, ICE water panel

The situation is rapidly changing. In the last 20 years the volume of virtual water movement has more than doubled. Furthermore, countries that were traditionally big exporters of virtual water such as North America are shown to be moving closer to water scarcity.

“It has moved beyond the point where we can be sustainable,” said Norton. “The volume of fresh water is constant, but the demands on it are not.”

Norton referred to a 2009 paper by analyst McKinsey which estimates that, even with historic rates of diminishing water demand and increasing infrastructure capacity, there will be a gap of 1,500km3 between global supply and demand by 2030.

This volume of water is equal to 10 times the volume of all of the UK’s rivers. Bridging this gap would involve increasing five-fold spending on water infrastructure internationally.

Water scarcity occurs where more than 20% of the naturally available fresh water is being depleted for human use.

“Unbridled development is accelerating water scarcity,” said Norton. The problem stems from increased consumption associated with emerging economies and growing global population.

The knock-on effects are widespread. For one thing, Norton explained that agriculture requires 70% of consumed fresh water.

“The biggest challenge will be water for food,” he said. The impact of water scarcity on agriculture could overtake the more acknowledged threat from land scarcity.

The UK’s role in the virtual water trade is particularly precarious. Norton said it is in the top five importers of water internationally. It is also in the top three importers from countries with water scarcity; and it has the highest ratio of water consumption to water production in the world, a higher ratio than even notorious importers such as Japan.

“The UK is not water secure,” said Norton.

“On a scale of one to 10, 10 being totally secure, we’re a four.”

The challenge is compounded by a lack of knowledge about the perception of water as a valuable resource. Norton argues that society needs a better understanding of its responsibilities.

Although the current situation is bleak Norton is optimistic about the prospects of improving global water security.

“Unbridled development is accelerating water scarcity”

Michael Norton, ICE water panel

For a start, it isn’t the UK’s direct household needs that are of primary concern - there is currently ample renewable water resource to cope with that, he said - it is the increasing reliance on virtual water that poses the challenge.

Norton says water should be considered as more than something that comes out of the tap and urged the government to take a more proactive role in managing water resources, rather than solely viewing itself as a regulator.

“We need strong, decisive leadership on water,” said Norton. He urged the government to seek the positives in taking a more proactive role, suggesting that there were potential financial rewards.

“Water should be seen as a national [resource] with economic opportunities,” he said. He offered the example of Scotland which has embraced the idea of being a “hydro nation” and which views water as an economic resource.

“Water provides an opportunity to be grasped,” he said.

“We will adapt,” he said, adding that many technological and engineering solutions would emerge to help deal with the challenges. For example, it was plausible to imagine the use of wastewater for irrigation purposes, he suggested.

“I believe [global water security] is possible by the late 2030s,” he said. “But we can and should take action to make this happen sooner. Why don’t we think about water as necessary in the same way the government sees High Speed 2 as necessary?”

Readers' comments (4)

  • Barry Walton

    We do not consume water. We use it and then, with some damage pass it on back to nature. That, of course, is a problem but the disappearance of water as suggested by consumption, is misleading at best.

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  • Michael Norton

    Barry Walton has raised an excellent point about slack use of terminology in water accounting. Blue water withdrawals are used for domestic, industrila and agricultural purposes. Most of that used in households and indutries is returned, but much of that used to irrigate crops (about 70% of total withdrawals worldwide) is consumed through the process of evapo-transpiration. This water hasn't dissapperared but it has short-cicuited the water cycle and in doing so reduced flux of blue water to the ocean.

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  • Alan Sim

    Interesting lecture and shocking statistics with respect to virtual water usage. However, we, alone, will never reach Global Water Security for two reasons. Firstly, we have little or no influence on overseas water usage and given much of our manufacturing/consumer goods are imported there will continue to be the same wasteful attitude towards water use abroad, particularly in the heavily industrialised nations of the far east. As with CO2 we will have little impact here. Maybe a 'Domestic Water Security' effort would be a start.
    Secondly, with a privatised water industry there will be little encouragement from the private water companies to assist with reducing water usage to the detriment of their profits and dividend. In the Scottish example it is key to note that they have a single controlling qango for the entire country and the government can better influence policy decisions.
    My own view is we need to think a little outside the box and develop a tiered water supply network where some industries can benefit from say a greywater, reclaimed water or even a saline industrial use supply with only basic primary treatment. All industries do not need a fully treated drinking water supply for their operations. But alas, in the privatised environment there will probably be limited interest in investment.

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  • My understanding of Michael Norton's piece is that there is a growing global problem which (a) we can manage through help and intervention worldwide, and (b) bears little resemblance to our worrying but not yet critical domestic situation.

    So: (a) consultants and constructors, get out there and let the world know how good you are; (b) build barrages accross all major estuaries; recycle wastewater; develop SUDS and minimise leakage. The last should be mandated by Offwat and water company profits limited, to increase re-investment in our water infrastructure.

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