Water is life, but climate change poses a major threat to this precious resource in Europe and beyond.
And as global temperatures rise, harsher droughts are set to further impact supply and access to clean water.
Worldwide, one in ten people don't have access to a clean water source close to their home, which threatens their health and pushes communities into poverty. And with the global population predicted to increase into the second half of the century, competition for water resources is only going to get worse.
More extreme weather events, including flooding, are predicted in the future too, while contaminants such as fertiliser could also make their way into waterways - impacting nature and supply sources for humans.
The impact of water scarcity on business
The fallout of water scarcity for infrastructure and industry is also huge. For sectors like agriculture, which, according to the World Bank Group, uses around 70 per cent of global freshwater, the stakes are high.
But all businesses are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that they are serious about sustainability, including the responsible use and management of water.
This pressure is coming not only from governments and within industries, but also from increasingly green-minded consumers who are not afraid to call out so-called ‘green-washers.’
So, what does this all mean for future water security in Europe and beyond? And how can demand for water be balanced with supply?
You can watch the full debate in the video above.
Global access to clean water
The debate began with some stark statistics about global water scarcity.
According to Sol Oyuela, Global Director of Policy and Campaigns for WaterAid, “Nearly one in three people still live with no water close to home,” while “half of those in the least developed countries have no access to water.
“In 2022 we have almost 800 million people without access to clean water.
“This is one of the most basic necessities of life and this is affecting women and girls more than anything,”she continued.
Why are women and girls so badly affected by water scarcity?
A country’s level of development plays a big role in whether people have access to clean water, says Belgian MEP and Member of the Parliamentary Group on Water, Assita Kanko.
While water costs may be rising in Europe, the continent’s infrastructure is generally strong. In comparison, in parts of West Africa like Burkina Faso, a lack of physical infrastructure means that many women and girls have to travel long distances to collect water for their families.
“Women and girls are the ones who are in charge of water supply, who have to make sure that there is enough food, who have to make sure that there is enough water to take a shower, to wash the clothes,” says Kanko.
This daily chore means that women and girls miss out on opportunities, particularly education.
“These girls and women, while they are busy collecting water, they are not going to school, they are not doing a job that gets them money for themselves,” continues Kanko.
While some have the means to leave areas without direct access to water, lack of financial resources means most will have to stay, which is why improving local access is so important.
You can watch the highlights of the debate below.
How to prevent displacement due to water scarcity
“There are many different ways that climate change manifests itself in terms of access to water. Sometimes it’s a flood, sometimes it’s a drought, sometimes it’s water of bad quality,” says Oyuela.
In order to prevent internal displacement and give people control of their water supplies, it is important for local people to have access to data, she continues.
With the appropriate information, water can then be managed as efficiently as possible.
“Working in partnership across governments, villages and the private sector is absolutely crucial as part of the solution to the water crisis,” Oyuela explains.
“In terms of the communities, it’s about putting them at the centre of the solution. Assita was talking about Burkina Faso, we work in Burkina Faso and one of the things that we are doing is we are supporting the village to monitor the climate risk.”
This local support means that the residents are able to ration water for livestock and irrigation in times of drought, to ensure that everyone has adequate access to drinking water.
The changing face of agriculture - is technology the solution?
Access to water is not the only problem though. Within Europe, “40 per cent of European land is used for agriculture and our sector employs 44 million people,” says Juan Pardo Martinez, Director of Research & Development Department, Novagric.
And water scarcity is putting this huge economic sector under pressure.
By 2050, climate change could lead to a 16 per cent loss in commerce in the agricultural sector, which, given the size of the industry, would have a huge impact on livelihoods and food production across the continent.
In order to prevent this apocalyptic scenario from taking place, new food growing systems are being developed, which aim to get maximum production out of minimum inputs.
One such project is Greendomo in Spain, which, according to Pardo Martinez , has “8 times the production of a conventional greenhouse.” The greenhouse system achieves this by rotating in order to track the radiation of the sun, while also re-circulating water.
The project aims to take food production closer to people too, by placing the greenhouses in urban locations. This will limit the need for transportation, reducing the carbon footprint of the crops in the process.
Is tech useful in countries with less infrastructure?
“Technology and innovation have, throughout the decades, solved so many social problems, but they have to be context specific and they have to work for the particular place where you’re trying to find that solution.” says Oyuela.
“While of course technology can play an important role, there’s still some really basic stuff that we need to do, that we still haven’t got right,” she continues.
Professor Justin Sheffield, Head of the School of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton gives a specific example of this problem.
“We’ve seen this with large-scale irrigation, which could be a real solution to the water and food problem in many places,” he says.
“But you have to really think about how it’s going to be maintained and who’s going to look after it.”
In order for this maintenance to happen, the panellists agreed that there needs to be a collaboration of industries and political will.
“You can install the greatest and most innovative pipe, but if it breaks and you have no one who understands how to fix it, then that’s not going to work,” says Oyuela.
How does water scarcity affect food supply chains?
While the panel agreed that technology and innovation are very important, the need for more awareness of supply chain issues was deemed even more crucial.
“We’ve seen that if there’s a drought happening in one country that’s affecting crop production, and there’s a trade in that crop, then that affects supply chains, that affects food production, food trade, it affects food security in some places,” says Professor Sheffield.
This issue - though not directly linked to water - has been highlighted by recent wheat shortages in Europe due to the war in Ukraine. While Iraq is currently suffering its own wheat shortage due to drought.
While these cases show the urgency of developing water resilience across the globe, Professor Sheffield thinks we also need to review the crops that we are growing in the first place.
“Should we be growing certain types of water thirsty crops in certain areas where we’re using unsustainable groundwater for example?” he says.
Ultimately though, in order to affect change on a global scale, the issue of water scarcity needs more coverage across the board.
“The issue of carbon is high on the agenda,” says Oyuela, “so we need that kind of awareness for water.”
Meet the panellists:
Sol Oyuela - Global Director of Policy and Campaigns, WaterAid
Sol Oyuela joined WaterAid in 2019 and launched the non-profit's first global Water and Climate Campaign. She advocates to put hygiene and access to clean water at the centre of the global response to COVID-19.
Sol previously worked as Director of Advocacy at Unicef UK and will be speaking from Buenos Aires.
Juan Pardo Martinez, Director of Research & Development Department, Novagric
Juan Pardo Martinez is an agronomist engineer at the Polytechnic University of Cartagena (UPCT). Since 2005, his work has been incorporated into the technical department of Novagric, a company supplying equipment for intensive agriculture.
Juan is involved in more than 10 national and European technology projects relating to intensive agriculture and will be speaking from Spain.
Assita has been an MEP for Belgium since 2019. Assita is also Vice-Chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, a Member of the Parliamentary Group on Water, and Shadow Rapporteur for a draft report entitled Access to Water as a Human Right - the External Dimension.
She is a published author, newspaper columnist & women’s rights advocate. Assita will be speaking from Brussels.
Professor Justin Sheffield, Head of the School of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton
Justin Sheffield is a Professor of Hydrology and Remote Sensing at the University of Southampton, UK. His research focuses on large-scale hydrology and its interactions with climate variability and change.
Justin has advanced hydrologically coherent analyses of drought, and carried out pioneering work in the development of integrated drought monitoring tools for food-insecure countries. He will be speaking from the UK.