Water scarcity is a critical challenge to sustainable development and a potential cause of social unrest and conflict between countries. Water scarcity also impacts traditional seasonal human migration routes and, together with other water insecurity factors, could reshape migration patterns. The stark fact is that conventional water provisioning approaches that rely on snowfall, rainfall, and river runoff and easily accessible groundwater are not enough to meet growing freshwater demand in arid and semi-arid areas.
Water-scarce countries need a radical re-thinking of water resource planning and management that includes the creative exploitation of a growing set of viable but unconventional water resources for food production, livelihoods, ecosystems, climate change adaption, and sustainable development and conservation. Unconventional water resources are by-products of specialized processes, need suitable pre-use treatment, require pertinent on-farm management when used for irrigation, or result from specific techniques to collect/access water.
There is a multitude of unconventional water resources that can be tapped. Sources of unconventional water resources range from earth’s seabed to its upper atmosphere and capturing them requires a diverse range of technological interventions and innovations. Harvesting water from the air consists of rain enhancement through cloud seeding and collection of water from fog, while capturing water on the ground addresses micro-scale capture of rainwater where it would otherwise evaporate; all these techniques address local water shortages. On the groundwater front, tapping offshore and onshore deep groundwater and extending sustainable extraction of undeveloped groundwater are appropriate options in areas where there is potential for additional groundwater resources. Reusing water is the key to water conservation and enhancement opportunities, which lead to fit-for-purpose use of treated municipal wastewater and agricultural drainage water. Additional opportunities to develop water resources exist in the form of desalinated potable water. Physical transport of water, such as towed icebergs and ballast water held in tanks and cargo holds of ships, is receiving attention, but corresponding practices remain in infancy.
With the first of its kind global initiative on unconventional water resources, the previous phase of the project (July 2017 to July 2020) has raised awareness and enhanced knowledge about some unconventional water resources. The project’s activities in this phase (August 2020 to December 2023) are built on the previous phase’s work and in line with the following objectives:
- To evaluate the costs of harnessing the potential of some unconventional water resources, such as municipal wastewater, and propose innovative financial mechanisms to achieve such potential.
- To continue questioning the cycle of repetitive conventional approaches in managing scarce water resources in dry areas and making a case for the creative exploitation of viable unconventional water resources for food production, livelihoods, ecosystems, climate change adaption, and sustainable development.
- To develop skilled human resources by supervising interns and externs and organizing online training courses as a part of the UNU-INWEH’s Water Learning Center, such as an online course on unconventional water resources for water professionals and postgraduate students with interests in addressing water scarcity.
- To identify and promote bright spots of functional systems of unconventional water resources that are economically viable.
United Nations University Institute for Integrated Management of Material Fluxes and of Resources (UNU-FLORES)
United Nations University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (UNU-INRA)
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
University of California, Riverside, USA
New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, New Mexico, USA
University of Valencia, Spain
Hail Suppression Research Center, Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, Russia
Southern Ice Forum, South Africa
Saline Water Conversion Corporation, Jubail, Saudi Arabia
A Ripple Effect PLC, Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, USA
Aleff Group, London, UK
Example Outputs of Unconventional Water Resources Research
- The state of desalination and brine production. In: UNESCO-Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS) (2021).
- Freshwater availability status across countries for human and ecosystem needs (2021)
- Reassessing irrigation water quality guidelines for sodicity hazard (2021)
- Research history and functional systems of fog water harvesting (2021)
- Country-level and gridded estimates of global wastewater production, collection, treatment, and re-use (2021)
- Global and regional potential of wastewater as a water, nutrient and energy source (2020)
- Groundwater irrigation induced soil sodification and response options (2019)
- Agricultural water pollution: key knowledge gaps and research needs (2019)
- The state of desalination and brine production: A global outlook (2018)
- Gender and community mainstreaming in fog water collection systems (2018)
- High-magnesium waters and soils: Emerging environmental and food security constraints (2018)
- Addressing trade-offs to promote safely managed wastewater in developing countries (2018)
- Fog water collection: Challenges beyond technology (2018)
Policy / Analytical Briefs:
- Water Scarcity: Coming Soon (2021)
- Needed in the Global South: Wastewater Collection for COVID-19 Detection (2021)
- Five unusual technologies for harvesting water in dry areas (2021)
- World drains away valuable energy, nutrients, and water in fast-growing wastewater streams (2020)
- Quenching humanity’s freshwater thirst creates a salty threat (2019)
- Where the water is (2018)
- Towards a world free of untreated water: emerging from the impasse in which many developing countries find themselves (2017)
Cover photo: Aqualonis