Fresh water & its challenges: resources, resilience & availability
Guest blog by professor Steven Loiselle, Research Manager, Global Freshwater Research, Earthwatch
Dwindling water supplies and decreasing water quality are among the most significant issues facing society. World leaders’ pledges for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG) ‘Ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all’ will be one of the most significant and decisive for society today and the next century. Every other SDG relating to health, food security, climate change, resiliency to disasters and ecosystems hinges on the availability of water.
Fresh, clean water is becoming scarce for a globally growing population and that which we do have is declining in quality:
- Nearly 800 million people in the world are without access to safe water and 2.5 billion people are living without basic sanitation.
- By 2050, nearly half of the world’s population will be living in areas where water is scarce and 90 per cent of all population growth will occur in regions where water is scarce and where there is currently no sustainable access to water.
- More people die from poor quality water annually than from all forms of violence, including war.
- As water quality declines in some regions, more than 50 per cent of native freshwater fish species and nearly one third of the world’s amphibians are at risk of extinction.
Despite the significance of the Water Challenge, it is not a subject that is overtly on the agenda at COP21 – an omission that many experts believe to be a major problem.
Big businesses, such as Ford, Nestle, Unilever and P&G are already reducing their water use yet increasing productivity – so there is reason for optimism. NGOs are building sustainable sanitation infrastructure in developing communities, saving them from impending water crises. These are actions that our governments should also be committing to. We hope that the importance of water will be raised at COP21 and that governments will take note.
Putting aside what governments will or will not discuss at COP21, there are lots of potential actions we can take to reduce the impact that humans are having on the quality and availability of fresh water. The current problem holding back progress is generally scientists, agencies and governments do not know enough about freshwater to protect it properly. Earthwatch Institute has a solution to tackle this knowledge gap however.
FreshWater Watch is the Earthwatch Institute’s global project to study the quality of fresh water. The kind of data that our citizen scientists are collecting is missing in most of the world – scientists and governments do not have the resources to collect data on a scale necessary to make informed decisions. Results from our project are uploaded to the database and are analysed by leading scientists, they are then presented to policy-makers and other decision makers to directly influence and improve the way in which aquatic ecosystems are being managed.
We have research centres in more than 30 cities across 15 countries so, in addition to examining local issues, scientists are also able to make global comparisons of the impacts of climate, land use, population and local management of aquatic ecosystems. This will provide new insights on the sustainable management of our environment and its most precious resource – water.
It is based on citizen science and, since we launched in 2013, more than 7,000 people have signed up to take water quality measurements at streams, ponds, rivers, lakes and ditches around the world. By mapping the ‘unmapped’ citizen science has revealed the ecological importance of many waterbodies that currently have little legislative protection. The data gathered provides a solid evidence base on which to improve this protection.
Our FreshWater Watchers are a vibrant community of committed volunteers who have uploaded more than 11,000 samples to our database and champion the cause of fresh water. In addition to uploading data on water quality around the globe, participants have changed their personal behaviour to reduce their water footprint and have become Water Ambassadors to spread the word on the water challenge we all face. Citizen scientists are the driving force of FreshWater Watch and their dedication and willingness to learn more is genuinely inspiring as can be seen in this video
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