By exploring the six regional visions in parallel, we can start to build a picture of water-related issues globally in 2050:
- How we secure supplies of water for drinking and sanitation
- How we manage other water demands, especially agriculture, without depleting groundwater supplies and critical ecosystems
- How we will mitigate the risks of floods and water scarcity, and adapt as climate change makes these more common in many regions
- The roles played by technology, infrastructure, policy, and human behaviour
By 2050, the world will have changed its relationship with water. Climate change will bring several water-related resilience challenges, including unpredictable rainfall, droughts, flooding, and rising sea levels.
Having water in the right place was clearly articulated as a challenge by workshop attendees: while in India, fears were shared about access to drinkable water, in Jamaica, an increased frequency and severity of storms, coupled with rising sea levels, was the key concern.
The best responses to these challenges will depend on local context, although there are some common themes. New infrastructure will help countries reduce water waste, and aid in its conservation – for example, by reusing domestic wastewater in agriculture. A mixture of new and old farming practices will reduce the water intensity of growing food and rearing livestock.
Restored uplands in many regions will help to maintain groundwater and river supplies, as well as reducing flooding. Shifts in policy, investment and behaviour will help alleviate water issues, promoting water conservation and re-use.
ACcESS TO FRESH WATER
Droughts and water scarcity will be exacerbated by climate change in many regions. By 2050, a range of adaptation tactics will help alleviate this on a global scale.
Major infrastructure investments are essential almost everywhere. Brazil, for example, has a current average water loss rate of 37% due to leakages, poor management and theft.
Decentralisation may be part of the solution for 2050. Expanding the construction of water cisterns for rural populations could lower water loss. In regions like Kenya, this brings other advantages, especially for women and children - who might be saved long walks to collect water.
A globally recognised success story in water conservation comes from the Indian state of Rajasthan, where the NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh worked in partnership with local women to bring about small-scale water harvesting, and forest and soil regeneration, particularly in upper water catchments. This increased water availability in 1,000 villages, and greatly improved farmland productivity.
While the impacts will not be felt equally around the world, rising sea levels will increase the global risk of flooding. The response will vary from region to region, considering geography and economic wealth. In the UK, major investment in flood defences will be required to protect coastal towns, and buildings on flood plains. Nature-based interventions will also play a role: restored fens and coastal marshes could potentially bring protection against negative impacts for people and the economy by increasing storm and flood resilience.
It’s a similar story in other regions. Restored mangrove forests, reefs and seagrass beds on the coastlines of Brazil, Kenya, and countries in the Arabian Peninsula would all help to enhance resilience in these regions. Nature-based solutions are also attractive because they have the potential to restore degraded ecosystems - which in turn could enhance local fish stocks.
Agriculture has a substantial effect on the water system: all crops require water, and many of the most economically important ones are highly water intensive. Coffee and tea, grown widely in developing countries such as Kenya, are just two examples.
Newer techniques and technologies offer a glimpse of how we can reduce water intensity while feeding the world. In the Arabian Peninsula, farmers are using a range of different techniques including hydroponics – growing plants without soil – and vertical farming.
Against the backdrop of more widespread water stress, public policy and behaviour will also need to evolve to meet the world’s needs in 2050. Water conservation efforts will include everything from water-saving technologies like low-flow taps and showers to awareness campaigns to promote citizen behaviour change.
One example of a policy intervention in this area comes from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has committed to reducing water use by 43% by 2030 through water awareness campaigns, new technologies like low-flush toilets, and by introducing cost-reflective tariffs for households.
A just approach
Water resources are not distributed evenly around the globe – for instance, one fifth of the world’s freshwater lies within the Brazilian Amazon. Climate change will impact water availability in different regions to different degrees, with lower degrees of predictability about global precipitation patterns, and particularly acute effects in warmer countries. And while nature- and community-based solutions play a role, responding to water challenges will also require significant investment.