Dried Up: Examining Global Water Scarcity
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because water, water is no longer everywhere.
So much of the discussion around climate change involves the excess of water: rising seas, melting ice caps, devastating storms. But for much of our warming planet, the future will be defined by less water. Droughts and expanding deserts are becoming a way of life for many. And that’s set to spark pain and conflict in countries around the world.
This OZY original series takes a look not only at where less water is the biggest problem but also how people are finding surprising solutions to an existential crisis. Read on for innovative answers from around the globe.
A crowd of men and women walked through the streets of Madrid behind two young girls holding hands and talking animatedly. One of the girls was Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swede who has become the face of a new generation’s fight against climate change. The other was Licypriya Kangujam.
On reaching their destination, Licypriya hurriedly rolled out a placard that read: “Dear Mr. Modi. Please pass the climate change law in the ongoing Parliament session. Save our future! Act now! Act now!” It was December 2019 and the group was on its way to the United Nations Climate Change Conference, where both girls addressed world leaders and urged immediate action.
Born in 2011, Licypriya is half Thunberg’s age — but what she lacks in height, she has in courage. The media has dubbed her “Greta of the Global South,” but, she tells me with a confident grin, “Really, I’m Licypriya of India.”
As a soldier in Bosnia two decades ago, Martin Drewes remembers fretting over children subsisting on “a little bit” of bottled water. The rest was too dirty to drink.
“It’s always been at the back of my mind,” the idea that this life-sustaining resource is taken for granted, the 43-year-old mechanical engineer says in his spartan office on a former Soviet base that’s now Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Science. In his native Saxony-Anhalt, fresh water is plentiful — so plentiful that there’s concern the Elbe River will inundate the lush countryside.
Years after an unsuccessful attempt to create a water-wheel–powered electric generator for use in disaster-hit communities in the developing world, Drewes had an idea. While his pontoon-mounted dynamo tied to a riverbank couldn’t do much more than charge a smartphone, he thought the water wheel might be repurposed for something more meaningful: making nonpotable water drinkable.
South India’s largest state, Tamil Nadu, and its capital Chennai — with a population of close to 10 million people — have hit global headlines in recent years due to both devastating floods (2015) and crippling droughts (2018). The floods rendered thousands of people homeless overnight, while the drought was one of the worst the state — which has 39,000 bodies of water — had seen in 70 years.
But even as the elected government has struggled in the face of extreme weather events, ordinary citizens, from nondescript villages to pockets of Chennai, have taken it upon themselves to revive dead or dying neighborhood lakes and wells. And they are finding success that’s turning this citizen activism into a model with relevance across societies grappling with water crises — and potentially with other challenges, from wildlife conservation to reconstruction after forest fires.
The idea came to Yoeri Bellemans during the very hot, very dry summer of 2018, when the Belgian government told citizens to use as little water as possible. So when Bellemans stumbled across a construction site in Brussels where an installation was pumping gallons of water, which then gushed into a sewer drain, he wondered how to put the water to better use. Along with local building developers and water companies, Bellemans is plotting to build a digital platform that will connect city agencies in need of water with construction sites with available water.
Esther Munyiva, a landlady in Nairobi’s Mukuru Kwa Reuben informal settlement, installed her first Fresh Life toilet in 2012. “Before Fresh Life, my neighborhood was so bad,” she says. Plastic bags of feces littered rooftops; trenches and pathways reeked of excrement. Even the rivers flowed brown. The waste collected by Fresh Life toilets is turned into fertilizers and animal feed by the company that services them. Munyiva now has four such toilets, which provide more than 20 rental households with safe sanitation, day and night.
Munviya is one of millions of Africans who are benefiting from a quiet revolution in approaches to sanitation. Disrupters at universities, nonprofits and companies across the continent are increasingly rethinking every aspect of the toilet value chain. In Ghana, South Africa, Zambia and Uganda, simple alternatives are helping fight disease and environmental degradation while saving water — and extracting monetary value from bodily wastes.
You may think you’ve done your part by installing a pool cover, but that’s just one of the boxes you need to check. Ethical pool-ownership starts with finding a sustainable water source that doesn’t drain your city’s taps, and it also includes taking a chance on new innovations that might help.
From afar, they look like silvery serpents zigzagging down the Andean highlands. Up close, they turn out to be ancient stone ditches. Known as amunas, these vestiges of ancient Incan technology are being tidied up and put back to use. They might even save a city just downstream: the Peruvian capital, Lima, where 10 million people dwell in the middle of a coastal desert.