Water Security is National Security

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

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Climate change and water mismanagement parch Egypt

Climate change, a fast growing population, ill-designed infrastructure, high levels of pollution and lack of law enforcement have made Egypt a country thirsty for water — both in terms of quantity and quality.

The River Nile, which is considered poor by many experts and hydrologists, lies at lower altitude than the rest of the country. Massive electric pumps extract the water from the river’s bed and canals and direct it to industry, agriculture and for individual water use.

A significant portion of the water contained in Lake Nasser’s 5,000 square kilometer basin is lost to evaporation, while old networks of leaking pipes also deprive the country of satisfactory access to its most important resource: water.

In order to debate water scarcity in Egypt, its causes, and how climate change makes the issue more pressing than ever, as well as looking to solutions, a panel of experts were invited to participate in the 13th Cairo Climate Talk last week entitled “Growing Thirst: Sustainable Water Solutions for Egypt.”

Tarek Kotb, the First Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, and a member of the panel discussion, talked about the dwindling water share per capita with a sense of urgency. “Every year, the Egyptian population grows by 1.8 million, while the annual quota of Nile water allocated to Egypt, 55 billion cubic meters, has remained unchanged since the 1959 Nile Water Agreement,” he says.

While Egyptians in the 1960s could enjoy a water share per capita of 2800 cubic meters for all purposes, the current share has dropped to 660 cubic meters today—below the international standard defining water poverty of 1000 cubic meters.

Kotb estimates that Egypt is gradually going to leave the stage of water scarcity and enter a phase of drastic water stress in the next 40 years, if no sustainable water management is put in place.

“By 2050, there will be about 160 million Egyptians and only 370 cubic meters of water per capita,” he says. While Egypt has other options for its water needs, such as tapping into groundwater basins and desalinating sea-water, the bulk of water is still extracted from the Nile, leading to longstanding tensions with the other Nile basin countries.

The treaty signed under colonial rule in 1959 granted Egypt and Sudan most of the Nile water share, while upstream countries were given access to a very small allocation of water. Lama al-Hatow, a hydrologist and one of the founders of the Water Institute for the Nile (WIN) condemns Egypt’s historical and ongoing hydro hegemony, by which the country claims its entitlement to benefit from most of the Nile water.

“A lot of science has been published on how not to lose water if the Ethiopian Millennium Dam is built, but it is not given much attention by the politicians,” Hatow says. “The upstream countries have the right to develop,” she says, “and there are ways to make it happen without Egypt losing water.”

She adds that preventing water evaporation in Lake Nasser could even increase Egypt’s water share.

Kotb responding to her remarks, saying that Egypt is investing millions of dollars in Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia to overcome losses due to evaporation in marshes and basins. “We don’t deny these countries’ right to development; actually, we help them,” he said.

Claudia B├╝rkin, the Water Sector Coordinator for the German Development Cooperation and Senior Programme Manager at KfW Development Bank, explains that Egypt’s water resources face two main challenges: water loss and bad quality.

“Egypt loses about 50% of its freshwater through poor maintenance of supplies and distribution problems, and the water is polluted,” she says, stressing that a significant number of diseases are water borne. Polluted water also affects the ecosystems’ balance, the soil quality, and seeps into the aquifers. “Egypt needs to set up strong standards for water quality and control the drainage nutrients, pesticides and waste found in the water.”

Kotb admits that while most of the issues and potential solutions have been identified by the government, much needs to be done in terms of implementation of existing laws and stronger cooperation between ministries.

“Water management is not the mandate of the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation exclusively, which makes the implementation process so much harder,” he says.

A National Water Resource Plan was established a few years ago, Kotb says, to curb the amount of pollution in the Nile emanating from cruise boats, factories, industries and villagers deprived of a waste management system. As part of this, he explains, factories located close to the Nile or the canals have been moved further away from the water streams, and new industries will be prevented from setting up a plant within 20km from the water.

“Law 48 on pollution has been reviewed and the penalties will be tougher,” he says. Meanwhile, Hatow argues that enforcing stronger penalties is not the solution to prevent farmers from polluting.

“Instead of punishing them, we should give farmers incentives to make better use of water, and provide them with premium crops,” she says.

The conversation then shifted to the effects of climate change, which can already be felt in the Northern part of the Delta and in the Mediterranean coastal cities of Damietta and Rosetta. The gradual rise in sea levels taking place turns fields into barren land unfit for agriculture, and the sea water that infiltrates the Nile is reaching further and further away from the coast.

“In order to keep a good yield and maintain agricultural production,” says Kotb, “we need to use more fresh water to combat rising temperatures.”

Lama’s take on how to combat climate change is quite different from this. “We need to study community based resilience techniques to figure out how local and indigenous knowledge can provide answers and climate resilience.”

- See more at: http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/climate-change-and-water-mismanagement-parch-egypt#sthash.NavKkkxR.dpuf

 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Corporations Grabbing Land and Water Overseas

As a growing population stresses the world's food and water supplies, corporations and investors in wealthy countries are buying up foreign farmland and the freshwater perks that come with it.

From Sudan to Indonesia, most of the land lies in poverty-stricken regions, so experts warn that this widespread purchasing could expand the gap between developed and developing countries.

The “water grabbing” by corporations amounts to 454 billion cubic meters per year globally, according to a new study by environmental scientists. That’s about 5 percent of the water the world uses annually.

Investors from seven countries – the United States, United Arab Emirates, India, United Kingdom, Egypt, China and Israel – accounted for 60 percent of the water acquired under these deals.

Most purchasers are agricultural, biofuel and timber investors. Some of the more active buyers in the United States, which leads the pack in number of deals, include multinational investors Nile Trading and Development, BHP Billiton, Unitech and media magnate Ted Turner, according to the study published last month.

Wendy Wolford, a professor at Cornell University who studies political and social impacts of international land deals, said while it is difficult to tease out investor motives, they “don’t grab land in places without access to water.” Some countries – including Indonesia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo – had large amounts of water rights grabbed because they’re countries with a lot of rainfall.

Since 2000, 1,217 deals have taken place, which transferred over 205 million acres of land, according to the public database Land Matrix. About 62 percent of these deals were in Africa – totaling about 138 million acres, roughly the size of two Arizonas.

For countries reliant on farming and already suffering from poverty, the potential impacts are huge, said Paolo D’Odorico, a University of Virginia professor and co-author of the new report that estimates the water supplies at stake. About 66 percent of the total deals are in countries with high hunger rates.

“In many of these countries, the sum of the water being grabbed would be enough to eliminate malnourishment,” said D’Odorico, who collaborated with scientists from Italy’s Polytechnic University of Milan.

Wolford said there is danger that local people – especially in places like sub-Saharan Africa – are not aware of land purchases and how it could affect their way of life.

“That’s probably the biggest problem – people could have gathered timber from the woods or lived downstream of the land grabbed,” Wolford said. “These things could be taken away without them knowing what happened.”

Food crisis, biofuels spur “grabbing”

Such land deals are often derisively dubbed “land grabbing,” which D’Odorico defines as a deal for about 500 acres or more that converts an environmentally important area currently used by local people to commercial production. More

 

 

Satellite Tracking of Middle East Aquifers Points to the End of ‘Data Denial’

Jay Famiglietti, one of the authors of an important new study on the rapid depletion of aquifers under the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, has posted an excellent overview of the work and its context for policy, and noted that he and other authors are preparing for a two-week “water diplomacy” tour to discuss their findings in the affected region.

The project shows how improving systems for observing and analyzing environmental trends are brightening prospects for better management of resources and risks in struggling regions — even when governments might not want the information revealed. This is as true for forests as it is here for water supplies.

Here are some notable excerpts from Famiglietti’s post, which is particularly notable given President Obama’s planned visit to the Middle East this spring:

Worse to come:

Our team’s expectation is that the water situation in the Middle East will only degrade with time, primarily due to climate change. The best available science indicates that the arid and semi-arid regions of the world will become even more so: the dry areas of the world will become drier (while conversely, the wet areas will become wetter). Consequences for the Middle East include more prolonged drought, which means that the underground aquifers that store the region’s groundwater will not be replenished during our lifetimes, nor during those of future generations.


Management and transparency:

We cannot reverse climate change and its impact on water availability, but we can and must do a far better job with water management, including the modernization of national and international water policy. Our research and its implications point to the following critical needs, not only for the Middle East, but in all regions of the world where groundwater resources are in decline.

First, it’s high time for groundwater to be included under the water management umbrella. In most of the world, groundwater pumping is unmonitored and unregulated.

It is as true in much of the U. S. as it is in the Middle East. That’s no different than making withdrawals from a savings account without keeping track of the amount or the remaining balance: irresponsible without question, and a recipe for disaster when multiple account holders are acting independently.

Second, since nearly 80% of the world’s water resources are used to support agriculture, continued improvements in agricultural and irrigation conservation and efficiency should be an important focus for research, development, investment and cooperation. In the Middle East, some countries, notably Israel, are pioneers of efficiency, while others are less advanced. Much of the technology is in place. It just needs to be disseminated and embraced across the entire region.

Third, our report and others that have preceded it clearly demonstrate that satellite technology has advanced to the point where a reliable assessment of regional hydrology can be produced with little access to observations on the ground. Our 2009 study of groundwater depletion in India is yet another example of current capabilities. My point is that data denial policies amongst nations will ultimately be rendered obsolete. It will be far better to share key measurements now, to enhance and fully utilize the satellite picture for mutually beneficial water management in the long term.

For more on efficient water use in agriculture in dry regions, click back to my post on the pioneering work on drip irrigation by Daniel Hillel and read about how solar-powered pumping systems and drip irrigation are improving incomes and lives in sub-Saharan Africa.

Another relevant resource is this 2009 World Bank publication: “Water in the Arab World: Management Perspectives and Innovations.” More

 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

'Sand dams' bank water for dry season in semi-arid Kenya

MAKUENI, Kenya (AlertNet) – Barely a month after heavy rains pounded Kenya, many seasonal rivers in the country’s semi-arid east are already drying up, and residents are preparing for the months-long dry season.

But some, like Paul Masila and other members of the Woni Wa Mbee self-help group, are not worried about the looming dry spell. Instead, they are preparing to plant crops or are harvesting fields they planted before the rains.

The group – the name means “progressive vision” in Kamba, the local langage – have revolutionised the region’s fortunes by finding a way to store millions of litres of water under the bed of the Kaiti River, providing the once-parched community with water for domestic use and irrigation throughout the year.

“Drought will never again be a problem, particularly for future generations,” said Titus Mwendo, a 31-year-old farmer in Miambwani, in the Eastern region’s Makueni County.

The Kaiti, like other seasonal rivers in the region, fills with water only during the rainy season, which usually arrives in December.

“The rest of the year is characterised by scorching sun, dry rivers, dusty roads – only those who are fit can survive,” said Masila, a member of Woni Wa Mbee.

But Woni Wa Mbee and other self-help groups in the area, aided by local non-governmental organisations, have found a way to trap and store the Kaiti’s water in its own sandy riverbed, keeping water available for months after the river has disappeared.

“The water reservoirs are called sand dams,” said Kevin Muneene, chief executive officer of the Utooni Development Organisation, one of the supporting NGOs. Over the past two years, the organisation has helped 80 self-help groups construct 1,528 sand dams in arid and semi-arid areas of Kenya’s Rift Valley and Eastern region.

CONSTRUCTION DETAILS

To make a dam, he said, a high concrete barrier is constructed across a seasonal river. When it rains, the water carries sand downstream, depositing it up to the level of the barrier. When the rains finish, water remains trapped in the piled-up sand for up to a kilometre upstream of the dam, depending on the dam’s height.

“A well-constructed sand dam has 60 percent of its volume as sand, while the remaining 40 percent is always water,” said Muneene, an expert in sand dam construction.

In terms of volume, it is estimated that an average sand dam in a relatively wide stream such as the Kaiti River can hold up to 5,000 cubic metres of water, equivalent to 5 million litres. To boost the volume of water stored, several sand dams can be built along one river.

Those numbers suggest that the 1,528 sand dams already built as part of the project will be able to store up to 7.7 billion litres of water, which can be used to irrigate thousands of hectares of land and supply thousands of households for months after the rains stop.

To use the water, community members scoop out sand from the river bed to expose it. It can then be pumped out for irrigation or other uses.

Over 3,000 households are now using water from the dams to grow vegetables, tomatoes, drought-resistant legumes, fruit trees such as grafted mangoes and oranges, and other crops.

“For the first time, we have had water throughout two years. This is not a common phenomenon in this area,” said Florence Munyoki, the treasurer of Woni Wa Mbee and a smallholder farmer in Utaati village. More

The top of the dam is I believe, supposed to be level or just below the the normal river bed. Pictures and drawings that I have seen in other areas in Africa are built in the way I describe. Built in this manner they will not act in a way that may obstruct the run of the river. Editor

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Food Security in the Age of “Water Grabbing”

Water grabbing or the large-scale, rapid privatization of water is happening worldwide, affecting global food security because local farmers are losing access to both land and water resources.

Gaining control of water is often a motive behind land grabs, and according to a 2013 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, up to 57 million hectares of land and 454 billion cubic meters of water are grabbed each year. Africa accounts for 47 percent of global grabbed land while Asia accounts for 33 percent. Both of these continents are home to some of the world’s hungriest people.

According to Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter, “Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”Companies such as General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Dow Chemical, Talisman Energy, and Coca-Cola have already acquired many land and water resources and are all members of Aqueduct Alliance, a water mapping project that helps investors identify and assess water risks. While this technology can help companies use water resources responsibly, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy notes that it can also contribute to more water grabbing because companies will have greater knowledge of water resources.

When companies grab land and water resources, local farmers have to find ways to still grow enough food to feed themselves and earn a living. Small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have recently increased their use of affordable, sustainable irrigation techniques to overcome challenges created by water scarcity, but water grabbing may damage this progress. According to a National Geographic article, “the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered” if African governments and foreign investors fail to support local farmers’ initiatives in favor of large-scale water deals that mainly benefit corporations. More

Monday, February 18, 2013

18 FEBRUARY 2013 Food Security in the Age of “Water Grabbing”

Water grabbing or the large-scale, rapid privatization of water is happening worldwide, affecting global food security because local farmers are losing access to both land and water resources.

Gaining control of water is often a motive behind land grabs, and according to a 2013 report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, up to 57 million hectares of land and 454 billion cubic meters of water are grabbed each year. Africa accounts for 47 percent of global grabbed land while Asia accounts for and 33 percent. Both of these continents are home to some of the world’s hungriest people.

According to Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter, “Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.”Companies such as General Electric, Goldman Sachs, Dow Chemical, Talisman Energy, and Coca-Cola have already acquired many land and water resources and are all members of Aqueduct Alliance, a water mapping project that helps investors identify and assess water risks. While this technology can help companies use water resources responsibly, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy notes that it can also contribute to more water grabbing because companies will have greater knowledge of water resources.

When companies grab land and water resources, local farmers have to find ways to still grow enough food to feed themselves and earn a living. Small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have recently increased their use of affordable, sustainable irrigation techniques to overcome challenges created by water scarcity, but water grabbing may damage this progress. According to a National Geographic article, “the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered” if African governments and foreign investors fail to support local farmers’ initiatives in favor of large-scale water deals that mainly benefit corporations. More

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Thirsty crops and hungry people: Symposium to examine realities of water security

You may have guzzled a half-liter bottle of water at lunchtime, but your food and clothes drank a lot more. The same half-liter that quenched your thirst also produces only about one square-inch of bread or one square-inch of cotton cloth.

Agriculture is in fact one of the world's most insatiable consumers of water. And yet it's facing growing competition for water from cities, industry, and recreation at a time when demand for food is rising, and water is expected to become increasingly scarce. Take irrigation, for example, says Fred Vocasek, senior lab agronomist with the nation's largest crop consulting firm, Servi-Tech, Inc., in Dodge City, KS.

"Irrigation withdrawals in the United States have stabilized since about 1980, but food consumption trends are following the upward population trend," he says. "In other words, we have an increasingly hungry world with stable, or limited, freshwater supplies for food production. So, how do we keep pace with the widening gap?"

That's the central question behind the symposium, "Green Dreams, Blue Waves, and Shades of Gray: The Reality of Water," being held Sunday, Feb. 17 from 8:30-11:30 am at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston, MA.

The principal answers, say the symposium speakers, lie in three areas: Protecting our limited stores of freshwater in lakes, streams, and the ground (blue water); optimizing the use of water in crop production (green water); and reusing "waste" water (gray water) that has already served some purpose, such as food processing or energy production.

But those answers also raise a host of additional questions, says Vocasek, who co-organized the session with John Sadler of the USDA-Agricultural Research Service. Who gets the water from an aquifer when farmers want it for irrigation, a gas company wants to pump it for fracking, or a city hopes to water a new golf course? How do we convince producers to adopt water-conserving technologies and practices when it's not in their economic interest to do so? Why can't farmers simply irrigate less?

The last question is especially complex because of the issue of "virtual" water—the hidden water in food that went into growing it, Vocasek says. If the United States, for instance, decides to conserve water in the Ogallala Aquifer by growing less corn and importing grain from China instead, it's still consuming the virtual water that grew the Chinese corn. And because Chinese farmers use water much less efficiently than U.S. producers, by "trying to save water here, we may actually be wasting water on a global scale," he says.

To portray the full extent of this complicated issue, "The Reality of Water" will begin with three talks on the three types of water—blue, green, and gray—and how they can be best used to ensure both adequate food and abundant water supplies for future generations. After those speakers "paint the picture," Vocasek says, "the next three panelists will put the frame around that picture. Because there are limitations due to economics, there are limitations due to legal and ownership issues. And there are limitations due to day-to-day operations."

For example, restricting water use in certain situations or regions can be a useful approach. But government agencies often can't require landowners to cut consumption, because water rights—the right to divert water for specific purposes—are property rights in the United States. Reusing gray water to irrigate crops can also be tricky, because wastewater often carries salts or other contaminants that can damage the soil over time.

Yet another constraint is the large size of the average farm today, which often makes it unattractive for farmers to implement practices, such as cover crops and multi-year crop rotations, that help store water in the soil but take extra time and labor. "You can have a lot of plans," Vocasek says, "but there are practicalities that we deal with, as well."

This is why the symposium includes not only the perspectives of researchers and professors, but also crop consultants and professional agronomists who are "toe-to-toe" with the farmer, Vocasek adds.

"The theory, the research, the data are important, but you've got to have someone to help put it all together, because it can't be done from a university or federal office," he says. "It's got to be done right there on the tractor seat." More

 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Syria: Climate Change, Drought and Social Unrest

Syria’s current social unrest is, in the most direct sense, a reaction to a brutal and out-of-touch regime and a response to the political wave of change that began in Tunisia early last year.

However, that’s not the whole story. The past few years have seen a number of significant social, economic, environmental and climatic changes in Syria that have eroded the social contract between citizen and government in the country, have strengthened the case for the opposition movement, and irreparably damaged the legitimacy of the al-Assad regime. If the international community, and future policy-makers in Syria, are to address and resolve the drivers of unrest in the country, these changes will have to be better explored and exposed.

Out of the blue?

International pundits characterized the Syrian uprising as an “out of the blue” case in the Middle East - one that they didn’t see coming. Many analysts, right up to a few days prior to the first protests, predicted that Syria under al-Assad was “immune to the Arab Spring.” However, the seeds of social unrest were right there under the surface, if one looked closely. And not only were they there, they had been reported on, but largely ignored, in a number of forms.

Water shortages, crop-failure and displacement

From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, in the terms of one expert, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago.” According to a special case study from last year’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (GAR), of the most vulnerable Syrians dependent on agriculture, particularly in the northeast governorate of Hassakeh (but also in the south), “nearly 75 percent…suffered total crop failure.” Herders in the northeastlost around 85% of their livestock, affecting 1.3 million people.

The human and economic costs are enormous. In 2009, the UN and IFRC reportedthat over 800,000 Syrians had lost their entire livelihood as a result of the droughts. By 2011, the aforementioned GAR report estimated that the number of Syrians who were left extremely “food insecure” by the droughts sat at about one million. The number of people driven into extreme poverty is even worse, with aUN report from last year estimating two to three million people affected.

This has led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. Last January, it was reported that crop failures (particularly the Halaby pepper) just in the farming villages around the city of Aleppo, had led “200,000 rural villagers to leave for the cities.” In October 2010, the New York Times highlighted a UN estimate that 50,000 families migrated from rural areas just that year, “on top of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled in earlier years.” In context of Syrian cities coping with influxes ofIraqi refugees since the U.S. invasion in 2003, this has placed additional strains and tensions on an already stressed and disenfranchised population.

Climate change, natural resource mis-management, and demographics

The reasons for the collapse of Syria’s farmland are a complex interplay of variables, including climate change, natural resource mis-management, and demographic dynamics.

A NOAA study published last October in the Journal of Climate found strong and observable evidence that the recent prolonged period of drought in the Mediterranean littoral and the Middle East is linked to climate change. On top of this, the study also found worrying agreement between observed climate impacts, and future projections from climate models. A recent model of climate change impacts on Syria conducted by IFPRI, for example, projects that if current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions continue, yields of rainfed crops in the country may decline “between 29 and 57 percent from 2010 to 2050.” More

 

White paper reveals gas industry scared of global protests

The shale gas industry-commissioned white pape, The Global Anti-Fracking Movement: What it Wants, How it Operates and What’s Next, makes for some very interesting reading.

Gaslands

It was produced late last year by Control Risks, an “independent, global risk consultancy specialising in helping organisations manage political, integrity and security risks in complex and hostile environments”.

The white paper focuses on shale gas, but it also discusses coal seam gas. Shale gas is what features in the film Gasland by Josh Fox, which details the destructive effects of “fracking” on communities in the US.

A global movement has emerged to combat the risks to water and air quality, health and farmland that shale gas mining poses. Australia has both shale and coal seam gas reserves.

The white paper begins with an image of what the world looks like through the eyes of the industry. Big blue splodges mark the shale gas reserves on a global map.

The splodges cover the whole of Latvia and Hungary, almost all of Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, Paraguay and South Africa, half of Poland, a third of Libya and Argentina. It includes significant stretches of the US, Canada, Australia, the British Isles, Mexico, India, Bolivia, Colombia and China.

The opening sentence reveals how the shale gas industry sees itself: “Unconventional natural gas is often described as game-changing and transformative, a revolution heralding a golden age of cheap, plentiful energy for a resource-constrained world. But only if it makes it out of the ground.”

This is the story the industry likes to tell itself. Corporations, seeking only to make the world a better place, are unfairly victimised by the masses who are too uninformed to know what’s best for them.

The ruthless quest for profit and the irreversible destruction of the environment and people’s livelihoods are things they prefer to leave out of the story. More

 

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Global Water Grab: Meet the “New Water Barons”

Writing in National Geographic in December 2012 about “small-scale irrigation techniques with simple buckets, affordable pumps, drip lines, and other equipment” that “are enabling farm families to weather dry seasons, raise yields, diversify their crops, and lift themselves out of poverty” water expert Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project cautioned against reckless land and water-related investments in Africa.

“[U]nless African governments and foreign interests lend support to these farmer-driven initiatives, rather than undermine them through land and water deals that benefit large-scale, commercial schemes, the best opportunity in decades for societal advancement in the region will be squandered.”

That same month, the online publication Market Oracle reported that “[t]he new ‘water barons’—the Wall Street banks and elitist multibillionaires—are buying up water all over the world at unprecedented pace.” The report reveals two phenomena that have been gathering speed, and that could potentially lead to profit accumulation at the cost of communities and commons —the expansion of market instruments beyond the water supply and sanitation to other areas of water governance, and the increasingly prominent role of financial institutions.

In several instances this has meant that the government itself has set up public corporations that run like a business, contracting out water supply and sanitation operations to those with expertise, or entering into public–private–partnerships, often with water multinationals. This happened recently in Nagpur and New Delhi, India. In most rural areas, ensuring a clean drinking water supply and sanitation continues to be a challenge. For-profit companies such as Sarvajal have begun setting up pre-paid water kiosks (or water ATMs) that would dispense units of water upon the insertion of a pre-paid card. It is no surprise that these are popular among people who otherwise have no access to clean drinking water.

With climate change, however, the water crisis is no longer perceived as confined to developing countries or even primarily a concern related to water supply and sanitation. Fresh water commons are becoming degraded and depleted in both developed and developing countries. In the United States, diversion of water for expanded commodity crop production, biofuels and gas hydro-fracking is compounding the crisis in rural areas. In areas ranging from the Ogallala aquifer to the Great Lakes in North America, water has been referred to as liquid gold. Billionaires such as T. Boone Pickens have been buying up land overlying the Ogallala aquifer, acquiring water rights; companies such as Dow Chemicals, with a long history of water pollution, are investing in the business of water purification, making pollution itself a cash-cow.

But chemical companies are not alone: GE and its competitor Siemens have extensive portfolios that include an array of water technologies to serve the needs of industrial customers, municipal water suppliers or governments. (In the last year and a half two Minnesota based companies have become large players in this business—Ecolab, by acquiring Nalco and Pentair by merging with Tyco‘s Flow Control unit—both now belonging to S&P’s 500.)

The financial industry has also zeroed in on water. In the summer of 2011, Citigroup issued a report on water investments. The much quoted statement by Willem Buiter (chief economist at Citigroup) gives an inkling of Citigroup’s conclusion: “Water as an asset class will, in my view, become eventually the single most important physical-commodity based asset class, dwarfing oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” Once again, several others had already seen water as an important investment opportunity, including GE’s Energy Financial Services, Goldman Sachs and several asset management firms that are involved investing in farmland in Asia, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.

Given these recent trends, initiatives that track the water use of companies or map information regarding water related risks could be double edged. Some examples include the ‘water disclosure project’ and the ‘water-mapping project’. Both are initiated by non-profits/ think-tanks, the former by UK-based Carbon Disclosure Project and the latter by the US-based World Resources Institute. While distinct, they are linked by their shared constituency: global investors concerned about water-related risks. These initiatives could help companies identify and reduce their water footprint, or could lead to company investments that follow water and grab it.

The Carbon Disclosure Project’s water disclosure project seeks to help businesses and institutional investors understand the risks and opportunities associated with water scarcity and other water-related issues. According to its most recent report, issued on behalf of 470 investors with assets of $50 trillion USD, over half the respondents to their survey have experienced water-related challenges in the preceding five years, translating into disruptions in operations, increases in expenses and other detrimental impacts. More

 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Sun-Powered Desal: A Gateway to Meeting MENA’s Water Needs

Extreme variability in rainfall and temperature are the new norm in the Middle East and North Africa and its consequences are especially severe for the Arab world.

A new publication, Renewable Energy Desalination, provides one solution for adapting to the changing climate while meeting growing water demands. The work, supported by the Water Partnership Program (WPP), proposes closing the region’s water gap through desalination run on renewable energy rather than conventional fossil fuels. The strategy seeks to promote both energy and water security by capitalizing on two of the region’s abundant resources: solar energy and seawater.

Renewable Energy Desalination is a timely source offering new ideas for integrating adaptation into policy making. The book’s recommendations will help ensure inclusive and sustainable climate mitigation actions throughout the MENA region, as promoted by a new World Bank special report on Adaptation to a Changing Climate in the Arab Countries launched in November 2012 at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP-18) in Doha, Qatar. The book builds on an improved understanding of water issues in the MENA region provided by earlier groundwork studies on future climate change implications for the region’s water gap and on options for desalination. It uses the “marginal cost of water” approach for prioritizing options for reducing the water gap, considering the associated economic costs, energy requirements, and environmental considerations of using fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, and Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) in particular. It also highlights the benefits of coupling desalination with CSP to generate a competitive energy supply that could ensure sustainable water supply for the region over time. More