Low on Water, Cities Get Creative

How global droughts are sparking innovative solutions

Low on Water, Cities Get Creative

Drought occurs when a place gets less rain and snowfall than it needs over time. Droughts can wreak long-term devastation including crop failure, wildfire, drinking water scarcity and human displacement at an alarming rate.

Droughts are among the costliest of natural disasters. According to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification:

By 2025, 1.8 billion people will experience absolute water scarcity, and 2/3 of the world will be living under water-stressed conditions.

Currently, 17 countries exhibit alarming levels of water stress, according to the World Resources Institute. These countries are using an average of over 80% of their yearly water supply, leaving little to no safety net. In the face of drought or an increased water demand, the supply runs dry quickly. Chennai, India, is facing dried-out reservoirs and, in 2017, Rome had to ration water. Irregular rain patterns and increased temperatures, characteristic climate warming indicators, create unpredictable conditions for a city’s water supply.

Adapting new agricultural practices and innovations can make crops and communities more resilient to drought.


Around the world, people are combating this existential threat at the grassroots, corporate and governmental levels. The Middle East and North Africa face hot and dry conditions as a baseline, so growing demand for water is putting stress on an already scarce resource. After the 2012 drought in Northern African Sahel, farmers began to modify their long-held land management practices.

One adaptation is called zai. Farmers fill pits with compost and manure, then plant seeds in them at the start of the rainy season. These pits can then maximize the water and nutrients that flow to plants, creating a higher and stronger crop yield.

Another adopted method, the building of low stone walls around crops, reduces runoff and soil erosion.

Climate information services have emerged in countries like Senegal, offering farmers rainfall forecasts and encouraging them to rethink their crop varieties based on climate predictions.

In West Texas, where cattle ranches require plenty of water—producing one pound of beef requires nearly two thousand gallons of water, (compare this to the 108 gallons it takes to make a pound of corn)—one farmer found a way to benefit exponentially from rare, but beneficial, rainfall events by designing gutters and storage facilities that can hold thousands of gallons at a time. He extended these practices to his cattle by instituting a system of High Intensity/Low Frequency grazing, which gives pastures time to regrow.

To be sure, droughts devastate more than agriculture. In the Middle East, nations are investing in systems of water recycling and reuse. Today, Oman treats all of its collected wastewater and reuses 78%. In 2019, the country has committed to investing $7 billion to advance wastewater treatment. Qatar already uses desalinated water for 50% of the nation’s water supply. And Saudi Arabia, the country that consumes the most water per capita after the U.S. and Canada, introduced national Qatrah program, which aims to reduce daily per capita water consumption from 263 liters to 150 by 2030 by raising awareness around water conservation methods.

India established the Jal Shakti Ministry to focus on issues of drinking water, river cleaning, and sanitation under one organization. These initiatives were previously divided into separate ministries.

Following three years of drought — and a “Day Zero” campaign intended to raise a red flag for its citizens about the day dams would run dry— Cape Town, South Africa, remains a city where people are reminded of their water usage at every turn.

Restaurants offer hand sanitizer next to soap dispensers and signage, everywhere from airports to hotel lobbies, reminds both locals and tourists to save water.

Companies are doing their part: hotels have fit low-flow showerheads, laundry facilities have updated their technology to reduce water usage by 90%, and swimming pools have switched over to saltwater.

Water from Air’s method of water collection and purification.

Others are innovating entirely. Water from Air collects water from condensation. Mistifi, a new company created in the wake of the drought, built a sink nozzle that turns a stream of water into a fine mist, releasing one-ninth the regular amount of tap water. The Financial Times dubbed these “garage inventors.”

Cape Town’s dams are now 71.2% full, a promising rise from the 27.2% levels in 2017.

California faced similar shortages for years. As the water supply went down, farms reached deeper into the earth and electrical pumps pushed water into cities from even further away. So, the state passed a landmark act that would reduce extraction to sustainable levels.

Additionally, local urban water suppliers relied on tactics to manage demand— rebates, information campaigns, and pricing to encourage reductions in water use — and diversify their water supply.

Other efforts, such as desalination, have come into play—but with drawbacks. As populations increase and droughts become more common, the technology will evolve to bring the costs of desalination down. The process, however, which can be done either thermally or by reverse osmosis, requires a lot of energy (in many cases, fossil fuels), which paradoxically, end up as greenhouse gas emissions that further influence climate change. And desalination can destroy marine life by returning wastewater—much saltier than at the beginning—back into the ocean as a toxic brine.

The largest seawater desalination plant in the U.S. is in Carlsbad, California, where it produces 50 million gallons of drinking water daily for the San Diego area. Last year, the state approved $34.4 million in grants to eight new desalination projects. Six of these, however, will rely on brackish water from rivers, bays, or aquifers, rather than the ocean. The seventh is devoted to research. In June 2019, another $14 million was awarded.

Spring 2019, for the first time in eight years, California was considered to be out of a drought (although this hasn’t kept the fires at bay). Reservoirs and lakes are full and snowfall is back to normal. But as patterns and conditions suggest, it’s wise to remain cautious and to conserve. While innovative solutions often emerge from necessity, what crises can we avoid by adopting a longer view?


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