How to keep the peace in
an age of water wars

Water is life, but it's increasingly scarce on planet Earth. The issue isn’t so much one of availability, but of poor management

One billion people today have no access to safe drinking water. In all, 40 per cent of the world's population experiences water shortages. And in the 2050 of tomorrow, where resources will be split among nine billion people, we’ll use (at least) 50 per cent more water than we already do. Where will it come from?

The answer is tricky. The amount of freshwater on our blue planet hasn’t changed much in a long while – millions of years. There simply isn’t very much of it to go around. Freshwater makes up only 2.5 per cent of all water on Earth and only one per cent of that is readily accessible. Even so, the primary issue in most countries isn’t a shortage of water, it’s the inefficient and unsustainable use of water resources.

Say you were to turn a faucet in Bangalore, India's fifth largest city – there’d be no guarantee that water would flow. And even if it did, the water from the Kaveri River, which provides 80 per cent of the city’s water, is not safe to drink. Those with means, middle and upper-income families, pay a premium for private water supplies. But almost everyone else is all too familiar with waiting hours to do laundry, cook dinner or wash up after a long day.

Many of the wars this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water

That's no way to live. Fortunately, fewer every day are forced to live like that thanks to mobile technology and the social enterprise NextDrop. It launched operations in Bangalore this year, after pilots and growth projects in three other cities in the state of Karnataka: Hubli, Dharwad and Mysore.

"Our flagship product is water alerts. We can tell 75,000 people with an SMS when their water will come on," NextDrop co-founder and CEO Anu Sridharan said. If water doesn’t flow as intended, or if a leak is discovered, users can call NextDrop with a tip, which is immediately relayed to a utility engineer. Those with smartphones can do the same with a few taps using NextDrop’s complaint management app. Easy.

But there are bigger problems with water infrastructure. When we started this program, utilities wanted to know where the water went. Because in some neighbourhoods, if you turn off water in one place, water begins to flow in another,” Sridharan said. “So we built a utility-facing product, SmartGrid, that maps water flow within a city. It’s accessible both online and by smartphone.”

Smarter and more responsive water management means better water supply with existing infrastructure. “Report a complaint, solve it faster, fix leaks, save water. Our goal is to ensure that everyone does have equitable access to water within a city,” Sridharan said.

And if the city is the second driest in the world… Where citizens buy water off the back of trucks and a flush toilet is out of the question? In Lima, Peru, there’s a different worry: public health and sanitation.

"Lima is a huge city, 10 million people in the middle of the desert," Isabel Medem, co-founder and CEO of x-runner Venture, said. “Three million people don't have a toilet in their home. Those in the slums have their piece of land cut out and on it they will make a latrine, or several. They are very aware that pit latrines are not good for their health, or their neighbours’. If it were up to them, they wouldn’t be using that at all.

X-runner Venture offers latrine users – and others who lack adequate sanitation facilities – a better option. First, a Swedish-made, odour-free, waterless toilet, which can be installed in the home – now free of charge – in fewer than 30 minutes. And second, weekly pick-up of faeces, delivered to a local composting facility for processing, which x-runner users can use in their gardens or fields.

It’s a subscription service. “There is no option to buy the toilet. You sign up for the whole service system,” Medem said. But at $12 per month, it’s a no-brainer. The average monthly income for an x-runner subscriber is $750, though some families earn more than $1,000. Subscribers receive an invoice every month with information about dues owed and the amount of faeces collected. Subscribers can pay with cash or wire transfer and 90 per cent of x-runner users pay on time.

X-runner has installed almost 400 toilets, serving more than 2,000 people and boosting the well-being of the Lima community, considering that more than 840,000 die every year from complications due to cholera and other water-related illnesses.

"We want to challenge the idea that sanitation has to involve pipes and water and a flush toilet and find new ways of supplying high quality sanitation to urban homes and the poorest of the poor," Medem said. “The fact is, what we use in the United States or Europe is also out of date. In the future we won't use flush toilets – it’s not sustainable.”

NextDrop and x-runner are two examples social innovations that are not only effective, but can also work beyond the city and state limits within which they currently operate. In that sense, they represent what the future of water and waste management may look like, considering the worldwide push to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation by 2030 as well as the significant cost of inaction.

"Many of the wars this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water," former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin has said. The tough-to-swallow truth? Water wars are already being waged.

Those are the stakes. Will human ingenuity, next gen technology and empathy deliver?

The above article by John Converse Townsend first published on in Nov, 2015.