Man's dependence on waterMarket Watch
Since ages, the course of human history has been determined by the availability of water. Human civilisations have flourished around sources of water and perished in its absence. Sadly, the world today is hit by a looming crisis — the scarcity of fresh and usable water. Despite being the most abundant resource on the planet, only about 2% of the total volume of water on earth, in its natural state, is fit for human consumption.
Moreover, usable water is not always where it is needed, nor is it always ready to be used. It must be transported to where it is required and/or conditioned to make it suitable for human use.
A clear example is the city of Las Vegas in the United States, a city with a high demand for water whose main source of supply is the Hoover Dam, about 30 miles away. Another example is that of the densely populated Mexico City, which needs to import around 30% of its water demand from external basins. Making the water that is easily available, suitable for human use, is no mean task. Sea water must pass through desalination processes, while subsoil water must be subjected to advanced filtration processes to make them usable. Residual water too has added pollutants which degrade the environment and threaten life if not cleaned and purified. Only after it has gone through the necessary treatment processes, can it be reused.
Water, being part of a cyclical process that allows it to return to the earth’s surface through the natural hydrological cycle, is a finite but renewable resource. However, the rate at which it regenerates is different from the rate at which human needs develop and grow.
Even as human effort accelerates water regeneration through multiple advanced technologies, human intervention, on the other hand, is disrupting the natural patterns of the water cycle. Global warming induced climate change and the resultant change in weather patterns are drastically affecting the water cycle.
In addition, linear models of human production and consumption are also wreaking havoc. Humans have designed and regularly practice a model of water use wherein water, made dirty after use, is discharged into the environment. Instead of keeping water on site by using it, cleaning it and reusing it again, thus reducing pressure on the demand for the resource, we end up passing our pollution “on to someone else”.
Virtual Water, a new global concept
Another consideration of our human intervention in the water cycle is related to water as used in the value chains — ‘Virtual Water'. A relatively new idea, with less than a decade of existence, the virtual water concept quantifies the water that is required throughout any production chain to result in a specific product. For example, to produce one cup of coffee, approximately 150 litres of water are required, and to produce one kg of meat, 3,000 litres are used. From the water consumed to grow the grains and the plants required to feed the cows, and the water they drink, to that used during the industrial process, until packaging and delivery to the final consumer — it all adds up and snowballs into those big numbers. Although the use of water is essential in value chains, what is not sustainable is our linear production and consumption models that encourage unlimited and infinite demands for resources that are limited and finite.
To have a little more clarity on the planet’s water footprint, we see that in general, 80% of water is used to produce food, 10% is used in industry and only the remaining 10% is used for domestic consumption — in our homes, hotels, shopping centres and offices. This means that making citizens prudent of their water consumption habits can solve part of 10% of the problem.
This concept of "virtual water" becomes especially relevant when, derived from the great global trade in products and merchandise, we transfer the excessive consumption of water throughout the globe in the extraction of resources, manufacture of products and the transfer of these products to new centres of consumption.
In the production of all these goods and services, both for local consumption and for export, large amounts of water are needed, and ecosystems are damaged, which, in their co-dependence with the water cycle, negatively modify the availability of the resource.
As a reference, a huge percentage of aquifers in Mexico are overexploited; making the problem particularly delicate in hot and dry ecosystems, whose geological history has allowed them to have enormous underground water reserves, but current climate conditions do not allow them to reintegrate water into the subsoil in the same proportion as it is needed to be extracted.
These watersheds are particularly vulnerable when economically profitable, but ecologically inefficient cultivation practices are integrated at warm temperatures. If we add all the above to a global trade network, what we will be witnessing is a huge movement of virtual water at a global level, where a highly consuming minority, but with economic power, would be living beyond the carrying capacity of the earth to sustain life in your place of residence, putting at stake the ecological balance and availability of water resources for the inhabitants of other places on the planet.
The foregoing is relevant considering that not only is there excessive water consumption, but also that the production processes discharge contaminated water or elements that damage other production chains, such as those related to fishing. Let us imagine, in this context, that every time any of the inhabitants of the areas that originate these discharges eat fish, shrimp or shellfish caught in the areas surrounding where the municipal drainage discharges into the sea, they end up ingesting tissues of living beings in whose habitat residual waters generated by they themselves, predominate.
The following table shows the data with the balance between contamination and sanitation of water in Mexico, where it is observed that of the total municipal wastewater that is generated minute by minute in the country, only 57% is treated (4.28 of 7.41 thousand hm3/year) and only 47% of the contaminants contained in the water are removed (0.92 of 2 million tons BOD5/year) (CONAGUA, 2018). Likewise, with respect to wastewater of industrial origin, only 38% of it is treated (2.64 of 6.88 thousand hm3/year) and only 16.9% of the contaminants are removed (1.76 of 10.32 million tons BOD5/year). One of the effects that contributes to such a deficit lies in the current decision-making culture where there is a tendency to not select the provider with the best water treatment technology, but rather the cheapest; which leads to more than 60% of the wastewater treatment projects installed in Mexico either not working or not functioning correctly (CONAGUA, 2018).
Water Legal Framework
Like several other countries, Mexico recognises the need to solve the water problem in an efficient and economical way, to acknowledge the legal framework that applies to this valued resource Nationwide.
The water legal framework in Mexico is based on three articles of the Political Constitution (4, 27 and 115) and the National Water Law.
Article 4 recognises that every person has the right to access, provision and sanitation of water for personal and domestic consumption in a sufficient, healthy, acceptable and affordable way. The State must guarantee this right in an equitable and sustainable manner, and establish the Federation, States and Municipalities’ roles to achieve it.
Article 27 states that the waters are the property of the Nation and lays the foundations for the State to regulate their sustainable use, with the participation of citizens and the three levels of government. It specifies that the use or exploitation of the resources will be carried out through concessions granted by the Executive, based on the laws.
Article 115 specifies that the municipalities are responsible for the public services of drinking water, drainage, sewerage, treatment and disposal of their wastewater.
Based on article 27, the National Water Law (LAN) was issued in 1992 and in 2016, it underwent its last reform. Likewise, on 5 February 2022, the Senate of the Republic approved two reforms to the National Water Law, to regulate the desalination of seawater and its agricultural, domestic and industrial use.
The Federal Rights Law classifies the water availability zones, and determines the rates for use as well as the charge for discharge of wastewater based on its quality and that of the receiving water bodies.
The water problem is relevant in Mexico today, and all over the world. In fact, Mexico is more privileged in that it has sufficient availability of water in certain regions. The evolution of programmes, not only for environmental awareness, water resources management, and conservation of water in industries and homes, but also for the development and application of efficient and innovative technologies, which allow us to use and reuse this precious resource, are important opportunities relevant for a more conscious, ecological and efficient economy, consequently impacting the improvement in economic resources within industries, households and governments around the world. If we manage to lower the demand for water production and instead reuse water more often, we, as global citizens, will be doing a great environmental and economic good for the planet we live in.