For many of us here in the United States, our water supply is not much of a concern. Maybe your tap water tastes a bit funny, so you sprung for the filter pitcher—and that’s as much thought as you’ve put into your water needs in years. Unfortunately, as temperatures rise across the globe and regional climates become less stable, municipal water supplies around the world are tightening. Those of you living in California are probably already familiar, but if nothing is done to combat climate change, water rationing strategies like those used in San Diego will gradually become the norm in more and more cities around the world. Before that happens, it’s worth developing a basic understanding of what water stress is, why it happens, and what’s being done about it.
Water Stress Basics
In a nutshell, water stress is the state where water demand exceeds the water supply. Its effects on an area are widespread but are most keenly felt in agriculture, as irrigation is vital for the crops that underpin the economy in many regions. In the short term, water stress generally forces state and local authorities to impose water-rationing measures. These can take the form of high fees for exceeding an individual’s water ration and simply shutting off the water after a certain usage point. This means households and families have to make tough decisions about where to cut water usage in their homes; lawns are often the first to go (although not everyone has their priorities straight on this) followed by things like laundry and showers. Such measures can feel draconian, but when there isn’t enough water to go around, certain areas need to be prioritized for water usages, such as the aforementioned agricultural sector, as well as health care and sewage treatment. If you do find yourself stuck living under water restrictions, follow them carefully; building back up the water reserve lets everyone get back to business as usual as soon as possible.
What Causes Water Stress
The local causes of water stress are broadly symptomatic of climate change, but they can take a number of different forms depending on the nature of a region’s water supply. Rivers are often fed by snowpack melt in high mountain regions, which makes them particularly vulnerable to increasing temperatures. It’s bad news for everyone downstream when surveys find “no snow whatsoever,” as the California Department of Water Resources did in 2015. Groundwater aquifers are fed by rainfall, and drawing too much from them at once risks drying the wells. Aging infrastructure also contributes to water stress, as leaks and burst pipes lose potable water to the environment. Outside of unrenewable freshwater sequestered in deep artesian reservoirs, most water comes from precipitation of some form, and so the most reliable cause of water stress is drought. Such droughts are tough to predict, and in fact, in the early stages can be difficult to detect at all. It’s only after an extended period of low rainfall that the ‘drought’ label can be used, and by then water stress has already set in to the surrounding communities.
What Can We Do About Water Stress?
The simplest solution to water stress is to use less water. This can be done in many ways, but to start with consider tracking your water usage more carefully. That will help you identify easy areas to cut back on your water usage. Showers are a common culprit for water waste, and taking shorter showers is a basic step to reducing your overall water usage. Other tricks include turning the water off when brushing your teeth, consolidating your laundry, and running the dishwasher only when full. But personal water usage is only half the equation, and there are also ways for states and municipalities to increase the overall water supply. Water recycling technology is improving and allows previously wasted water to supplant freshwater from aquifers or other sources. Groundwater reclamation like the Cadiz Water Project is also becoming increasingly viable. Unfortunately, some areas are still importing water, which is a stopgap solution–as water demand increases and supply decreases worldwide, importing will become more expensive and less widely available.
If you haven’t heard about water stress before, you should expect to start hearing about it more in the next decade or two; unrestrained greenhouse emissions and unbridled warming could result in catastrophic reductions of the world’s water supply. Meanwhile, population growth continues across much of the world, increasing demand for water directly. Water stress is coming to your community, either on its own or via pressure to export to affected communities. The importation of water can only go so far and, as domestic water supplies are stretched further and further, will become prohibitively expensive. Now is the time to push for innovation and investment, not only in green energy but in water-saving technology and recycling techniques to ensure a clean and steady water supply for everyone.