Access to water – also a future issue in Sweden

24 January 2022

Water tap with running water over a watercourse

Water is of vital importance. Even so, about 700 million people struggle daily to gain access to drinking water.

There is enough water on Earth. Just not everywhere – and for everyone. Now researchers at Uppsala University and the Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI) network want to spotlight injustices surrounding the world’s water. And how we in Sweden need to approach this matter.

Giuliano Di Baldassarre, professor of Hydrology
and Environmental Analysis.

Water is of vital importance. Even so, about 700 million people struggle daily to gain access to drinking water, according to the United Nations. Giuliano Di Baldassarre is a professor of Hydrology and Environmental Analysis at Uppsala University and the director of the Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science (CNDS). And he is passionate about changing this.

“Personally, I would really be happy if we could rationally share the waters of the world, if it were possible to achieve an equal distribution,” he says.

In his research he conducts global as well as local analyses, and he studies the importance of social infrastructure for water distribution in the world. He can see both a negative impact on the environment and an uneven distribution of water, with some profiting from the structure while others do not.

National interests clash with local interests

Unequal water distribution is a major problem in many parts of the world, and often national interests clash with local interests. Initiatives regarded as benefiting a country at large, such as international demand for specific crops, can instead harm smaller communities when their water resources are needed to implement the project – at the expense of the local population’s needs.

“So, when discussing water resources, you cannot just talk about water per se. The flow of water is connected with the flow of politics, money and people,” says Di Baldassarre, who is also part of the Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI) network.

Susann Baez Ullberg, senior lecturer in Social
Anthropology who who coordinates UUSI’s network
“Water, a Shared Critical Resource”.

The network also includes Susann Baez Ullberg, a colleague and anthropologist who coordinates UUSI’s network “Water, a Shared Critical Resource” and the CIRCUS network “Aquifers of the Anthropocene”, which focuses on how different communities manage and use groundwater. She is also a researcher associated with CNDS.

Baez Ullberg conducts comprehensive research on environmental problems, crises and disasters, focusing on people and the social, cultural and political aspects of water.

“All people need and use water. Among other things, I look at how people in different social groups and communities use water and organise to distribute water. I also examine the cultural meanings of water in different communities and for different social groups. Water should be something universal that is accessible to everyone, but that is not the case,” she says.

Conflicts of interest on water rights

Despite this, inequality is often not a priority among higher authorities, say Baez Ullberg and Di Baldassarre.

“Conflicts of interest frequently arise over who is entitled to the water, and small local groups often do not have the strength to oppose this,” says Susann Baez Ullberg.

Giuliano Di Baldassarre agrees: “Often there is an overconsumption of water somewhere in the chain, something that can be addressed. But reducing water in one instance can then affect the economy instead. So, it is a difficult question. My greatest hope is that there will be some kind of recognition of this among higher authorities, such as at climate meetings. Usually this is mentioned only in passing, because it can create conflict.”

An economic and political concern

Consequently, water is to a very great extent a social, economic and political concern. It is also a significant factor when climate change comes up: when water is scarce as in the case of fires, when plentiful as in floods, and through increased use. That is why we need research that encompasses all aspects.

“Clearly you can always busy yourself in your own field and say something important based on that. But when you talk about such major topics as this, you need to consider all the perspectives. Otherwise, we come up short. After all, reality is interdisciplinary,” says Susann Baez Ullberg.

In Sweden – which generally has plenty of water – water shortages also have become a highly topical issue in recent years. The islands Öland and Gotland must cope annually with meagre groundwater resources.

But water shortages look different in different parts of the world. In Sweden – which generally has plenty of water – water shortages also have become a highly topical issue in recent years. Long periods of less precipitation than normal, such as during the extremely dry summer of 2018, have led to low groundwater levels in lakes, streams and groundwater reserves.

This is especially true on Öland and Gotland, which must cope annually with meagre groundwater resources. However, there is a difference between water shortages and water scarcity. Scarcity means you always have less water than you need, and a shortage, as in the case of Gotland, means you have less water than usual for a period of time.

Uncertain access to water in Sweden

So, how big a problem is water shortages generally in Sweden? From an environmental and climate change perspective, there is a large measure of uncertainty regarding our access to water, says Baez Ullberg.

“There are certainly reasons to take the concern seriously and to think long-term. If you connect this local problem to water as a global concern, then Swedes absolutely need to be concerned about using water sustainably, both in Sweden and in other societies. Unequal access is socially and ecologically unsustainable, creating negative societal impacts at local, regional and transnational levels.”

Anna Hedlund

Uppsala University Sustainability Initiatives (UUSI)

  • Platform that brings together researchers from different fields.
  • The goal of the initiatives is for Uppsala University to contribute more knowledge to the conversation about sustainable development.
  • The platform also works at highlighting and communicating research both inside and outside the University.
  • Work takes place in collaboration with companies and organisations outside the University.

Last modified: 2021-02-14