If one chose to rate the sustainability status of the context captured in this picture using the iconic three intersecting circles representing social, economic and environmental (SEE) sustainability, the rating would be UNSUSTAINABLE. Visually, the picture is conveying the fact that when water goes missing from the landscape, the three interlocked circles of sustainability come crashing down like a house whose foundation has collapsed.

In this article we seek to point out a gaping hole in the three-circle narrative of sustainability, which is now globally accepted and applied.

Sustainability is widely defined as a trade off and a balancing act between social, environmental and economic aspirations to achieve a fair, livable and viable life on Earth without compromising the needs for the future generations.

In 2016, the National Science Foundation announced that “All human and natural systems are influenced by the distribution, abundance, quality, and accessibility of water”. So, it is high time we acknowledge water as a critical factor that has been completely overlooked in this three-circle narrative of sustainability as water is a precursor and a precondition to the discussion of sustainability.

Since 1960, water availability per person worldwide has fallen by 55%. The world's population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, continued overconsumption and the impact of climate change can reduce the availability of water resources for the most needy regions of the planet. Therefore, it is important to challenge the assumptions and framework that have been guiding our decisions on water management.

Water is currently viewed as one element of the environment, whose sustainability can be traded off in exchange of economic and social growth. This way of thinking has guided our decisions on how to manage water. Not giving water sustainability an explicit place in the three-circle narrative of sustainability has landed us today in the state of water crisis.

Water Sustainability

As an example, for sustaining farmers’ income & the social well being of their families, groundwater aquifers are extracted under the assumption that social and economic benefits are derived by trading off sustainability of groundwater. This assumption has led us to an outcome that is unsustainable and to a point of no return in some places. By not recognizing water as a fundamental resource to be protected and preserved for achieving the sustainable outcomes,we humans have been using water as a commodity to be exploited. This has steered us away from maintaining a healthy relationship with water resulting in perverse outcomes.Where this unhealthy relationship with water has hit rock bottom of aquifers and dams, society, environment and economy start to fall apart.

We have already assumed cities can grow without limits when we declare that by 2050, 70 percent of the world population will be living in cities. This projection is done under the unchallenged assumption that continuous linear depletion of water resources will somehow continue to quench the growing water demand of the cities. Again, water is seen as an infinite resource, which can be engineered to be conveyed from however long distance to sustain the unlimited growth of cities globally.

With more than 50% of the world inhabiting cities today, water has already reached a crunch point resulting in emptying of dams, and aquifers and an increasing number of polluted local water bodies with an increase in social inequities, unhygienic and unlivable conditions. Yet another example of how putting sustainability of water as a tradeable resource, results in unsustainable social, economic and environmental conditions.

One may argue that water is captured within the Environment circle. However, water is too fundamental and core, to be subsumed under a broader ‘Environment’ circle. Indeed,water is a fundamental requirement for the survival of flora, fauna and biodiversity, which are basic elements constituting the Environment itself.

Water is a fundamental input in achieving liveability, livelihood, health, hygiene & well-being - the basic elements that constitute social sustainability. Water is also a fundamental requirement for basic economic activities such as industry, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction.

This, therefore, makes a case for recognizing water sustainability as the prerequisite to undertaking the balancing act of the three circles of sustainability.

In future articles, we shall explore how would water management & sustainability decisions look like when we start acknowledging water sustainability as a priority and precondition to the balancing act of the three interlocked circle of sustainability.