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Numbers show that fresh water is disappearing, but that there are numerous solutions and examples to inspire us to take better care of water as a whole

A 2016 United Nations (UN) report to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) states that we are experiencing a global water crisis. Among the causes of this crisis are population growth, climate change, river pollution and excessive use of natural resources, in the countryside, with inadequate agricultural practices, or in the daily life of cities, where people live.

The report released is worrying: the world’s water reserves are expected to shrink 40% by 2030, while water demand is expected to increase around 55% by 2050. Moreover, to make matters worse, water consumption has already grown twice as much as the population in the last century. The truth is, there is not water for everyone. In addition to this, the seriousness of this issue is not only the shortage of drinking water, but also the need to use water in agriculture and for livestock to feed the population growth.

Although 70% of the Earth is covered by water, around 97.5% of this volume is in the sea. In other words, it is unfit for human consumption. Almost 70% of the world’s drinking water is used in agriculture, according to data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is true for “moderate” consumption, such as the 790 liters needed to produce one kilo of bananas, in large quantities, such as 2,500 liters for one kilo of rice and about 15,400 liters to produce only one kilo of beef.

According to NASA satellite analysis, there are not enough aquifers, which are large reservoirs that concentrate underground water and supply springs and rivers, to meet this type of demand. According to observations from the last decade, 21 out of the 37 largest aquifers in the world, especially those in poorer regions such as Northwest India and North Africa, had more water withdrawn from them than returned, it means that there was almost no natural replenishment to make up for such usage. It is worth remembering that only six countries own 60% of all the natural fresh water reserves in the world: Brazil, Russia, Canada, Indonesia, China and Colombia.

brasil bacia do rio amazonas

Brazil has one of the largest drinking water reserves in the world: the Amazon River basin (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Globally, there is still the burden of severe climate change, as the UN has pointed out in the 2016 report. Recently, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) discovered that extreme precipitation events should become more frequent as the Earth’s climate warms up. The researchers developed a new technique to predict the frequency of local extreme precipitation events using large-scale atmospheric data from the pattern identification.

This may create some paradoxes. The state of California, between 2011 and 2016, suffered the worst drought in 1,200 years. Its main aquifers dwindled drastically and about 1,900 wells dried up. However, one year later, in the first quarter of 2017, the amount of rainfall was 228% above normal, causing some dams to overload and 188,000 local residents evacuated. Like drought, water in abundance can be a problem if there are no solutions to retain it and distribute it properly.

Next year, Cape Town, in South Africa, may virtually run out of water, that is, resources will be limited, distributed to basic services such as hospitals and schools, only – this event will make it the first major city in the world to run out of water. Since 2015, the region faced an unprecedented drought, resulting in severe water shortages. Despite the rationing measures taken, the volume accumulated in the reservoirs continues to decline to critically low levels.

Rationing is part of the effort of the entire population to delay what is being called “Day Zero”, when there will be a cut in most of the water supply. The measure will be taken when the tanks reach 13.5% of their capacity. In January 2018, when the level was at 27.1%, the government even said that “Day Zero” would be in April, then in May, and the deadline was finally postponed to 2019. With the help of the population, Cape Town managed to delay “Day Zero” as its inhabitants started reusing water to wash their bathrooms and by taking shorter showers.

Local government is running out of time, and so are its citizens. According to official data appointed by BBC, 70% of water consumption in Cape Town comes from domestic use, hence, the effort to raise public awareness. The crisis led the government, for example, restrict daily water consumption to 87 liters per person. In February 2018, this amount dropped to 50 liters per person, with a fine for those who exceed the limit. With rationing, it is also forbidden to wash cars and fill swimming pools. In addition, the local government is struggling to finish the desalination plants and increase groundwater production before “Day Zero” arrives.

Cidade do Cabo África do Sul

Cape Town, in South Africa, is going through a terrible water crisis (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Treatment, reuse and rainwater

For Cape Town, initiatives to take better care of water used at home make a lot of sense since the greatest use of the resource is domestic. However, 70% of our global use of fresh water is still in agriculture, especially in irrigation. According to the UN, another 22% is in industry and only 8% of fresh water use is domestic. Therefore, companies and governments must adopt solutions that involve technology and macro solutions.

Water treatment and reuse are immediate needs of Cape Town and Israel has provided some of the best examples of potential solutions. By reusing effluent water from industrial processes, the Shafdan water treatment plant near Tel Aviv provides approximately 140 million m3 of water per year for agricultural use – enough to irrigate 50,000 hectares of land.

That is, more than 40% of the water required for Israeli agriculture results from treated industrial effluents, with a complement of treated domestic sewage, which goes through the same station. Even more shocking is 86% of water that makes up domestic sewage in Israel is recovered through treatment. Even the country’s garbage sludge is sent to an anaerobic digestion plant that uses methane generated by waste as fuel to produce renewable energy.

Rainwater follows another way. In Manchester, England, where it rains 12 days a month, on average, the Metropolitan University is working to make the campus self-sufficient by catching rainwater. Today, rainwater is already being collected in a 20,000-liter tank under the building and used in showers and toilet flushing. The university has already reduced its expenditures on the resource by 60%, as they have no need to buy water from the network so often.

Australia, a fairly arid region has suffered a huge drought in the past decade, provoking them to adopted simple solutions. In the capital Canberra, the population received subsidies to install rainwater-harvesting tanks. For example, water can be used to water gardens. Meanwhile, it is necessary to put up a sign on the sidewalk saying that that water was obtained from the rain. Otherwise, residents can be reported and fined. According to the local newspaper, Canberra Times, the city currently uses the same amount of water as in the 1970s when the population was half of what it is today.

Canberra Austrália dia de chuva

In Canberra, Australia, the population has received government subsidies to install rainwater collection tanks (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In an interview with “O Globo” newspaper, Marlos de Souza, FAO secretary for water affairs, who has lived in Australia for years, affirmed that each State predicts the amount of rainfall during the year. Thereby, they establish several restriction levels for the population and for the economy. On a light level, it is permitted to wash a car with a hose. In the most severe situations, water can only be used in public establishments and for livestock.

To avoid further drought periods and encourage conscious use of water, Australian Governments are using nudging, a practice consisting of small interventions to promote behavior change using knowledge of behavioral economics. Besides the capital Canberra, Melbourne is another example of where the government sent an hourglass to all the residents to measure how long they take a shower: four minutes. In Sydney, there are street billboards indicating the percentage of reservoir filling, for example.

What about Brazil?

Brazil, by the way, is not exempt from this global shortage, despite having the largest natural reserve on the planet — about 12% of all the water in the world – and the Amazon River, the largest river basin in the world. The lack of adequate management of water resources in the country is a problem, as 37% of treated and piped water is being lost to leaks. The fact that only 39% of Brazilian sewage receives some treatment, while the rest goes straight into nature, does not help either.

São Paulo, the largest metropolitan city in Brazil and one of the largest metropolitan cities in the world, has suffered from water rationing since the 1980s, the most recent being in 2015. Although it originates from a confluence of several rivers, many of them are deteriorated due to pollution, apart from the drought that has taken over the region. That is why the lack of administrative planning brings the rise of climate change.

Planet Earth is also Water World, but resource shortage is a reality and, the crisis is eminent. Good examples of how to take care of water already exist throughout the world. Several of them come from institutions such as universities, but also from public policies adopted by governments in all instances. Water is a global issue, but actions to take care of it are local.

What can I do?

Change begins with every single person realizing that we have to conserve. Cape Town has created a pretty cool calculator for you to check your individual water consumption per day.

Content published in March 15, 2018

What Braskem is doing about it?

Braskem leads, alongside SANASA and with the support of the UN Global Compact Brazil Network, the “Fewer Losses, More Water” Movement. Since 2015, the initiative has been working to reduce water losses in the distribution system.

The movement has already shown that water losses make river basins more vulnerable, since they intensify the inbalance between supply and demand for the resource. The situation of the rivers Piracicaba, Capivari and Jundiaí, in São Paulo (PCJ-SP) is one of the most concerning issues. In those rives, losses make a total of 183 million m3 a year, equivalent to 60% of all annual consumption of the regional industrial sector, which comprises of around 1,500 companies.

Braskem is not limited to improving its water footprint. The company also works in partnership with its customers, suppliers and strategic partners to develop new products, applications and solutions that increase efficiency when using water use throughout the value chain.

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