In the previous blog, we pointed out a gaping hole in the form of total absence of the local water cycle context to the three three interlocked circle narrative of sustainability . To plug this hole, we argued for a bigger circle to be included around the three interlocking circles representing social, environmental ane economic sustainability. We argued that water by virtue of being a life giving element is a critical sustainability enabler. Therefore, it follows that sustainability of the local water cycle should be a precondition for achieving a sustainable balance between social, economic and environmental outcomes.

That’s the reason why we believe allotting water the number 6 spot in the long list of 17 United Nations sustainable development goals does injustice to all the sustainability goals. Water is the key to unlocking all the other goals - this fact must be reflected in any sustainability decision making framework that we adopt. Hence we proposed & introduced a new framework in our previous blog

In this article we try to explore and explain how our decisions would look like when water sustainability is addressed right up-front in order to achieve a truly sustainable world

State of unsustainable water - a direct outcome of our current way of decision making

state of water unsustainability

Figure 1 : State of Water Unsustainability

Figure 1 illustrates our current way of decision making leading to unsustainable state of water

Water is naturally present on Earth and is an integral part of each ecosystem. However, human activities coupled with impacts of change are reducing the water present in the natural system. From the pollution of existing waterways by agriculture and industries, to the degenerative use of water by pumping it out of the aquifer while sealing any chance of water infliltrating back into the aquifer, freshwater available on Earth for our survival is being consistently depleted. In parallel, each economic sector is allowed to grow without any controls while putting more and more pressure on the depleting freshwater resources as if it is an infinite reserve.. This is what we call water unsustainability.

As water goes missing in the current way of our decision making, it is bound to lead to unsustainable environment, economic and social outcomes. (The sectors’ sizes on the diagram are not representative of their share of total water use on those diagrams. Indeed 70-80% of freshwater is used for growing food to support the growing population).

Figure 2 below illustrates the state of water sustainability that we should aim for as opposed to the one shown in Figure 1

state of water sustainability

Figure 2 : State of Water Sustainability

Understanding the limits of the local water cycle

In our proposed way of decision making that prioritizes water sustainability as a precondition to social, environmental and economic decision making, every watershed region will initiate a thorough understanding of the local water cycle. A watershed is a land area that drains rainfall and snowmelt towards creeks to form streams to form rivers and ultimately draining to the oceans. Each country, state, region and village will have a local water cycle impacted by its geography and history contexts. Geographic context will consider the type of vegetation, ecosystems, and the hydrologic nature of the region, while the historic context will account for the damages that have been done to the local water cycle by past actions and events.

The objective of such a baseline study will be to identify how the original water cycle has changed, and how it can be restored and fixed if we want to manage it sustainably going forward. This type of analysis will help us to understand and define the limits to which we could trade off the needs of the local ecosystem. This will then go on to inform the limits to which the region can accommodate human-centric social and economic activities while maintaining the sustainability of the water and the environment within the region.

Equipped with such a foundational understanding we won't continue to heap any further pressure and stress on the water system Only after reaching and defining such understanding, it would be appropriate and sensible to make decisions that balance the three circles of sustainability.

Sustainable water management starts at a local level. Figure 2 depicts how the decision making would look like when we seek to ensure the ongoing availability of water to all the communities. In this way of decision making, one has to define the limits to using water for economic and social needs that go beyond the basic so that it is a responsible and sustainable use of water. Figure 2 shows a sustainable repartitioning of water to ensure both ecosystems’ functionalities and human needs. This representation will be different for each country, region or village.

This could also imply that city growth will be permitted only if the impact to the local water cycle created by the new growth is addressed. Thus, City planning will account for the available water resources to sustain its activities and urban growth, defining a limit for each activity sector and urban growth within the city. In return each city will become truly liveable.

This would also imply that the cities would not be assumed to grow infinitely without any limits and in return we would have cities that are liveable. By doing so, in every village, top priority will be given to undertaking restoration of the local water cycle, restoration of moisture to the ever drying soil & recharging of the aquifers that are being exploited. On a war footing. So that sustainable livelihoods, and health & hygiene can be achieved resulting in truly sustainable villages preventing the migration of village folks to the cities - which is the root cause of uncontrolled growth of cities in many parts of the world.

In conclusion, we need to start challenging our decision making that is not reflective of the maxim “water is a life giving element”. We need to move to a framework that is reflective of this truth that we all recognize. Sooner we start giving restoration of local water cycle the priority place & urgency that it deserves, better would be our chances of preventing desertification that our planet is currently headed towards.

We invite you to relfect on our critique of sustainability decsion making and share examples of decisions that validate or challenge our thesis.