David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF UK, told delegates at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) event in London this week that water scarcity is already the reality in many places and a serious risk to many of the challenges of the 21st century.

Meeting food and energy demands and avoiding regional conflict and wars all require a sustainable water supply, said Mt Nussbaum.

“In more and more places we’re simply using more water than nature provides for us,” he said.

“And in the end that will have to stop.”

He said that Earth’s land-to-sea ratio is deceptive and conceals the fact that fresh water is a resource for which demand outstrips supply.

“We live on a blue planet covered in water but what we have access to, in terms of fresh drinking water, is less than one per cent of that water,” he said.

“Desalination can help a little in some place but it isn’t going to make a material difference.”

Engineers can help with the solutions to this impending crisis, he said, but cultural changes are also needed as technological fixes can’t do the job alone.

“As well as technical innovation, we need societal innovation,” he said.

“More often than not agriculture is the primary user, which gives clear scope for engineering innovations.”

According to Mr Nussbaum, there are four principle ‘thirsty’ crops: rice, wheat, cotton and sugar and efforts are being made to work with farmers to address water wastage.

In parts of Pakistan, for example, WWF projects have helped farmers cut water use by 40% without seeing a drop in yields, just through simple technological improvements and better management.

But, said Mr Nussbaum, getting more crop per drop doesn’t always result in water savings in the long run, as the next farmer downstream simply says ‘great, there’s more water left in the river, I’m going to use it’.

This highlights the need for wider regulatory measures and a cultural shift among both the political classes and in the corporate world, he argued.

“We need increased awareness from the private sector that it shares access to water with other water users and understands the strategic risks of scarcity,” he said.

Sam Bond

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