Hope, one drop at a time

Humankind is running out of water—more than half of the world’s population suffers from water shortages. The approaches to solving this problem around the world are as varied as are its causes.

Text Berit Styll

Looking from Enschede in the Netherlands, the world’s future has become even bleaker this year. Professor in Water Management Arjen Hoekstra warns that water scarcity for the world’s population is far greater than was previously known. Hoekstra, who teaches at the University of Twente, looks even more stony-faced as he continues: “Up to four billion people are affected.” Meaning that more than half of the world’s population is running out of water.

To obtain their forecast, a team of hydrologists headed by Hoekstra took a deep dive into the data sets from weather stations all around the world. In contrast to earlier studies, it was the monthly rainfall figures, rather than the annual average values, that particularly interested them. “Estimates for the entire year don’t take into consideration any temporary fluctuations in water availability such as droughts and flooding,” Hoekstra explains.

Global climate change is the main factor in dry regions getting even drier—and in potential increases in arid months even at temperate latitudes. Rising demand for water also represents a huge problem: the world’s population is growing.

What countermeasures can succeed? A look at “water hotspots” around the world shows how complex the problems are—and reveals the often innovative pathways being forged to find solutions.


USA – Water balls


Photo: GERD LUDWIG/National Geographic Creative


Drinking water reservoirs can be effectively protected against water evaporation by shade balls.

The botanist William Brewer knew it back in 1860. Considering the settlement of Los Angeles—at the time just a hamlet of a few thousand inhabitants—he wrote in his journal: “All that is wanted naturally to make the locality a paradise is water, more water.”

The west of the United States, and California in particular, has struggled with drought for decades. The most recent one began in 2011—and there’s no end in sight. While strong rainfalls last March did provide a bit of relief, it wasn’t nearly enough to end this water crisis. Scientists at NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, estimate that California is missing around 40 billion cubic meters of water.

The reason for this lengthy drought is a meteorological phenomenon that prevents the normal rainclouds of the northern Pacific from reaching the American west coast. Stable areas of high pressure instead divert the winter storms further northward.

Back in 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a water emergency. Cities and communities had to reduce their water usage by 25 percent. “In the midst of California’s historic drought, it takes bold ingenuity to maximize my goals for water conservation,” noted Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in 2015. One of these bold ideas was the release of 96 million shade balls into a 70-hectare drinking water reservoir in the metropolis of Los Angeles. The shade balls, made of polyethylene and measuring ten centimeters in diameter, prevent even greater water loss due to evaporation from the sun. Along with the protection against evaporation—the reservoir loses more than a billion liters of water every year—the balls will also protect the water from dust and chemicals.

“California’s future,” explains Dr. Andreas Hauser, Head of TÜV SÜD Water Services, “can be found above all in conventional approaches, such as desalination plants and water recycling, along with reducing consumption. It will cost a lot of money and effort. But in a rich place like California, plenty of both is available.”



Namibia – Small steps

Tropical Africa is a region of contrasts: from the warm and humid, water-rich rain forests, to East Africa’s dry savannahs, to deserts, the continent brings together a wide variety of zones with a diversity of climatic conditions.

Where water is scarce, the people rely in particular on local projects. LifeStraw community water purifiers that filter contaminated water from puddles or make swampy lake water potable are used in great numbers in Kenya, for instance.

In the Namib Desert on Africa’s west coast, a beetle is the inspiration for another project. In the early-morning hours, the head-stander beetle (Onymacris unguicularis) thrusts its abdomen up into the air toward the wind and lowers its head. The beetle uses its body to catch the fog’s water droplets, which then, following gravity’s pull, flow down the abdomen and thorax into the mouth.

Scientists imitated this technique and developed nets that skim water from the fog. Like a volleyball net, a three-dimensional structure made of polyester is strung taut between two poles. The extracted fluid from the fog is collected in a trough, which is connected to a tank with a hose. “There are interesting solutions that are often sensibly combined with local expertise,” Andreas Hauser says. “But their utility is limited.” He further finds that transnational projects all too often fail due to corruption.



India – Waiting, waiting, waiting...

Filling Station

Photo: picture alliance/AP Images

Filling Station

Five million liters of water reach Latur’s inhabitants by train. The demand is much higher.

Far too little rain has been falling across many sections of central India for years: continually weakening monsoon rains can barely offset the periods of drought. Scientists estimate that by the year 2030, there will only be half as much water available as is actually needed. The high growth in population aggravates the climatic problems: in fifteen years at the latest, India will overtake the People’s Republic of China as the most populous nation on Earth.

Indian environmentalists take issue with the fact that the water problems have been ignored for years. “India is like an elephant,” says Andreas Hauser. “Everyone is waiting for it to finally stand up.” Yet there’s currently no overarching approach to solving the problem. What remains are patchwork solutions: water transports by rail help supply especially hard-hit cities, like the city of Latur, with 500,000 residents. It’s located 400 kilometers east of Mumbai and receives up to five million liters of water by train daily.

There are intense discussions about the River Linking Project: canals would direct water from flooded areas to regions suffering from drought. Almost 15,000 kilometers of new waterways would be built to connect 37 rivers with one another. Prime Minister Narendra Modi supports the project, but whether it will become a reality is still remains to be seen.



Singapore – Driver for standards

“Governments are the key to easing water shortages,” Andreas Hauser says. He lives and works in Singapore—in the country that stands for innovative and sustainable water management like no other. “The system functions here so well because guidelines and standards are very high on the agenda,” Hauser continues. “Only when politicians decisively promote the topic will there be success.”

Independence from water imports from Malaysia has always been very high on the agenda in Singapore. By 2061, Singapore hopes to be self-sufficient. The country is betting on four “national taps”—including seawater desalination, water recycling and the expansion of water conservation areas. Singapore has invested around 300 million euros in research projects over the past ten years. And Singapore has been exporting its expertise to other countries.

Around 15,000 people work in the thriving water industry of the city-state. TÜV SÜD expert Andreas Hauser and his team, for instance, test and evaluate membranes, a central technology for water treatment in desalination and industrial wastewater processing. They also advance the development of standards—to get innovative technologies to market and to consumers more rapidly. “Standards are essential,” Hauser says.



United Arabic Emirates – Rain at the Push of a Button

Detailed view

Photo: Getty Images/Marwan Naamani

Detailed view

Inspection of the nimbosus airplanes.

The United Arab Emirates is one of the driest countries on the planet, yet nowhere else in the world is the per capita water use higher. An abundance of water from desalination plants is part of the lifestyle in the affluent Emirates—and to ensure that the cool liquid continues to flow in the future, it seems that there is no technical mountain too high to climb to find a solution.

A paramount idea was presented in May 2016: American scientists are currently researching whether an artificial mountain might bring rain to the Arabian Desert. How high the elevation would have to be to block the air masses, forcing them to rise and precipitate out their water, remains unclear.

But something they’ve been using for years is the chemical version: airplanes regularly take off from Al Ain International Airport in Abu Dhabi and spray a very fine mist of miniscule particles of various salts amongst the clouds that gather above the bone-dry desert—always with the hope that the salt crystals in the clouds will become crystallization points for drops of water, which will then fall to the ground as rain.