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To Avoid Water Shortage for 5 Billion by 2050, UN Report Urges Nature-Based Solutions

"We clearly need new ways to manage competing demands on our freshwater resources."

A new report finds that about five billion people could be impacted by water shortages by 2050—around half the world's population by that time. (Photo: Oscar F. Hevia/Flickr/cc)

A new United Nations report calls for a shift away from human-made water infrastructure and towards nature-based irrigation solutions in order to avoid widespread water shortages around the world by 2050.

The UN's annual report on the state of the world's water found that five billion people could be affected by a lack of potable water within the next three decades—about half of the expected world population by that time—due to climate crisis, polluted supplies, and increased demand brought on by a rise in population.

About 70 percent of the 4,600 cubic kilometers (over 1,100 cubic miles) of water consumed annually, is used for agriculture. The rate of water use grows by one percent every year.

"For too long, the world has turned first to human-built, or 'gray', infrastructure to improve water management," wrote Gilbert Houngbo, the chair of UN Water, in the report. "In doing so, it has often brushed aside traditional and indigenous knowledge that embraces greener approaches. In the face of accelerated consumption, increasing environmental degradation, and the multi-faceted impacts of climate change, we clearly need new ways to manage competing demands on our freshwater resources."

The report shares examples of nature-based solutions that have had positive impacts on the local level in countries including India and Jordan.

In Rajasthan, India, after logging and low levels of rainfall led to severe drought, a non-governmental organization supported communities in the restoration of their water sources:

Activities centered on the construction of small-scale water harvesting structures combined with the regeneration of forests and soils, particularly in upper catchments, to help improve the recharge of groundwater resources.

After unsustainable practices in Jordan led to depleted groundwater resources, traditional land management systems were restored, allowing land to regenerate itself without interference from infrastructure. The practice has resulted in both economic growth through the cultivation of valuable indigenous plants and the conservation of water.

With the increasing prevalence of droughts, climate crisis is also a major cause of plummeting water supplies—as well as other harmful effects.

"Droughts are arguably the greatest single threat from climate change," reads the report. "Changes in future rainfall patterns will alter drought occurrence, and consequently, soil moisture availability for vegetation in many parts of the world."

In Cape Town, South Africa, residents are expected to come face-to-face with the effects of a worsening water shortage brought on by drought in the coming weeks, with the city's taps projected to run dry on April 12.

While developing countries are most at risk for water shortages, the issue has impacted wealthy countries including the United States in recent years. The community of Flint, Michigan has been without clean water since 2014, a crisis that began when cost-cutting measures by the state left the city's water tainted with lead and other toxins.

And water pollution could become an even more widespread issue in the U.S. following President Donald Trump's recent rollback of the Clean Water Rule, a key piece of legislation designed to limit runoff from chemical fertilizers in the nation's waterways.

And Flint isn't alone, with thousands of U.S. cities and towns suffering from the threat of tainted water and crumbling infrastructure.

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