Rusty water pump on land with dry and cracked soil.
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Water at the heart of global geopolitical issues

Hard choices must be made for universal access to water

Corinne Cabassud , Professor emeritus at INSA Toulouse and Researcher at Toulouse Biotechnology Institute (TBI) and Nassim Ait Mouheb, Researcher at Inrae
On April 9th, 2024 |
4 min reading time
Nassim Ait Mouheb
Nassim Ait Mouheb
Researcher at Inrae
Corinne Cabassud
Corinne Cabassud
Professor emeritus at INSA Toulouse and Researcher at Toulouse Biotechnology Institute (TBI)
Key takeaways
  • Access to drinking water is a major health and social issue, which was discussed at length at COP28.
  • By adjusting existing systems, adaptation reduces climate risks and the vulnerability of populations.
  • Lack of infrastructure and the failure of distribution services are the main obstacles to access to drinking water.
  • Water sufficiency, desalination, irrigation, REUT includes some of many adaptation measures available.
  • The problem is that some, such as desalination, are only temporary solutions because of their environmental impact.
  • There is considerable room for improvement: although this is an important adaptation measure, France only reuses 1% of the volume of wastewater, compared with 80% in Israel.

“Due to the changes cur­rent­ly tak­ing place, it will be impos­si­ble to pro­vide uni­ver­sal access to water with­out adap­ta­tion.” Accord­ing to Éric Ser­vat, direc­tor of the UNESCO ICIREWARD cen­tre in Mont­pel­li­er, there is no doubt what­so­ev­er about this. If the Mem­ber States of the Unit­ed Nations wish to hon­our their com­mit­ment to pro­vide uni­ver­sal and equi­table access to drink­ing water, adap­ta­tion mea­sures must be put in place. Adap­ta­tion reduces cli­mate risks and people’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, main­ly by adjust­ing exist­ing sys­tems, as described by the IPCC1. The fol­low­ing is a non-exhaus­tive overview of the adap­ta­tion mea­sures that are essen­tial to secure access to water in the face of cli­mate change.

Multiple courses of action

The main obsta­cles to access to water are the lack of infra­struc­ture and fail­ure of drink­ing water dis­tri­b­u­tion ser­vices. Many sec­tions of the pop­u­la­tion – women, peo­ple liv­ing in infor­mal set­tle­ments, in less devel­oped coun­tries, etc. – are more wide­ly affect­ed by water stress. These inequal­i­ties are exac­er­bat­ed by cli­mate change. How can we effec­tive­ly improve access to water? One exam­ple is the “Eau, femmes et pou­voir de deci­sions” (Water, women and deci­sion-mak­ing pow­er) ini­tia­tive. Set up in 2005 in Dia­tokro (Côte d’Ivoire), it has helped to reduce women’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty over the long term. This pilot project involved women and men in the man­age­ment of water pumps in sev­er­al vil­lages2. By giv­ing them the tools they need to main­tain and man­age the water points, the project has been a great suc­cess, as demon­strat­ed by the cre­ation of a UNESCO Chair for “Eau, femmes et pou­voir de deci­sions”. Thanks to oth­er edu­ca­tion and aware­ness-rais­ing ini­tia­tives, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in local gov­ern­ment has been strength­ened, and the time saved by improved water sup­ply has been rein­vest­ed in income-gen­er­at­ing activ­i­ties3.

The oth­er pri­or­i­ty lever for adap­ta­tion is water sobri­ety. For exam­ple, should we con­tin­ue to use drink­ing water to water golf cours­es? 70% of the world’s fresh­wa­ter is used for agri­cul­ture4. While it’s cru­cial to pro­vide the pop­u­la­tion with fresh water, we also need to feed them. Today, a third of glob­al food pro­duc­tion comes from irri­gat­ed crops5. “We need to con­sid­er water effi­cien­cy in agri­cul­ture at the lev­el of each region,” says Nas­sim Ait Mouheb. “This requires sys­temic think­ing to guide polit­i­cal and gov­er­nance choic­es”. There are a num­ber of well-doc­u­ment­ed adap­ta­tion mea­sures for reduc­ing water use: reduc­ing plough­ing, mulching, chang­ing the sow­ing and har­vest­ing cal­en­dar, and choos­ing and diver­si­fy­ing crops have all proved effective.

There are a num­ber of areas for improvement

Irri­ga­tion is the most fre­quent­ly imple­ment­ed adap­ta­tion mea­sure in agri­cul­ture, and the most effec­tive. Up to 35% of the world’s agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion could be switched to an irri­gat­ed sys­tem, with lim­it­ed impact on the envi­ron­ment. Although some irri­ga­tion sys­tems are inef­fi­cient (a large pro­por­tion of the water is not used by the plant), it would be pos­si­ble to reduce unused water con­sump­tion by 76% – while pre­serv­ing yields – by replac­ing inef­fi­cient sys­tems. Extend­ing irri­ga­tion inter­vals, reduc­ing water­ing times, reduc­ing leaks, deficit irri­ga­tion… There are many ways of doing this. “Drip irri­ga­tion can achieve up to 95% effi­cien­cy,” adds Nas­sim Ait Mouheb. “But it can’t be used for all crops and depends on prac­tices: in Moroc­co, we some­times see low effi­cien­cy due to over-irri­ga­tion.” The sys­tem can be sup­ple­ment­ed by probes mea­sur­ing the water sta­tus of the soil to improve the pre­ci­sion of irri­ga­tion. “We have also found that switch­ing to drip irri­ga­tion encour­ages farm­ers to extend their plots, and there­fore has no effect on their water con­sump­tion,” points out Nas­sim Ait Mouheb. “Any change in prac­tices must be accom­pa­nied by safeguards.”

Thinking about the environmental impact of adaptation measures

Access to drink­ing water is a major health and social issue. Faced with a short­age of fresh water, new sup­ply meth­ods are emerg­ing. “Fresh­wa­ter must remain the pri­or­i­ty resource for pro­duc­ing drink­ing water, but sea­wa­ter desali­na­tion is an adap­ta­tion solu­tion in coastal areas where fresh­wa­ter is not avail­able,” explains Corinne Cabas­sud. “I’m think­ing of cer­tain iso­lat­ed rur­al areas, cri­sis sit­u­a­tions or deltas that are becom­ing salinised because of ris­ing seas linked to cli­mate change”. Desali­na­tion has been used since the 1960s. Between 2010 and 2019, installed capac­i­ty increased by 7% per year6. Dai­ly pro­duc­tion will reach around 120 mil­lion m3 of desali­nat­ed water thanks to almost 20,000 plants in 2022. It could exceed 250 mil­lion m3 per day by 20307. These plants can be found in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, Sau­di Ara­bia, the Unit­ed States, Spain, and Algeria.

But desali­na­tion is not a uni­ver­sal solu­tion. The rea­son? Its envi­ron­men­tal impact. Once the water has been treat­ed, the remain­ing brine – con­tain­ing min­er­als and chem­i­cals used dur­ing the treat­ment process – is dis­charged back into the sea, affect­ing local bio­di­ver­si­ty. “There are many ways of improv­ing the sit­u­a­tion: dis­pers­ing the brine in the open sea using suit­able devices, con­cen­trat­ing the brine or reusing it,” says Corinne Cabas­sud. The main impact of desali­na­tion is linked to the amount of ener­gy required and the cor­re­spond­ing green­house gas emis­sions. “In 2014, the sec­tor con­sumed 100 TWh, emit­ting 76 mil­lion tonnes of CO2 equiv­a­lent per year world­wide,” explains Corinne Cabas­sud. This rep­re­sents 0.2% of total CO2 emis­sions worldwide.

The use of renew­able ener­gies is the main means of improv­ing the envi­ron­men­tal impact of desali­na­tion. “In 2018, only 1% of desali­na­tion plants were pow­ered by renew­able ener­gies,” adds Corinne Cabas­sud. Today, three-quar­ters of desali­na­tion plants use a reverse osmo­sis process. This requires high pres­sure, which could be sup­plied by renew­able ener­gy sources such as pho­to­volta­ic, wind or tidal pow­er. “Ther­mal evap­o­ra­tion is anoth­er desali­na­tion process that is not wide­ly used today,” adds Corinne Cabas­sud. “The ener­gy required could be sup­plied by solar ther­mal ener­gy, like a solar water heater, great­ly improv­ing ener­gy effi­cien­cy com­pared with reverse osmo­sis process­es pow­ered by pho­to­volta­ic pan­els. This tech­nol­o­gy has not yet been per­fect­ed: at the Toulouse Biotech­nol­o­gy Insti­tute, we are work­ing to improve it.” If not com­bined with renew­able ener­gies, the expect­ed growth in desali­na­tion would lead to a 180% increase in green­house gas emis­sions by 2040.

The last major adap­ta­tion mea­sure is REUT (for réu­til­i­sa­tion) or REUSE. The reuse of waste­water involves treat­ing it at the end of a waste­water treat­ment plant so that it can be reused, rather than being dis­charged into the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. The main advan­tage of this adap­ta­tion mea­sure is that it lim­its the use of good qual­i­ty drink­ing water, par­tic­u­lar­ly ground­wa­ter. The appli­ca­tion of REUT is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing for agri­cul­ture. “Waste­water has been used for irri­ga­tion for thou­sands of years,” says Nas­sim Ait Mouheb. “This water con­tains nitro­gen, phos­pho­rus and potas­si­um: it enrich­es agri­cul­tur­al soils and replaces min­er­al fer­tilis­ers.” In France, only 1% of the vol­ume of waste­water is reused. But this fig­ure ris­es to 8% in Italy, 12% in Spain and 80% in Israel8. It is esti­mat­ed that the quan­ti­ties of waste­water pro­duced each year through­out the world rep­re­sent 15% of the water with­drawn by agri­cul­ture. “Some coun­tries mix dif­fer­ent water resources: con­ven­tion­al, rain­wa­ter and treat­ed waste­water,” explains Nas­sim Ait Mouheb. “This is an inter­est­ing adap­ta­tion mea­sure, pro­vid­ed that enough water is left in the rivers in win­ter and that the need is suf­fi­cient to meet the high­er cost of this resource.”

Anaïs Marechal
1IPCC, 2022: Sum­ma­ry for Pol­i­cy­mak­ers [H.-O. Pört­ner, D.C. Roberts, E.S. Poloczan­s­ka, K. Minten­beck, M. Tign­or, A. Ale­gría, M. Craig, S. Langs­dorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem (eds.)]. In: Cli­mate Change 2022: Impacts, Adap­ta­tion, and Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Con­tri­bu­tion of Work­ing Group II to the Sixth Assess­ment Report of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change [H.-O. Pört­ner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tign­or, E.S. Poloczan­s­ka, K. Minten­beck, A. Ale­gría, M. Craig, S. Langs­dorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Cam­bridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3–33, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.001.
2L’Eau, pour et avec les femmes, le développe­ment par l’autonomisation : les Chaires UNESCO sur l’eau et le genre, 15 p., illus., doc­u­ment de pro­gramme et de réu­nion, 2014
3Site inter­net con­sulté le 30/03/2024 : https://​com​pe​tences​fem​i​nines​.gouv​.ci/​d​e​t​a​i​l​_​a​c​t​u​.​p​h​p​?​n​u​m​=​1​9​&lang=
5Caret­ta, M.A., A. Mukher­ji, M. Arfanuz­za­man, R.A. Betts, A. Gelfan, Y. Hirabayashi, T.K. Liss­ner, J. Liu, E. Lopez Gunn, R. Mor­gan, S. Mwan­ga, and S. Supratid, 2022: Water. In: Cli­mate Change 2022: Impacts, Adap­ta­tion and Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Con­tri­bu­tion of Work­ing Group II to the Sixth Assess­ment Report of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change [H.-O. Pört­ner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tign­or, E.S. Poloczan­s­ka, K. Minten­beck, A. Ale­gría, M. Craig, S. Langs­dorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Cam­bridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 551–712, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.006.
7Site inter­net con­sulté le 02/04/2024 : https://​the​sourcemagazine​.org/​s​t​r​i​v​i​n​g​-​f​o​r​-​d​e​s​a​l​i​n​a​t​i​o​n​s​-​g​o​l​d​-​s​u​s​t​a​i​n​a​b​i​l​i​t​y​-​s​t​a​n​dard/
8Site inter­net con­sulté le 21/03/2024 : https://​www​.ser​vices​.eaufrance​.fr/REUT

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