World Water (Scarcity) Day

Zansukwe, Southern Zimbabwe. Photo: David Nilsson

An average woman in rural India travels 14,000 km every year just to get water. At the same time clever solutions to manage water more sustainably have found their way from India to Gotland, in the face of increased water scarcity in Sweden. These were some of the interesting things discussed at the full-day conference on water scarcity arranged by KTH and IVL yesterday, as a run-up to World Water Day, March 22.

Almost half of the world’s population live in areas under water stress today and it is not expected to diminish in the decades to come. Water scarcity has been a reality in large parts of the world for a long time, but in recent years it has become a real threat also in a place like Sweden. Water is truly a global challenge, but it manifests itself in local settings and typically must be dealt with by local actors.

On the largest island in Sweden, Gotland, the local authorities have issued a total irrigation ban already from 1 april this year – much earlier than any year before. As Patrik Ramberg, the technical director for Gotland region, explains, the island naturally has very low water storage capacity because of its geology. But the massive drainage programmes implemented in the 19th century made things much worse; most of the wetlands are gone and with them, important buffering capacity. Now a project is going on with IVL and KTH to restore storage capacity and also to promote re-use of wastewater.

Over 100 people from research, industry, local and national agencies gathered

Re-use of wastewater came up in several of the examples and presentation. As Christian Baresel from IVL put it; why not just clean the water once, and then keep on using it within the same loop? Alexandra Lazic from Xylem showed that many different solutions for wastewater re-use already have been implemented throughout the world, not least in the USA. Technologies like ozonation, membranes, UV, advanced oxidation, bio-filters etc can be combined in an endless way to match the conditions and needs in different places.

Some large industries have already understood this and are trying ways of re-using not just the water, but also recoving some of the products in the wastewater, like phosphorous. Andreas Rosberg from the metallurgy and tools company Sandvik, pointed out that they think a more circular production would in the end also be good business.

Sweden’s scarcity problem of course pales in comparison with the Indian case presented by Rupali Deshmuk, IVL. ”We don’t even really have water scarcity in Sweden!” proclaimed Bosse Olofsson, geo-hydrology guru and KTH professor. The annual run-off  by far exceeds the withdrawals in our country and the amount of freshwater available per capita is still very high. The problem is that the water is not available where it is needed and when it is needed – such as during the growth season – and therefore water scarcity is a temporal and local phenomenon.

The largest consumer of water is by far agriculture, accounting for around 70% of the water withdrawals globally. And with rising demand from energy production, industry and food production there are bound to be conflicts. The Director General of Swedish Agency for marine and water management, Dr. Jakob Granit, cautioned that we are ill prepared for handling these kinds of conflicts. Responsibility for the many aspects of water management have been portioned out to a plethora of institutions at central, regional and local levels, and the overall picture is one of serious fragmentation.

Fredrik Gröndahl from KTH pointed to the oceans as a solution. Much more of the primary production of food, energy and raw materials could be done through sustainably farming the seas, thus relieving the terrestrial eco-systems and the limited fresh water on land. A good thing about farming the seas is that they don’t need irrigation. Fredrik, calling himself a ”sea farmer”, argued that we can live well off our polluted seas; we don’t need to add nutrients either!

Farming the seas. Photo: F Gröndahl

Despite the ominous conference title ”Vattenbristen” (Water Scarcity) the speakers were optimistic about our ability to face up to the challenge. It is obvious that a range of solutions already exist, and that they include technical, organisational and behavioural changes that are within reach. What is needed is closer collaboration between a multitude of actors; politics, finance, academia, industry and citizens. ”Collaboration”, said Jakob Granit, ”cannot just be a word, it must also happen.” In the concluding discussion, Katarina Luhr, Stockholm City councillor invited more collaboration around water, with the view to using the city as a testbed.

Workshop participants discussing how digitalisation can help in managing water

If we can get the collaboration right and show a viable business model around sustainable water use, we might be able to not just avoid future problems in Sweden, but also contribute to more just and sustainable water practices globally. Not a bad message for World Water Day!

Video from the conference here