Water use must be decoupled from economic growth: UNEP

22nd March 2016

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Graham Twigg

Demand for water in 2030 is set to outstrip supply by 40%, highlighting the need for governments and industry to radically improve water management, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has said.

If current levels of water consumption and pollution continue, almost half of the world’s population will suffer severe water stress within 14 years, according to a report from the International Resource Panel (IRP), an international consortium of scientists, governments and other groups coordinated by UNEP.

Demand for water is projected to rise 43% in North America and 283% in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, based on 2005 levels, the panel warned.

It said the predicted rise would force governments to spend $200bn a year on upstream water supply as demand outstrips cheaper forms of supply, up from historic averages of $40–45bn.

The report highlights countries that have already decoupled water use from economic growth. Water use in Australia declined by 40% between 2001 and 2009, while the economy grew by more than 30%.

Despite such efforts the world as a whole needs to strengthen action in order to avoid a looming water resource crisis, it concludes.

Achim Steiner, executive director of the UNEP, said: ‘Since only 0.5% of the world’s freshwater is available for the needs of both humanity and ecosystems, we will need to do more and better with less if we are to ensure healthy ecosystems, healthy populations and economic development.’

Industrial use accounts for the largest proportion of freshwater abstraction in many developed countries, up to 59%. In developing countries, industrial use is far lower, at around 10% of abstracted water, with agriculture taking the largest share.

There is significant potential for water recycling and reuse in industrial facilities, particularly in the metals and mining, pulp and paper, textile and chemical sectors, and the report showcases examples of good practice. Packaging firm Amcor Australia, for example, reduced freshwater used in manufacturing by 90% using treated and recycled water.

The report notes that corporate reporting and accounting of water use is increasing, through tools like water footprinting, lifecycle analysis, and inventories and impact assessments.

The panel’s recommendations for decoupling water use and economic growth include:

  • Invest more in research and development on improved water efficiency technology.
  • Allocate water between sectors and users according to where it contributes to most economic output per drop. Water pricing and market instruments could be used to achieve this, although vulnerable groups would need to be protected.
  • Consider ways to remove disincentives to using water more efficiently.
  • Strengthen research into the value of ecosystem services in order to better integrate them into decisions on measures to boost economic growth.
  • Document the efficiency and effectiveness of different measures.
  • Assess and communicate virtual water contents, water footprints and related impacts to improve understanding of how international trade could be used to support decoupling where it is most needed.

Last week, the World Energy Council highlighted the risk water shortages posed to energy infrastructure. In a report, it recommended: better understanding of the water footprint of energy technologies in order to reduce the risk of assets becoming stranded; and providing investors with an assessment of water risks, which includes different climate and hydrological scenarios in financial analyses, and takes into account during project planning the price of water.

Christoph Frei, secretary general of the council, warned: ‘Power plants across the world could be affected by changes in precipitation patterns, which are combining with increasing competition between water users to adversely affect the resilience of energy services. Clear coordination and integrated planning needs to take place now, or we will start to see the effects of water scarcity on energy supplies in the very near future.’


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