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We take water from the rivers and seas and pump it from the ground. It is what keeps us alive. However, climatic and geographical conditions mean that it is unevenly distributed around the world. And not all of us consume the same amount: due to the irrigation of cotton fields in Turkmenistan, more than five million litres are taken from the water cycle per capita and per year there, whereas the population of the Central African Republic has to make do with 6,000 litres.
A growing water shortage
As the world’s population grows, and more and more people live in cities, so too does our thirst for water increase. The United Nations forecasts that by 2050 at least one in four people will live in a country suffering from a water shortage.
“It has long been about more than a simple shortage of water, however. Increasingly, we have a problem of quality. Many hundreds of millions of people, especially children, do not have access to clean water”, says Professor Dietrich Borchardt, head of the Aquatic Ecosystem Analysis (ASAM) department at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research UFZ.
Future model region for sustainable water management
Water is already in tight supply in Mongolia because of the country’s dry climate. Will enough clean water still be available in the future? It is hoped that the MoMo(“Integrated Water Resources Management in Central Asia: Model Region Mongolia”) research project, which sees Professor Borchard collaborating with colleagues from the Leibniz-Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) , will be able to answer this question. The first important step was for the researchers to gather data, to which end they specifically sought out a model region along the Kharaa river. They were supported in their work by ministries, universities and official authorities in Mongolia.
These were the key questions to be clarified:
- How clean is the river?
- What is the region’s overall level of water consumption?
- How clean is the drinking water?
- How is waste disposed of?
With the aid of this data, the scientists are now able to implement a new water management concept. They are developing new waste water systems, a systematic means of checking water readings and information for schools and administrative bodies.
German water research: more than just technical solutions
MoMo is not only about identifying technical solutions. In this sense, the project is typical of the way in which water research has evolved in Germany. Until the 1990s, research and training had a strong engineering focus at the country’s universities and research institutions. Over the past ten years, greater importance has been attached to ecological, economic, legal and social issues.
Water research fosters international relations
A broad-based approach is also followed by the NeXus of Water, Food and Energy, a project of the Technical University of Munich. Students from Europe, the USA and African countries are exploring the interrelationships between water consumption, food production and energy generation – based on the example of the River Nile. Conflicts repeatedly flare up around the river, whose water comes from the Ethiopian Highlands and which Egypt uses to meet almost its entire water needs. “We can also view the supply of water as a challenge which fosters cooperation, however”, says Borchardt. This has been his experience during the SMART project, which focuses on water resources management in the Jordan Valley: “For the project, Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis all get together around the table.” Science could perhaps help to alleviate certain political conflicts, or indeed to prevent them from occurring in the first place.