5 January 2021 | 4 minutes.

Water challenges for the 21st century

Dragan Savic
Chief Executive Officer of the KWR Water Research Institute, Netherlands, Professor at the University of Exeter and Distinguished Professor at the University Kebangsaan, Malaysia

Dragan Savic, Chief Executive Officer of the KWR Water Research Institute, Netherlands, Professor at the University of Exeter and Distinguished Professor at the University Kebangsaan, Malaysia

The amount of water on Earth is constant and should be sufficient to keep us going for centuries to come. However, our world is increasingly exposed to natural disasters, pollution, a volatile climate and socio-economic changes that threaten, among others, our water supply and sanitation. It will take all of us to overcome what could prove to be our greatest challenge of the 21st century.

Water is the key to life as we know it. From a purely biological role to being crucial for sustaining societies, economies and the environment, its importance is undeniable. After all, readers of the British Medical Journal selected water-based sanitation as the greatest medical milestone of the last century and a half. That is even more remarkable when it is compared with inventions such as vaccines, which are quite clearly on the minds of the world’s population due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Living with uncertainty

The water cycle, on which supply and sanitation services rely, shows signs of significant change. As a result, scientists are questioning the notion of stationarity that suggest that the statistical properties of the water cycle in the future will be similar to what happened in the past. Irrigation for crop production now claims close to 70% of all freshwater appropriated for human use. With the world’s population expected to increase to 9 billion, this could become unsustainable in the long term. Therefore, humanity will have to learn to live with the rise in demand and increased uncertainty associated with natural resources, including water.

Water is also closely related to meeting other challenges, most notably the provision of food and energy for the increasing, urbanized and affluent population. Furthermore, managing this ‘nexus’ of challenges will become increasingly difficult in the 21st century, and the world will have to get smarter about water consumption. So, how are we prepared for those challenges?

Illustration: Cristina Sanuy

Embracing digital transformation

The key developments that the global water sector is beginning to embrace are the digital transformation and the engagement of the public (users or beneficiaries of the services).

Digital transformation has already made a significant impact on how many water utilities use tools to support planning and operational decisions related to water and sanitation services they provide. In urban areas, simulation and optimization tools, combined with the proliferation of the technologies, have shown a great potential for improving utility decisions and customer service.

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