Challenges and Sustainable Management of Water Resources

Challenges and Sustainable Management of Water Resources

A popular aphorism in the Nigerian local context is ‘water has no enemy’.  Another popular axiom underpinning the high level of importance we place on water is: ‘water is life’.  To buttress this fact is to state the obvious. The human body for instance uses water in all its cells, organs and tissues to help regulate its temperature and maintain other bodily functions. Because the body loses water through breathing, sweating, and digestion, it is imperative to constantly rehydrate through drinking of fluids and eating food that contains water. In the industrial setting, water is used for fabricating, processing, washing, diluting, cooling, or transporting a product. Water is also used by smelting facilities, petroleum refineries, and industries producing chemical products, food, and paper products and more. In agriculture, water is used mostly for irrigation. Water occupies about 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, and the oceans hold about 96.5 percent of all Earth’s water. Water also exists in the air as water vapor, in rivers and lakes, in icecaps and glaciers, in the ground as soil moisture and in aquifers.

Despite its overwhelming prevalence in nature and man’s dependence on it, water and indeed water bodies have in recent times been plagued with diverse complex problems. In all countries of the world especially developing countries, water issues and problems are severe. Some of these problems include the natural scarcity of drinking-water in certain areas, floods, the siltation of river systems, as well as the contamination of rivers and large dams. Findings from a recent research indicates that some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to clean water, 2.6 billion lack access to sanitation, 1.8 million children die each year from diarrhoea and millions of women spend hours a day collecting water.

Interestingly, the world’s water problems stem from our failure to meet basic human needs, ineffective or inappropriate institutions and management, and our inability to balance human needs with the needs of the natural world. These maladies are rooted in a wasteful use of water, characterized by poor management systems, improper economic incentives, underinvestment, failure to apply existing technologies, and an antiquated mindset focused almost exclusively on developing new supplies – to the exclusion of ‘soft path’ conservation and efficiency measures. With this in mind, it is no surprise that two of the SDGs – 6 & 14 are focused on water i.e. clean water and sanitation, and Life below water.

Furthermore, water is changing due to population growth and migration; it is changing from land use pressures and our energy choices; and it is changing due to a shifting climate. Water scarcity afflicts poor people most seriously, and global development goals are crucial for attaining a semblance of water sustainability for the impoverished. The following four key drivers have caused precipitous changes in water quantity, availability, and quality:

  • Population growth
  • Climate change
  • Land use change and energy choices
  • Global poverty

Population Growth: Population has been growing since the dawn of civilization. Mankind required thousands of years to reach a population of 1-billion people in 1800 A.D. But we only require 125 more years to reach 2 billion, 33 years more years to reach 3billion, and about 13 to 14 more years for each additional billion people. It has been estimated that humans already use approximately 54 percent of all freshwater available (Postel et al., 1996), so the future is highly constrained considering the global trend towards increasing population and migration to coastal megacities, many of which are already located in semi-arid regions and are water short. More water is required to satisfy the needs of a growing population. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that the average per capita supply of water will decline by one-third by 2025. Severe scarcity is projected for a majority of the world’s population by 2050 during dry periods in more than 60 countries. Globally, where population densities are low, the threat of severe water shortage is lessened. But where population densities are high, any decline in water availability or increase in population may be disastrous.

Climate Change: Climate change is a phenomenon we can no longer deny as its effects have become increasingly evident worldwide. Observable and potential effects of climate change on water resources in Africa include: flooding, drought, change in the frequency and distribution of rainfall, drying-up of rivers, melting of glaciers, receding of water bodies, landslides, and cyclones among others.

The relationship between climate change and water doesn’t end there. The systems used to treat and move public water supplies require large amounts of energy, produced mainly by burning coal, natural gas, oil and other fossil fuels. So, when we use water we also use energy and contribute to climate change. In addition, bottled water is a small but real contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, because it takes fuel to make plastic bottles and ship them around the country (and even the world).

Land Use Change and Energy Choices: In addition to population growth and climate change, human use of land is changing rapidly. People seek to create wealth and develop a better way of life through land resources. In the process, they convert land for agricultural, industrial, and/or municipal uses, which often requires more water or results in the degradation of water quality. Forests, and tropical forests in particular, play an important role in the global water cycle. Land use changes such as irrigation, dams, and deforestation can alter evaporation patterns in a region, potentially affecting water resources in distant regions. Also, our energy choices –biomass and biofuels, oil, nuclear power, oil shale and tar sands, or clean coal – all have enormous implications for water.

Global Poverty: Development professionals recognize that problems of population, climate, environment, and development will never be solved without first addressing global poverty. One billion people on Earth live on less than $1 per day thus experiencing grinding poverty and a daily struggle for water and food. Poverty renders all other actions to mitigate climate or land use change of secondary importance and low priority.  As long as 0.9-billion people do not have clean drinking water supplies, they will not have the capacity to limit the clearing of forests or exploitation of fisheries. As such, more than half of the world freshwater resources will be appropriated for human use thus decreasing the average supply of water per person and decreasing the chances of sufficient fresh water supply for 9 to 10 billion people projected by 2050.

To mitigate the aforementioned challenges calls for sustainable water management or to put it more succinctly water sustainability. What then is Water Sustainability?

Water Sustainability: could be defined as the consistent supply of with water for life or, perhaps more precisely, as the continual supply of clean water for human uses.  it refers to the sufficient availability of water into the foreseeable future. To achieve this, Yasmin Siddiq:2016, posits that sustainable management of water entails the implementation of an enabling policy framework and accounting for water—knowing how much is available, who is using how much, and setting targets for resource utilization.  It requires better water management and more productive use of existing resources in agriculture and urban water services. Furthermore, it entails the monitoring and management of groundwater abstraction beyond considerations from the water sector but also the power and energy sector since they are key contributors to groundwater overuse. In addition, development interventions need to consider impacts on the overall water resource base, which is also essential to better understand trade-offs among users.  Also, to strengthen water security, continued efforts are vital in the areas of investments in infrastructure, institutions, and information. Finally, innovation of a more comprehensive and measurable set of indicators that can be applied across board for measurement and management of water. Without doubt, the implementation of all of these will further the advancement of Sustainable Development Goal 6: clean water and sanitation.

  1. Ezeabasili A.C., Ezeabasili, A.I., Okoro B.U., (2014) Water Resources: Management and Strategies in Nigeria. An International Journal of Science and Technology. Bahir Dar, Ethiopia Vol. 3 (1).
  2. Hill, Christopher (2016) Water Sustainability & How to Achieve It.
  3. Pacific Institute: (2017) Sustainable Water Management: Local to Global:
  4. Postel, S. G. and Ehrlich P.R. (1996). “Human Appropriation of Renewable Fresh Water,” Science, 271(5250), 785-788.
  5. Schnoor, J.L. (2010) Water Sustainability in a Changing World. National Water Research Institute: The 2010 Clarke Prize Lecture
  6. Siddiqi, Y. (2016): Four Steps Toward Improving Regional Water Security. Asian Water Development: Development Asia
  7. Urama,K.C., Ozor, N. (2010) : Impacts of Climate Change on Water Resources in Africa -The Role of Adaptation. African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS).

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