Global fresh water demand is expected to grow by 2 percent yearly over the next several decades. Based on the assumption that water supply will remain relatively stable, demand growth is expected to lead to serious water stress. This is largely the result of a linear model of water usage, in which the resource becomes more polluted and increasingly wasted as it travels through the system, shortening the water cycle.
Less is More: Circular Economy Solutions to Water Shortages*, a* new report by ING in partnership with Deltares, an independent knowledge institute for water and subsoil, is attempting to address these issues by laying out a circular model for water usage. In this model, the take-make-waste approach is replaced by a reduce-reuse-retention approach, which aims to close the loop and make the water system regenerative by design so water retains its quality and can move through the cycle again and again. According to the report, moving towards more circular water systems will improve the local balance of water supply and demand.
In the report, ING and Deltares analyze the circular potential in six regions: Northern India, California, Ghana, United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh and the Netherlands. The report finds that while the circular economy is not able to fully eliminate water shortages, it has the potential to save 400 billion m3 of water yearly, the equivalent of 11 percent of global water demand and almost the entirity of water consumption in the U.S.
In California, a region that has, for the last six years, been plagued by severe drought , the circular economy has the potential to almost halve the number of years with anticipated water shortages. For the years where shortages remain, these are reduced by over 90 percent. A circular approach could also provide an alternative for desalination projects that come with high environmental and social costs.
Northern India has a very large and water intensive agriculture sector, a reality which further aggravates its position as a water-stressed region. Water shortages pose a significant problem for the region and are expected to occur every year up to 2050. The introduction of a reduce-reuse-retention approach could help reduce these water shortages by one-third and save around 350 billion m3 yearly. This equates to 10 percent of the water used globally.
Like Northern India, Bangladesh is also expected to experience water shortages every year up to 2050. Similarly, circular practices have the potential to almost halve water shortages and save 20 billion m3 each year. The same can be said for the United Arab Emirates, where a circular approach to water could help one of the most water-stressed countries in the world reduce water shortages by around 16 percent annually.
Ghana and the Netherlands would also benefit from a new model. A regenerative model to water usage has the potential to reduce shortages by two-thirds (117 million m3 annually) in 14 of the years leading up to 2050 for Ghana, and could reduce water shortages in the agriculture sector in the Netherlands by up to one-quarter.
“As our findings demonstrate, circular water measures certainly have high potential to reduce water stress. Applying the principals of the circular economy requires transformative change of current linear water systems, which in turn also presents businesses with a range of opportunities throughout the supply chain,” said Gerben Hieminga, ING.
“Nonetheless, we must be cognizant of the fact that these measures cannot be implemented in isolation. Barriers to progress, such as costs of implementation, regulatory control and free water rights, as well as the entire water cycle from supply, demand and behavior needs to be improved before a circular water solution can be as effective in achieving such positive results.”