Water Supply Management

We all depend on water for survival. We need it for drinking and farming, power and industries across the globe. It's not just us who rely on water. Every living thing (and future living thing) that we share the planet with depends on water. Therefore, we must manage the water supply to ensure that we all get the water we need. We need to do this well, and we need to do this now. Read on to find out how.

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Table of contents

    What is the Definition of Water Supply Management?

    Water supply management is needed if we are to survive on earth. Let's take a look at the definition:

    Water supply management relates to techniques aimed at ensuring that there is enough water (supply) to meet the demands of the population.

    In our article about Water Insecurity, we discuss the dangers associated with having levels of water that are too low to meet the needs of people. This happens when there is a water deficit, which is created when more water is leaving a system than is entering it.

    When answering questions about water supply management, it is useful to include information about why water supply changes. To understand why water supply changes over time and space, read our explanation of Water Budgets.

    A water supply management system is a way of regulating water supply in an attempt to meet the needs of the population and prevent water deficits in a given place.

    Water Supply Management Plan

    Water supply management plans are sometimes called 'water resources management plans'. In the UK, every water company must create a plan of how they will manage their water supply. Not doing so would be unlawful. This law aims to ensure that the water supply to the people of the UK is stable, meaning that the population is less vulnerable to the threat of water shortages.

    It isn't just the UK that makes plans for managing water supplies. Having water supply management plans is particularly important in places where the water supply is prone to getting dangerously low and where lots of people rely on a water source.

    In the MENA (the Middle East and North Africa) region, over 60% of water sources cross boundaries between countries, and all countries share at least one of their water stores. Why does this matter?

    If not managed properly, there is the risk of some countries not budgeting the water effectively, using more of their 'fair share' of water and even restricting access to water for other countries. It is predicted that, instead of oil, the next major wars will be focused in part on the supply of water.

    Check out our other explanations on Demand for Resources and Resource Management Geography to learn more about conflict over resources.

    Key players in water supply management

    There are key players in managing water supplies and reducing water conflict.

    • National government agencies = For example, the UK's Environmental Agency would check compliances with other frameworks such as the EU Frameworks.
    • The EU = The EU has a Water Framework Directive (WFD) and Hydropower, which was agreed upon in 2000, to set targets to restore rivers, lakes, canals and coastal waters. This was to assess the risks to natural environments that could be posed by new developments.
    • The United Nations = The United Nations has an Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Water Convention that protects the quantity, quality and sustainable use of water resources across boundaries. It adopted the Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) which is a policy that oversees water resources as an integral component of the ecosystems, a natural resource and a socio-economic good.

    Examples of Water Supply Management

    There is no one-size-fits-all approach to water supply management. There are many ways that water supply can be managed. Let's take a look at a few of them:

    Hard engineering water supply management

    This approach has been used to manage water supplies across the world. Water transfer, dams and mega-dams, and desalination are examples of hard engineering approaches to water supply management. These approaches require high levels of capital and technology and have been used extensively in managing water supply.

    Hard engineering is a type of water supply management that involves the implementation of artificial structures.

    1. Water transfer

    Water transfer schemes carry water from one drainage basin to another by diverting a river or constructing a canal from one basin to another. This aims to manage the supply of water by distributing some water from water-rich areas to more water-scarce areas, or where the potential for a water deficit is more likely.

    Case Study: The South-North Water Transfer Project

    The South-North Water Transfer Project is an infrastructure megaproject aiming to channel fresh water from the South to the North of China through three channels. The routes are the Eastern route which runs through a series of lakes, the central route, and the Western route to the Yellow River. The benefits of this project would be less abstraction of groundwater, a boost in economic development and a reduction in the risk of water shortages in Beijing. However, this project would submerge 370km2 of land and require at least 330,000 people to relocate.¹ Other risks would be draining too much water from the South of China and the fact that the Eastern route is industrial which could risk further pollution.

    2. Dams and mega-dams

    Mega dams refer to dams that are larger than 15m in height and generate more than 400 megawatts of power on average. Dams and mega-dams manage water supplies by 'stopping' a river from flowing when needed and instead, creating a store of water. As well as being useful in water supply management, mega-dams can be used to generate hydroelectric power and therefore provide a renewable form of energy for citizens.

    Case study: Colorado River

    The Colorado River runs along the southwestern side of the US and northern Mexico. It supplies water for 36 to 40 million people for agricultural and domestic needs. It has over 29 major dams and provides irrigation of water to 4 million acres. The river drain encompasses seven US states and two Mexican states and had numerous agreements to allocate water to the areas.

    The Colorado Compact, an agreement made in 1922 when the population was lower and the average rainfall higher, is out of date and there is pressure to create a new agreement with the changes acknowledged. The agreement was made with the intention of dividing water between the seven US the Colorado River runs through; Wyoming, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. In 1944, another treaty was drawn up to include water allocation to Mexico.

    There is much criticism of the compact including water designation for indigenous people and the little allocation of water to Mexico. It also failed to include any protection for the environment.

    A new agreement was made in 2007 which changed sharing the amount of water to dividing up the shortages. The amount available determined how much a state would get. Due to this agreement California reduced the amount it received by 20%. In 2012, there was an agreement known as Minute 139 signed by the International Boundary and Water Commission of the United States and Mexico. This allowed Mexico to store some of the Colorado River Water in Lake Mead and water providers to purchase the water which was conserved through Mexico's improved canals and storage infrastructures.

    Water Supply Management, Colorado River Basin map, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Colorado River Basin map

    Case Study: The Three Gorges Dam

    The Three Gorges Dam is a mega dam that was built in China between 1994-2003 to control flooding in the Yangtze and to improve water supply by regulating the river flow. It also generates hydroelectric power (HEP) and makes the river navigable.

    While the Three Gorges Dam has proven to be successful in regulating water supply and generating power, it has also been a source of controversy. This is because:

    • 632km2 of land has been flooded to make the reservoir
    • 1.3 million people have had to be relocated as a result of the dam
    • There have been ecological problems such as higher risks of landslides and waste entering the reservoir from the nearby industries and farms.

    Water Supply Management, Three Gorges Dam map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Three Gorges Dam map

    3. Desalination

    There is increasing pressure on freshwater resources in the drier parts of the world. Desalination provides a solution for this by reducing our dependence on freshwater resources and providing a feasible, if not costly, alternative.

    Desalination is a process which removes dissolved solids, such as salt and other minerals, from sea waters which makes it suitable for human use.

    Case study: Israel's Desalination Project

    In 2002, five desalination plants for reverse osmosis along the Mediterranean were approved for construction by the Israeli government. By 2015, all five were constructed. At present, 55% of Israel's domestic water supply comes from the desalination of seawater and brackish groundwater.2 There are disadvantages to this technique and negative environmental impacts, such as the disposal of the salt that is extracted, which is a major issue. The brine that is discharged during the process changes the salinity and lowers the amount of oxygen in the disposal site which could kill animals that cannot tolerate the high levels of salt.3 That being said, Israel has previously been susceptible to water shortages because of a low freshwater supply. This provides an alternative and reduces the risk of water shortage across the country.

    Reverse osmosis = when water is purified through a semi-permeable membrane to remove any unwanted contaminants and molecules.

    Sustainable Water Supply Management

    There are sustainable water supply management examples in the UK and Singapore.

    Remember that sustainability refers to anything that meets the demands of the current population without compromising the needs of future populations. When analysing how sustainable something is, make sure that it satisfies both of these criteria.

    Examples of Sustainable Water Supply Management Systems

    Case study: Urban water management in the UK

    The UK has a series of systems labelled as SUDS (sustainable urban drainage systems). These systems aim to take a holistic view on drainage, and manage the water in such a way that water supply management can be heightened and sustainable by nature. There are many different ways that this can be achieved through SUDS. Some examples include the use of rainwater butts, the reintroduction of permeable surfaces and the provision of stores below. All of these components assist in managing rainwater, reducing flood risks and ensuring that water reaches stores where it can be treated accordingly.

    Water Supply Management, Drip irrigation farming, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Drip irrigation farming in Israel

    Case study: Holistic water supply management in Singapore

    Without an independent source of freshwater, Singapore has historically been reliant on importing water from Malaysia. Moreover, Singapore's level of water loss is at one of the lowest in the world at 5%. Singapore is putting in efforts to become self-sufficient by 2061 when its long-term water supply agreement with Malaysia expires. This includes:

    • Campaigns to conserve water: These campaigns have reduced consumption of water from 165 litres a day per person in 2003 to 155 litres in 2009.
    • Alteration of the price of water: Water prices go up when water use surpasses a specified threshold. However, there will be subsidies to protect people living on lower incomes.
    • The creation of a diverse range of water supplies: For example, rainfall catchment areas creating artificial reservoirs, reclaimed water and seawater desalination will all be used to supply Singapore with water. This spreads out the risk of water shortage and hopefully will allow the supply of water to remain relatively stable.

    Managing Water Supply and Climate Change

    So, how does climate change fit into all of this?

    Our explanation on Climate Change and the Water Cycle tells us that climate change is set to have a significant impact on the water cycle, leading to instances of water surplus and water deficit across the world. Flooding and droughts will become more frequent, long-lasting and extreme, evaporation will increase with the rising temperatures and the duration and frequency of ENSO events are likely to change.

    In terms of water supply, there is potential for catastrophic effects and prolonged water shortages that could result in widespread death, famine and disease. What does this mean? This means that water supply management is going to become more and more important as the effects of climate change worsen. More than this, we need to be mindful that management should be sustainable and not deprive our children and our grandchildren and even their children afterwards.

    Water Supply Management - Key Takeaways

    • It is important to manage the supply of water to prevent water shortages, death, famine and disease across the world.
    • Water supply is managed in many ways such as water transfers, dams, reservoirs and desalination.
    • Hard engineering is often used, however, is usually costly with socio-economic and environmental concerns with relocating people for construction and changing the landscape.
    • There are examples of countries such as the UK and Singapore that are actively working on ways to preserve and manage water supply in a sustainable way.
    • Climate change has been shown to significantly disrupt the water cycle and will leave many people vulnerable to the threat of low water supplies. Therefore, management is going to become more and more important.

    References

    1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Three Gorges Dam". Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Sep. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Three-Gorges-Dam.
    2. ISI Water, How Desalination Came to the Rescue in Israel, https://isi-water.com/desalination-rescues-israel/
    3. Anne Ackerman, Sciencing. Advantages & Disadvantages of Desalination Plants, 2018, https://sciencing.com/advantages-disadvantages-desalination-plants-8580206.html
    4. Fig. 1 : Colorado River basin map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colorado_River_basin_map.png) by Shannon1 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Shannon1) licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)
    5. Fig. 2: Three Gorges Dam map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Threegorges.png) by Rolfmueller (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Special:Contributions/Rolfmueller) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    6. Fig. 3: Drip irrigation (https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Kapkov%C3%A1_z%C3%A1vlaha,_potrub%C3%AD_v_aspar%C3%A1gu.JPG) by Juandev (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Juandev) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.fr)
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Water Supply Management

    What is water supply management?

    Water supply management is managing water supplies to make water more available to people.

    How does water supply management work?

    Water supply management works depending on the factors of what is needed, available and possible. Although hard engineering is used often, with it being costly and having environmental impact, the advantages and the disadvantages need to be weighed up to see if it is the best way to manage water supply.

    How to manage water supply?

    Hard engineering has been used mainly to manage water supplies such as water transfers, dams, reservoirs and desalination.

    What are the two methods of water management?

    Drip irrigation and rainwater harvesting are two methods of water management.

    What are the steps for water management?

    The steps are to identify areas where the water supply is low/at risk of becoming dangerously low and implementing techniques to either conserve water, redistribute water or increase the amount of water available.

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