Water resources and how they are managed impact almost all aspects of society and the economy, in particular health, food production and security, domestic water supply and sanitation, energy, industry, and the functioning of ecosystems. Under present climate variability, water stress is already high, particularly in many developing countries, and climate change adds even more urgency for action. Without improved water resources management, the progress towards poverty reduction targets, the Millennium Development Goals, and sustainable development in all its economic, social and environ- mental dimensions, will be jeopardized. UN Water.Org
VEVEY, SWITZERLAND – How many people in the world’s towns and cities can drink the water in their tap without risking their health? The answer is probably impossible to determine. Indeed, the United Nations uses the term “improved” sources of water to describe what is supplied in many urban areas around the world. Unfortunately, “improved” does not always mean “clean” or “safe.”
The 2012 update of the World Health Organization’s report Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation estimates that at least 96% of urban dwellers in emerging economies like China, India, Thailand, and Mexico have access to “improved” sources of water. And yet a study carried out by the Asian Institute of Technology found that less than 3% of Bangkok’s residents drink water directly from the tap, because they do not trust its quality.
Visit any major city in an emerging economy, from Mexico City to Mumbai, and you will be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that the water piped into their homes is fit to drink. Estimates by the Third World Center for Water Management indicate that more than two billion people do not trust the quality of the water to which they have access.
It doesn’t have to be like this. In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, one official has shown that good management of this precious resource can make a difference. When Ek Sonn Chan became Director-General of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority nearly 20 years ago, the city had a dismal water supply, with nearly 83% lost to leakages and unauthorized connections.
With a low-key but firm management style, Chan began to turn things around. He built up the Authority’s capacity by training and rewarding his most effective staff and refusing to tolerate corruption. After just a year on the job, the Authority’s technical and performance indicators started to improve. Fifteen years after he took over, annual water production had increased by more than 400%, the water distribution network had grown by more than 450%, and the customer base had increased by more than 650%.
Today, the Authority says that there are no unauthorized connections in Phnom Penh. Losses from the water system are just over 5%, similar to what one would find in Singapore or Tokyo, two of the best water-supply systems in the world. Thames Water, a utility in Britain, reported losses in 2010 that were five times that rate. By most performance indicators, Phnom Penh now has a better water-supply system than London or Washington, DC.
Perhaps more remarkable is that Phnom Penh’s water-supply business model works. All consumers are metered, and both rich and poor pay for the water that they consume, which costs 60-80% less than it did when people bought untreated water from private street vendors, an unreliable source in more ways than one. Today, the city’s poorest households receive drinkable piped water around the clock. More
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released alarming data on the consequences of global warming in some of the world’s poorest regions. By 2100, one billion to three billion people worldwide are expected to suffer from water scarcity. Global warming will increase evaporation and severely reduce rainfalls – by up to 20% in the Middle East and North Africa – with the amount of water available per person possibly halved by mid-century in these regions.
This sudden scarcity of an element whose symbolic and spiritual importance matches its centrality to human life will cause stress and exacerbate conflicts worldwide. Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia will be the first to be exposed. The repercussions, however, will be global.
Yet this bleak picture is neither an excuse for apathy nor grounds for pessimism. Conflicts may be inevitable; wars are not. Our ability to prevent “water wars” will depend on our collective capacity to anticipate tensions, and to find the technical and institutional solutions to manage emerging conflicts. The good news is that such solutions exist, and are proving their efficacy everyday.
Dams – provided they are adequately sized and designed – can contribute to human development by fighting climate change and regulating water supply. Yet in a new context of scarcity, upstream infrastructure projects on international rivers may impact water quality or availability for neighboring states, thus causing tensions.
River basin organizations such as that established for the Nile, Niger, or Senegal rivers help facilitate dialogue between states that share hydraulic resources. By developing a joint vision for the development of international waterways, these regional cooperation initiatives work towards common ownership of the resource, thereby reducing the risk that disputes over water use will escalate into violence.
Most international waterways have such frameworks for dialogue, albeit at different stages of development and levels of achievement. If we are to take climate change predictions seriously, the international community should strengthen these initiatives. Where they do not exist, they should be created in partnership with all the countries concerned. Official development assistance can create incentives to cooperate by financing data-collection, providing technical know-how, or, indeed, by conditioning loans on constructive negotiations.
Yet international water conflicts are only one side of the coin. The most violent water wars take place today within rather than among states. A dearth of water fuels ethnic strife, as communities begin to fear for their survival and seek to capture the resource. In Darfur, recurrent drought has poisoned relations between farmers and nomadic herdsmen, and the war we are helplessly witnessing today follows years of escalating conflict. Chad risks falling prey to the same cycle of violence. More
March 22 is World Water Day, and its theme this year—water and food security—couldn’t be more pressing. But what do we really know about water—where it goes, what it’s used for, and how to preserve it? Here are a few water facts to get people thinking about what the “food and water crisis” really means, and how we can begin to change things.
India, China and the United States together account for about one-third of the water extracted each year globally.
Over 90 percent of the water consumed globally by humans is used for agriculture.
Only 16 percent of world’s cropland is irrigated. But because irrigated land is more than twice as productive, that land accounts for 36 percent of the food we harvest.
To meet the constant demand for irrigation, countries are increasingly using more and more non-renewable groundwater. According to the United Nations, groundwater extraction has tripled in the last half century. India and China’s use of groundwater grew the most – today these countries use ten times as much groundwater as they did in 1950.
The amount of groundwater the world uses is so huge, it’s contributing to rising sea levels – as much as 25 percent of the observed amount in recent years. That means that an enormous amounts of water drawn from underground aquifers is never replaced. Or as Duke University’s Bill Chameides puts it, “Mankind is moving buckets and buckets of water from land to the ocean.”
The amount of groundwater the world uses is so huge that it’s also changing local climates, and it may bemasking the effects of global warming, according to research published in Climate Dynamics. This masking effect is most striking over North America, India, the Middle East and East Asia.
Pumping groundwater consumes enormous amounts of energy. In India, approximately one-fifth of the nation’s total electricity consumption goes toward pumping groundwater for irrigation. In the most important food producing areas, that number is much higher.
Almost everything we do—from growing food, to making clothes and computers and automobiles, to generating electricity requires water. “Virtual water” refers to the amount of water it takes to produce and transport a commodity. Check your own water footprint here.
Many water-stressed nations are today virtual water exporters. India is the largest net exporter of virtual water.
According to the OECD, by 2030 almost half of the world’s population will be living under severe water stress.
Globally, heat waves and extreme drought could increase under climate change. The impact will be worse in some areas. According to research by Lamont-Doherty scientists at the Earth Institute, by mid-century dustbowl conditions seen in the 1930s will become the new norm for the southwestern United States.
Water stress threatens the grid. Conventional powerplants – hydroelectric, coal-fired, gas fired and nuclear—require tremendous volumes of water to run, accounting for 50 percent of water withdrawals in the United States. According to a study for the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, the convergence of population growth, rising demand and drought could cause huge water shortages and force powerplant shutdowns.
Think about diet. The amount of water it takes to produce different kinds of food various tremendously. The water footprint of beef is particularly egregious, consuming anywhere from 2500 to 5000 gallons of water per pound. Consider cutting back, or switching to grass-fed beef, which has a significantly lower water footprint. More
"It's quite worrying," Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa told Sapa, speaking at the end of a media briefing in Cape Town that outlined government's plans to spend billions on infrastructure, including water infrastructure, across the country.