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

Monday, August 26, 2013

Will we ever see water footprint labels on consumer products?

That 130 litres of water goes into making your average coffee is a statistic that amazes most people. Even more surprising is that hardly anyone, even in the business community, has the foggiest idea how much water goes into manufacturing our favourite consumer products, from field to factory.

Seeking to address the dearth of information on the water required to produce a single product, from ready meals and soft drinks to t-shirts and electronic items, a variety of organisations have over the years floated the idea of water footprint labelling.

The general premise is that quantifying water inputs, like nutritional and calorie labels on food items, will help to influence purchasing habits, encouraging consumers to resist highly water intensive products. It would incentivise product manufacturers to scale back unnecessary waste and awaken consumer consciousness about water insecurity.

According to Dr Zafar Adeel, chair of UN-Water, the United Nations thinktank, not only does water footprint labelling make sense, but it is just around the corner. "People are often surprised and then ask, 'why didn't we know about this before?'

"I wouldn't call it a pipe dream," he says. "It will take five to 10 years for it to become fairly common."

Adeel suggests that a few pioneering companies may take the lead, rather than the government intervening. This in turn would spur industry-wide initiatives.

Growing consumer demand will be an important driver, he explains. "As we come up with new ways of measuring sustainability and the green economy, that will create back pressure on the private sector to come up with these schemes to provide more information."

Not everyone shares Adeel's optimism, however. Many critics regard any water footprint labelling scheme as a well-intentioned but ultimately meritless initiative, which risks further bamboozling already confused consumers.

Alistair Knox, chairman of the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry, is one influential voice in the clothing industry to pour cold water on the idea. The proposal is just not on the clothing industry's agenda, he says, and is far below issues such as the durability of garments or energy usage.

"It would be a bit pointless. There is already a huge amount of information on garment labels that people very rarely, if ever, look at," he says, adding that the industry would regard any serious proposal as a "little bit bizarre".

In Knox's view, any figure assigned to a clothing product for water usage is "dubious" as it is "from difficult to impossible" to calculate accurately beyond a generic average. He uses the example of a cotton yarn, the fibres of which may have come from several regions, each of which may have had different irrigation systems.

"How are you going to average that? Whatever number you come up with is just somebody's thumb in the air." The same could be said for many other consumer industries, such as electronic goods.

Knox also challenges the idea that water volume use is an important consideration for consumers. "The bottom line is that water recycles … Where is that water now? It's back in the system."

The sense that water volume labelling is too simplistic is shared by Felix Ockborn, environmental sustainability coordinator for water at high-street clothing retailer H&M. While Ockborn welcomes product scoring on sustainability performance, he says it is just as vital to consider the context of the water consumption in any labelling system.

"Only providing a volumetric product footprint would be misguiding if it does not incorporate where the water was taken from," he says. "What is most important is what we and other companies do to ensure that water is used responsibly."

Simon Davidoff, senior director of strategy for industrial services at Siemens, supports the idea of water footprint labels alongside energy use indicators. Technological advances mean it is relatively easy to quantify consumption and wastage in factory environments, he says.

Like Adeel, Davidoff believes water footprint labels are now inevitable. "Consumers will demand it," he says. The challenge will be in agreeing how far back companies should go to measure water inputs. More


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dwindling Colorado River Forces First-Ever Cuts in Lake Powell Water Releases

More than a dozen years of drought have begun to extract a heavy toll from water supplies in the West, where a report released last week forecast dramatic cuts next year in releases between the two main reservoirs on the Colorado River, the primary source of water for tens of millions of people across seven western states.

After studying the problems facing the river for the past two years, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation – the agency charged with managing water in the West – announced Friday that it would cut the amount of water released next year by Lake Powell in Arizona by 750,000 acre-feet, enough to supply about 1.5 million homes.

It marks the first reduction in water flows since the mid 1960s, when the lake was created by the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. "This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years," said Larry Wolkoviak, director of the bureau's Upper Colorado Region.

The move could trigger an "unprecedented water crisis within the next few years," the business coalition group Protect the Flows told USA Today, as reductions could have major ramifications for farmers and businesses downstream that depend on those flows, as well as on hydroelectric power generation.

"The river is already severely endangered due to way too many dams and diversions," Gary Wockner of SavetheColorado.org told National Geographic, noting the impact the reduced flows also would have on fish and wildlife throughout the Grand Canyon. "The impact on the health of the Colorado River is unsustainable."

It's difficult to overstate how important the Colorado River is to the West. From Lake Powell along the Arizona-Utah border, the river flows more than 300 miles through the Grand Canyon to Lake Mead in Nevada, supplying drinking water to more than 36 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah.

The river also supplies water to 22 native American tribes, 11 national parks, 7 national wildlife refuges, and 4 million acres of farmland, ThinkProgress reports.

At Lake Mead, water levels will lower by 8 feet as a result of the reduction, after the lake already has dropped by about 100 feet since the current drought began in 2000, the Wall Street Journal notes. That would bring water levels there – now about 1,105 feet – within striking range of 1,075 feet, considered the threshold for the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare a water shortage.

Lake Mead

Today, Lake Powell is only about 45 percent of its full capacity while Lake Mead stands at 47 percent full, according to Chuck Collum of the Central Arizona Project (CAP), which delivers water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona.

He told USA Today that the forecast would mean CAP would see its water releases reduced by about 320,000 acre-feet, or a cut of about 20 percent. CAP says this will have no impact on the cities and Native American tribes it serves, however, because the reduction would impact largely underground storage and non-Indian agriculture.

For Las Vegas, which draws most of its water from Lake Mead and grew by more than 6,000 people a month in the 2000s, the extremely dry conditions of the past decade already have prompted a raft of water restrictions and conservation measures -- including banning grass front lawns in new home developments.

But the city isn't counting on conservation alone. If the conditions of the past several years continue indefinitely, by 2015 water levels at Lake Mead could drop below one of Las Vegas's two intakes there, imperiling the city's water supply. Today, its water authority is scrambling to build a third intake to allow it to draw water at levels below 1,000 feet -- an insurance policy if the lake's levels drop low enough to put its first intake out of service.

(MORE: 20 Cities That Could Run Out of Water)

"It's essentially a race for us," Scott Huntley of the Southern Nevada Water Authority told National Geographic, because the lake likely "is going to drop more precipitously than seen in the past."

At their root, the potential water shortages both lakes face is the result of what has happened to theColorado River over the past decade. Long-running drought across the Southwest has starved the river to its current low flows, and climate change is expected to reduce them by 5 to 20 percent over the next 40 years, University of Colorado geoscientist Brad Udall told Smithsonian Magazine.

Its impacts will be felt at each stage of the river's development: less snowfall in the Rocky Mountains will mean less water enters the river at its start, while hotter air temperatures and drier weather will mean longer droughts and more water lost to evaporation. More


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

SIWI Releases Report on Water Cooperation Ahead of World Water Week

8 August 2013: The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) has released a report, titled 'Cooperation for a Water Wise World: Partnerships for Sustainable Development.' The report will serve as an input to World Water Week, taking place from 1-6 September 2013, in Stockholm, Sweden, on the same theme.

The report includes an introduction, overview of the thematic scope of the 2013 World Water Week and sections on: promoting ecosystem health and conservation through water cooperation; water resources and the private sector; using information and communication technology (ICT) to improve water governance and cooperation; transboundary water cooperation; thirsty energy, i.e. the importance of water for power generation; unpacking the water-energy-food nexus; reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) while building resilience; and bridging divides between land, water, coast and sea.

The report is designed to provide the basis for further discussions on the theme of water cooperation including cooperation: between actors in different sectors to optimize benefits to water; between stakeholder groups recognizing water as a common good; across traditional management from hilltop to ocean; between jurisdictions and levels from village to transboundary basin; and between scientists and users to bridge the science-policy gap. Identifying areas where cooperation is working and where further work is required, the report identifies risks, linkages, disconnects and challenges in order to provoke discussions at World Water Week 2013. [Publication: Cooperation for a Water Wise World: Partnerships for Sustainable Development]

World Water Week 2013


Monday, August 19, 2013

San Luis Reservoir 17 percent full, causing Silicon Valley water problems

LOS BANOS -- In 1805 Spanish soldiers camped here in the oak-studded valleys. California's Robin Hood, Joaquin Murrieta, hid out here during the Gold Rush. President John F. Kennedy made a visit in 1962.

San Luis Reservoir

There's no question the history around San Luis Reservoir is colorful. But these days, the star attraction isn't much to look at.

This vast inland sea along Highway 152 between Gilroy and Los Banos -- the largest off-stream reservoir in the world -- sits just 17 percent full.

The shoreline is a vast expanse of dried, cracked mud. Boat ramps end above the water's edge. Hills show erosion lines where the lake's surface once lapped in wetter years 168 feet higher than today.

This year, the reservoir

was at it lowest level of any Aug. 1 since 1989. And back then, California was knee-deep in its last major drought, which lasted from 1987 to 1992. A record-dry spring this year and pumping restrictions at the Delta are to blame now.

The low level is making water officials nervous in Silicon Valley, which draws billions of gallons from the reservoir.

"It's a concern for us every year, but more of a concern for us this year," said Joan Maher, deputy operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, based in San Jose.

When the lake level drops, the water warms, which causes algae to grow.

And when the water is pumped out every day from the reservoir, through a 10-foot-wide pipe 42 miles to the Coyote Pumping Station in Morgan Hill near Anderson Reservoir, it requires lots of treatment. Even after that, it doesn't seem quite right when it comes out of Silicon Valley taps.

"People have been calling, saying, 'What's happening with the water?'" Maher said. "The water is safe to drink, but this makes it taste and smell a little musty."

The people most affected live in Saratoga, Cupertino, Campbell, Los Altos and other communities that receive drinking water from the district's Rinconada treatment plant in Los Gatos. That's the only one of the district's three drinking water treatment plants that doesn't have high-tech ozone treatment -- it won't for another three years or so. For now, the plant is having to clean its filters more regularly, and crews have increased the amount of granulated carbon they use to absorb odors by tenfold from normal years.

When full, San Luis holds 2 million acre-feet of water, enough to supply the needs of 10 million people for a year.

There are two reasons San Luis is so low now.

First is the dry spring. After a wet November and December, California experienced record-dry conditions starting in January.

The amount of snow and rain that fell in the northern Sierra between January and the beginning of April was the least since records were first kept in 1920. Most Bay Area cities had the driest spring in their history.

Less snow and rain meant less runoff. Still, other large reservoirs in Northern California have much more water now than San Luis. Lake Shasta, Oroville, Trinity and New Melones are all between 46 and 61 percent full.

Another reason San Luis has not filled as much, Maher noted, is because its water is pumped from the Delta, 75 miles to the north. And in recent years, federal court decisions have limited the time and scale of how much water could be pumped out of the Delta through the giant federal and state water projects that store water in San Luis for later use, not only by Silicon Valley, but by farmers and cities throughout the Central Valley and Southern California.

As Maher and many other water officials see it, one solution is Gov. Jerry Brown's $24 billion plan to build two massive tunnels under the Delta to more easily ship water south.

Environmentalists say the tunnels will wreck the Delta's fragile ecosystem and make it easier to ship water to subsidized corporate farmers. They argue the problem is that agriculture -- which uses 80 percent of the water that people consume in California -- simply takes too much from the Delta and has planted crops that rely on more water than the Delta can deliver consistently without killing salmon, smelt and other species that live there.

"If we weren't using our precious water to grow almonds to ship to China, we'd have more for urban use," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a Stockton group.

In the past week, water levels at San Luis Reservoir have crept up 3 feet. That's because demand from farmers is waning in the later part of the growing season and some Delta pumping is occurring, said Tracy Pettit with the state Department of Water Resources. More


Sunday, August 18, 2013

10 Water Commons Principles

July 11, 2012 | by On the Commons Team


Through our co-creative fieldwork, On the Commons seeks to transform societal decision making for water stewardship toward participatory, democratic, community-centered systems that value equity and sustainability as a strategy. Our work is based on the following ten water commons principles.

  1. Affirm water as a commons, that is, it belongs to everyone and no one, passed onto future generations in sufficient volume and quality
  2. Ensure that the earth and all of its ecosystems enjoy rights to water for their survival – indeed it is on those ecosystems that human life depends
  3. Conserve water as society’s first course of action (enforced by law), including suggesting drastic changes to industrial and agricultural practices
  4. Treat watersheds – the source of water – as a common as well and not simply the water itself
  5. Encourage local, community management while legally binding communities to respect upstream and downstream neighbors’ rights
  6. Forge or affirm trans-boundary agreements that respect water sovereignty for both communities and nations
  7. Provide water as a basic principle of justice, not as an act of charity
  8. Ensure public delivery and fair pricing of water
  9. Promote enshrining the right to water in nation-state constitutions, laws and a UN covenant
  10. Employ innovative legal tools to protect water and manage water as a commons, including through public and community trusts



Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Peak Water: What Happens When the Wells Go Dry?

Peak oil has generated headlines in recent years, but the real threat to our future is peak water. There are substitutes for oil, but not for water. We can produce food without oil, but not without water.

We drink on average four liters of water per day, in one form or another, but the food we eat each day requires 2,000 liters of water to produce, or 500 times as much. Getting enough water to drink is relatively easy, but finding enough to produce the ever-growing quantities of grain the world consumes is another matter.

Grain consumed directly supplies nearly half of our calories. That consumed indirectly as meat, milk, and eggs supplies a large part of the remainder. Today roughly 40 percent of the world grain harvest comes from irrigated land. It thus comes as no surprise that irrigation expansion has played a central role in tripling the world grain harvest over the last six decades.

During the last half of the twentieth century, the world’s irrigated area expanded from close to 250 million acres (100 million hectares) in 1950 to roughly 700 million in 2000. This near tripling of world irrigation within 50 years was historically unique. But since then the growth in irrigation has come to a near standstill, expanding only 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.

In looking at water and our future, we face many questions and few answers. Could the world be facing peak water? Or has it already peaked?

Farmers get their irrigation water either from rivers or from underground aquifers. Historically, beginning with the Sumerians some 6,000 years ago, irrigation water came from building dams across rivers, creating reservoirs that then enabled them to divert the water onto the land through a network of gravity-fed canals. This method of irrigation prevailed until the second half of the twentieth century, where with few sites remaining for building dams, the prospects for expanding surface irrigation faded. Farmers then turned to drilling wells to tap underground water resources.

In doing so, they learned that there are two types of aquifers: those that are replenishable through rainfall, which are in the majority, and those that consist of water laid down eons ago, and thus do not recharge. The latter, known as fossil aquifers, include two strategically important ones, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain and the Ogallala aquifer under the U.S. Great Plains.

Tapping underground water resources helped expand world food production, but as the demand for grain continued climbing, so too did the amount of water pumped. Eventually the extraction of water began to exceed the recharge of aquifers from precipitation, and water tables began to fall. And then wells begin to go dry. In effect, overpumping creates a water-based food bubble, one that will burst when the aquifer is depleted and the rate of pumping is necessarily reduced to the rate of recharge.

Today some 18 countries, containing half the world’s people, are overpumping their aquifers. Among these are the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—and several other populous countries, including Iran, Pakistan and Mexico.

During the last couple of decades, several of these countries have overpumped to the point that aquifers are being depleted and wells are going dry. They have passed not only peak water, but also peak grain production. Among the countries whose use of water has peaked and begun to decline are Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In these countries peak grain has followed peak water.

Nowhere are falling water tables and the shrinkage of irrigated agriculture more dramatic than in Saudi Arabia, a country as water-poor as it is oil-rich. After the Arab oil export embargo in 1973, the Saudis realized they were vulnerable to a counter-embargo on grain. To become self-sufficient in wheat, they developed a heavily subsidized irrigated agriculture based heavily on pumping water from fossil aquifers.

After being self-sufficient in wheat for over 20 years, the Saudis announced in early 2008 that, with their aquifers largely depleted, they would reduce wheat planting by one eighth each year until 2016, when production would end. By then Saudi Arabia projects it will be importing some 15 million tons of wheat, rice, corn, and barley to feed its 30 million people. It is the first country to publicly project how aquifer depletion will shrink its grain harvest.

Syria, a country of 22 million people riddled by civil war, is also overpumping its underground water. Its grain production peaked in 2001 and during the years since has dropped 32 percent. It, too, is becoming heavily dependent on imported grain.

In neighboring Iraq, grain production has plateaued over the last decade. In 2012 it was dependent on the world market for two thirds of its consumption. In addition to aquifer depletion, both Syria and Iraq are also suffering from a reduced flow in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as upstream Turkey claims more water for its own use.

In Yemen, a nation of 24 million people that shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, the water table is falling by roughly 6 feet a year as water use outstrips aquifer recharge. With one of the world’s fastest-growing populations and with water tables falling throughout the country, Yemen is fast becoming a hydrological basket case. Grain production has fallen by nearly half over the last 40 years. By 2015, irrigated fields will be a rarity and the country will be importing virtually all of its grain. Living on borrowed water and borrowed time, Yemen could disintegrate into a group of tribal fiefdoms warring over water.

Thus in the Arab Middle East the world is seeing the collision between population growth and water supply at the regional level. For the first time in history, grain production is dropping in a geographic region with nothing in sight to arrest the decline. Because of the failure of governments in the region to mesh population and water policies, each day now brings 9,000 more people to feed and less irrigation water with which to feed them.

Other countries with much larger populations are also near or beyond peak water. In Iran, a country with 77 million people, grain production dropped 10 percent between 2007 and 2012 as irrigation wells started to go dry. One quarter of its current grain harvest is based on overpumping. With its population growing by a million people per year, it, too, faces a day of reckoning.

Pakistan, with a population of 182 million that is growing by 3 million per year, is also mining its underground water. Most of its irrigation water comes from the Indus river system, but in the Pakistani part of the fertile Punjab plain, the drop in water tables appears to be similar to the better-known fall that is occurring in India.

Observation wells near the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi showed a fall in the water table between 1982 and 2000 that ranged from 3 to 6 feet a year. In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan, water tables around the capital, Quetta, are falling by 3.5 meters (11.5 feet) per year—pointing to the day when the city will run out of water. Sardar Riaz A. Khan, former director of Pakistan’s Arid Zone Research Institute in Quetta, reports that six of Balochistan’s seven basins have exhausted their groundwater supplies, leaving their irrigated lands barren.

In a World Bank study, water expert John Briscoe says: “Pakistan is already one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, a situation which is going to degrade into outright water scarcity due to high population growth.” He then notes that “the survival of a modern and growing Pakistan is threatened by water.”

In Mexico—home to a population of 122 million that is projected to reach 156 million by 2050—the demand for water is outstripping supply. Mexico City’s water problems are well known. Rural areas are also suffering. In the agricultural state of Guanajuato, the water table is falling by 6 feet or more a year. In the northwestern wheat-growing state of Sonora, farmers once pumped water from the Hermosillo aquifer at a depth of 40 feet. Today they pump from over 400 feet. Mexico may be near peak water use. Peak grain may be imminent.

In addition to these small and midsize countries, aquifer depletion now also threatens harvests in the big three grain producers—China, India, and the United States—that together produce half of the world’s grain. The question is not whether water shortages will affect future harvests in these countries, but rather when they will do so.

Among the big three, dependence on irrigation varies widely. Some four fifths of China’s grain harvest comes from irrigated land, most of it drawing on surface water, principally the Yellow and Yangtze rivers. For India, three fifths of its grain is irrigated, mostly with groundwater. For the United States, only one fifth of the harvest is from irrigated land. The bulk of the grain crop is rain-fed, produced in the highly productive Midwestern Corn Belt where there is little or no irrigation.

Falling water tables are already adversely affecting harvest prospects in China, which rivals the United States as the world’s largest grain producer. A groundwater survey released in Beijing in 2001 indicated that the water table under the North China Plain, an area that produces half of the country’s wheat and a third of its corn, was falling fast. Overpumping has largely depleted the shallow aquifer, forcing well-drillers to turn to the region’s deep aquifer, which is not replenishable.

The survey reported that under Hebei Province in the heart of the North China Plain, the average level of the deep aquifer was dropping nearly 10 feet per year. Around some cities in the province, it was falling twice as fast. He Qingcheng, head of the groundwater monitoring team, notes that as the deep aquifer is depleted, the region is losing its last water reserve—its only safety cushion.

In 2010, He Qingcheng reported that Beijing was drilling down 1,000 feet to reach an aquifer, five times deeper than 20 years ago. His concerns are mirrored in the unusually strong language of a World Bank report on China’s water situation that foresees “catastrophic consequences for future generations” unless water use and supply can quickly be brought back into balance.

As serious as water shortages are in China, they are even more alarming in India, where the margin between food consumption and survival is so precarious. In India, whose population is growing by 15 million per year, irrigation depends heavily on underground water. And since there are no restrictions on well drilling, farmers have drilled more than 27 million irrigation wells and are pumping vast amounts of underground water.

In this global epicenter of well drilling, pumps powered by heavily subsidized electricity are dropping water tables at an alarming rate. Among the states most affected are Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Gujarat in the north and Tamil Nadu in the south. In North Gujarat the water table is falling by 20 feet per year. In Tamil Nadu, a state of 72 million people, water tables are falling everywhere. Kuppannan Palanisami of Tamil Nadu Agricultural University noted in 2004 that 95 percent of the wells owned by small farmers have dried up, reducing the irrigated area in the state by half over the preceding decade.

India’s grain harvest has been expanding rapidly in recent years, but in part for the wrong reason, namely massive overpumping. A World Bank study estimates that 15 percent of India’s food supply is produced by mining groundwater. Stated otherwise, 175 million Indians are now fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water. As early as 2004, Fred Pearce reported in New Scientist that “half of India’s traditional hand-dug wells and millions of shallower tube wells have already dried up, bringing a spate of suicides among those who rely on them. Electricity blackouts are reaching epidemic proportions in states where half of the electricity is used to pump water from depths of up to a kilometer.”

As India’s water tables fall, larger farmers are using modified oil-drilling technology to reach water, going as deep as 1,000 feet in some locations. In communities where underground water sources have dried up entirely, all agriculture is now rain-fed and drinking water must be trucked in. Tushaar Shah of the International Water Management Institute says of India’s water situation: “When the balloon bursts, untold anarchy will be the lot of rural India.”

In the United States, farmers are over-pumping in the Great Plains, including in several leading grain-producing states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. In these states, irrigation has not only raised wheat yields but it has also enabled a shift from wheat to corn, a much higher-yielding crop. Kansas, for example, long known as the leading wheat state, now produces more corn than wheat.

Irrigated agriculture has thrived in these states, but the water is drawn from the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground water body that stretches from Nebraska southwards to the Texas Panhandle. It is, unfortunately, a fossil aquifer, one that does not recharge. Once it is depleted, the wells go dry and farmers either go back to dryland farming or abandon farming altogether, depending on local conditions.

In Texas, a large grain and cattle state, whose northern part overlies the shallow end of the Ogallala, irrigated grain area peaked in 1975. Since then it has shrunk by two thirds, with the most precipitous drop in recent years. In Kansas the peak came in 1982 and irrigated grain area has since fallen 41 percent. Nebraska, now also a leading corn-producing state, saw its irrigated area peak most recently, in 2007. Even though aquifer depletion is reducing grain output in several key states, it is not yet sufficient to reduce the overall U.S. grain harvest, the bulk of which is produced in the rain-fed Midwestern Corn Belt.

At the international level, water conflicts, such as the one in the Nile river basin between Egypt and the upstream countries, make the news. But within countries it is the competition for water between cities and farms that preoccupies political leaders. Indeed, in many countries farmers now face not only a shrinking water supply as aquifers are pumped dry, but also a shrinking share of that shrinking supply.

In large areas of the United States, such as the southern Great Plains and the Southwest, virtually all water is now spoken for. The growing water needs of major cities and thousands of small towns often can be satisfied only by taking water from agriculture. As the value of water rises, more farmers are selling their irrigation rights to cities, letting their land dry up. Hardly a day goes by without the announcement of a new sale. Half or more of all sales are by individual farmers or their irrigation districts to cities and municipalities.

In the largest farm-to-city water transfer in U.S. history, farmers in California’s highly productive Imperial Valley agreed in 2003 to send San Diego County enough water to meet the household needs of close to one million people each year. The agreement spans 45 years. This could reduce food production in the Imperial Valley, a huge vegetable garden not only for California, but for countless other markets as well. Writing from the area in the New York Times, Felicity Barringer notes that many fear that “a century after Colorado River water allowed this land to be a cornucopia, unfettered urban water transfers could turn it back into a desert.”

Colorado, with a fast-growing population, has one of the world’s most active water markets. Cities and towns of all sizes are buying irrigation water rights from farmers and ranchers. In the Arkansas river basin, which occupies the southeastern quarter of the state, Colorado Springs and Aurora (a suburb of Denver) have already bought water rights to one third of the basin’s farmland. Aurora has purchased rights to water that was once used to irrigate 19,000 acres of cropland in the Arkansas valley. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 400,000 acres of farmland dried up statewide between 2000 and 2005.

Colorado is not alone in losing irrigation water. Farmers in rural India are also losing their irrigation water to cities. This is strikingly evident in Chennai (formerly Madras), a city of 9 million on the east coast. As a result of the city government’s inability to supply water to many of its people, a thriving tank-truck industry has emerged that buys water from nearby farmers and hauls it to the city’s thirsty residents.

For farmers near cities, the market price of water typically far exceeds the value of the crops they can produce with it. Unfortunately the 13,000 privately owned tank trucks hauling water to Chennai are mining the region’s underground water resources. As water tables fall, eventually even the deeper wells will go dry, depriving rural communities of both their food supply and their livelihood.

In the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and cities and industries on the other, farmers always lose. The economics do not favor agriculture. In countries such as China, where industrial development and the jobs associated with it are an overriding national economic goal, agriculture is becoming the residual claimant on the water supply.

Where virtually all water has been claimed, cities can typically get more water only by taking it from irrigation. Countries then import grain to offset the loss of irrigated grain production. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, importing grain is the most efficient way to import water. Thus trading in grain futures is, in a sense, trading in water futures. To the extent that there is a world water market, it is embodied in the world grain market.

We can now see how overpumping, whether in the Middle East or the U.S. Great Plains, can lead to aquifer depletion and shrinking grain harvests. In short, peak water can lead to peak grain. For some countries this is no longer merely a theoretical possibility. It is a reality.

Thus far, aquifer depletion has translated into shrinking harvests only in smaller countries in the Middle East. When we look at middle-sized countries such as Iran, Mexico, and Pakistan, with tightening water supplies, we see that Iran is already in deep trouble. It is feeling the effects of shrinking water supplies from overpumping. Pakistan may also have reached peak water. If so, peak grain may not be far behind. In Mexico, the water supply may have already peaked. With less water for irrigation, Mexico may be on the verge of a downturn in its grain harvest.

In summarizing prospects for the three big grain producers—the United States, China, and India—we see sharp contrasts. In the United States, the irrigated grainland is starting to shrink largely as a result of depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, making it more difficult to rapidly increase overall grain production.

China, with four fifths of its grain harvest coming from irrigated land, relies heavily on irrigation, but it is largely river water. A notable exception to this is the all-important North China Plain which relies heavily on underground water. With tight water supplies in northern China and with cities claiming more irrigation water, the shrinking water supply will likely reduce the harvest in some local situations. And before long it could more than offset production gains, leading to an absolute decline in China’s grain harvest.

Of the big three countries, the one most vulnerable to overpumping is India. Three fifths of its grain harvest comes from irrigated land. And since only a minor share of its irrigation water comes from rivers, India is overwhelmingly dependent on underground water. Its millions of wells, each powered with a diesel engine or electric motor, are dropping water tables at an alarming rate. Accurate data are hard to come by, but India may have already passed peak water. The question is, will peak water be followed by peak grain or is there enough unrealized technological potential remaining to raise yields enough to offset any imminent losses from wells going dry?

The world has quietly transitioned into a situation where water, not land, has emerged as the principal constraint on expanding food supplies. There is a large area of land that could produce food if water were available.

Water scarcity is not our only challenge. Just as harvests are shrinking in some countries because of aquifer depletion, they are shrinking in other countries because of soil erosion. Among the more dramatic examples are Mongolia and Lesotho, which have each seen their grain area shrink as a result of soil erosion. And as a result of overplowing and overgrazing, two huge new dust bowls are forming in the world today, one in northwest China and the other in the Sahelian region of Africa. These giant dust bowls dwarf the U.S. Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The bottom line is that water constraints—augmented by soil erosion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, a plateauing of yields in major producing areas, and climate change—are making it more difficult to expand world food production. The question raised is this: Is it conceivable that the negative influences on future food production could one day offset the positive ones, leading to a cessation in the world grain harvest? More

Adapted from ‘The real threat to our future is peak water’ by Lester R. Brown, published in the Observer on July 6, 2013.

Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates: The New Geopolitics of Food Scarcity (W.W. Norton, 2012).



Sunday, August 11, 2013

China and India 'water grab' dams put ecology of Himalayas in danger

The future of the world's most famous mountain range could be endangered by a vast dam-building project, as a risky regional race for water resources takes place in Asia.

Ranganadi hydroelectric project in Arunachal Pradesh

New academic research shows that India, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan are engaged in a huge "water grab" in the Himalayas, as they seek new sources of electricity to power their economies. Taken together, the countries have plans for more than 400 hydro dams which, if built, could together provide more than 160,000MW of electricity – three times more than the UK uses.

In addition, China has plans for around 100 dams to generate a similar amount of power from major rivers rising in Tibet. A further 60 or more dams are being planned for the Mekong river which also rises in Tibet and flows south through south-east Asia.

Most of the Himalayan rivers have been relatively untouched by dams near their sources. Now the two great Asian powers, India and China, are rushing to harness them as they cut through some of the world's deepest valleys. Many of the proposed dams would be among the tallest in the world, able to generate more than 4,000MW, as much as the Hoover dam on the Colorado river in the US.

The result, over the next 20 years, "could be that the Himalayas become the most dammed region in the world", said Ed Grumbine, visiting international scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Kunming. "India aims to construct 292 dams … doubling current hydropower capacity and contributing 6% to projected national energy needs. If all dams are constructed as proposed, in 28 of 32 major river valleys, the Indian Himalayas would have one of the highest average dam densities in the world, with one dam for every 32km of river channel. Every neighbour of India with undeveloped hydropower sites is building or planning to build multiple dams, totalling at minimum 129 projects," said Grumbine, author of a paper in Science.

China, which is building multiple dams on all the major rivers running off the Tibetan plateau, is likely to emerge as the ultimate controller of water for nearly 40% of the world's population. "The plateau is the source of the single largest collection of international rivers in the world, including the Mekong, the Brahmaputra, the Yangtse and the Yellow rivers. It is the headwater of rivers on which nearly half the world depends. The net effect of the dam building could be disastrous. We just don't know the consequences," said Tashi Tseri, a water resource researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

"China is engaged in the greatest water grab in history. Not only is it damming the rivers on the plateau, it is financing and building mega-dams in Pakistan, Laos, Burma and elsewhere and making agreements to take the power," said Indian geopolitical analyst Brahma Chellaney. "China-India disputes have shifted from land to water. Water is the new divide and is going centre stage in politics. Only China has the capacity to build these mega-dams and the power to crush resistance. This is effectively war without a shot being fired."

According to Chellaney, India is in the weakest position because half its water comes directly from China; however, Bangladesh is fearful of India's plans for water diversions and hydropower. Bangladeshi government scientists say that even a 10% reduction in the water flow by India could dry out great areas of farmland for much of the year. More than 80% of Bangladesh's 50 million small farmers depend on water that flows through India.

Engineers and environmentalists say that little work has been done on the human or ecological impact of the dams, which they fear could increase floods and be vulnerable to earthquakes. "We do not have credible environmental and social impact assessments, we have no environmental compliance system, no cumulative impact assessment and no carrying capacity studies. The Indian ministry of environment and forests, developers and consultants are responsible for this mess," said Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

China and India have both displaced tens of millions of people with giant dams such as the Narmada and Three Gorges over the last 30 years, but governments have not published estimates of how many people would have to be relocated or how much land would be drowned by the new dams. "This is being totally ignored. No one knows, either, about the impact of climate change on the rivers. The dams are all being built in rivers that are fed by glaciers and snowfields which are melting at a fast rate," said Tsering.

Climate models suggest that major rivers running off the Himalayas, after increasing flows as glaciers melt, could lose 10-20% of their flow by 2050. This would not only reduce the rivers' capacity to produce electricity, but would exacerbate regional political tensions.

The dams have already led to protest movements in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam and other northern states of India and in Tibet. Protests in Uttarakhand, which was devastated by floods last month, were led by Indian professor GD Agarwal, who was taken to hospital after a 50-day fast but who was released this week.

"There is no other way but to continue because the state government is not keen to review the dam policy," said Mallika Bhanot, a member of Ganga Avahan, a group opposing proposals for a series of dams on the Ganges.

Governments have tried to calm people by saying that many of the dams will not require large reservoirs, but will be "run of the river" constructions which channel water through tunnels to massive turbines. But critics say the damage done can be just as great. "[These] will complete shift the path of the river flow," said Shripad Dharmadhikary, a leading opponent of the Narmada dams and author of a report into Himalayan dams. "Everyone will be affected because the rivers will dry up between points. The whole hydrology of the rivers will be changed. It is likely to aggravate floods.

"A dam may only need 500 people to move because of submergence, but because the dams stop the river flow it could impact on 20,000 people. They also disrupt the groundwater flows so many people will end up with water running dry. There will be devastation of livelihoods along all the rivers." More


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Turning Water Into Gold

For centuries, water has been seen as a free public good, with no price attached.

Shrinking Water Resources

But as droughts, population growth and farming demand deplete aquifers worldwide, water prices and demand for innovative water technology are set to steadily rise, said experts.

“The dry regions such as the American Southwest are getting drier,” said Simon Gottelier, an investment manager at Impax Asset Management in London.

Every place on the global map will need to spend money on water, said Gottelier. He predicts that the water industry will grow 5% to 7% each year on average.

Financial firms are meeting the demand for investable opportunities in some new ways. Texas-based Waterfund LLC, for one, is creating swaps, a derivative where one security is exchanged for another. The risk management firm has also teamed with IBM to craft a water index that finally pins a price on water use in the world’s 100 largest cities. Through these swaps, institutions can then hedge their risks when water prices rise.

The long view

Water stocks are a multi-decade opportunity, Gottelier said, for many reasons. One, and arguably the most urgent, is cleaning polluted water. The mighty Nile, which runs through nine nations and supports 80 million people throughout the region, is polluted, since heavy regulation only allocates water flow. Even though it’s polluted and carries diseases, the river water is used for farming, drinking and bathing.

The Nile River

And in water-starved China, 80% of the rivers and lakes are polluted, by World Bank estimates. Shanghai alone is spending tens of billions of yuan to fix the problem. India has a similar problem: over-polluted rivers such as the Ganges and Indus. The government is investing the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars on treatment facilities.

So, like many problems with a business-oriented solution, investors are seeking ways to profit from the surging demand for technology and systems to clean and filter contaminated water.

Companies are also eager to discover and extract more H2O. Seventy percent of the planet is covered in water, but only 3% of it is fresh. And that supply is mainly stashed in hard-to-reach places such as icecaps and deep underground reservoirs.

Easily gotten sources — reservoirs, lakes and rivers — are getting quickly depleted. The Aral Sea in Uzbekistan, for example, has shrunk so much that former fishing villages are now surrounded by desert land. Formerly part of the famous Silk Road, the Aral Sea will be completely dry within a decade.

Storied rivers such as the Nile and the Colorado in the US are also losing water as dams and other measures divert water from their flows for agricultural and other uses.

“Too much water is also being taken out of the Nile,” said Dr Jenny Kehl, director of the Center for Water Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But the Nile isn’t alone, she added, since other great rivers such as the Jordan and the Mekong are also running drier as usage increases.

Deep underground aquifers, which store the freshest water, are also in rough shape as increased demand drains them dry. The problem is particularly acute in North Africa and the southwestern US, Kehl added.

Good news for water companies

Both dwindling supplies and dirtier water are translating into tighter water management. And that’s good news for the 300 global companies plying the water market. Most are in the US, followed by Europe, said Gottelier. Japan is a serious player, too.

Unlike taming carbon, water is a cheerier story.

“There are already lots of solutions in place,” said Cate Lamb, head of Carbon Disclosure Project’s water program. “So water management can shift much more rapidly than carbon.”

Repairing and monitoring crumbling, leaky pipes, pumps and valves is a key part of the water market. There are about 50 to 100 years of underinvestment in water supply upgrades in parts of Europe, said Gottelier, which leads to lots of leakage. In the US, the EPA estimates that upgrades to its aged water infrastructure will cost as much as $400 billion.

Water needs will translate into recurring business for infrastructure manufacturers such as Swiss-based Pentair Ltd, Texas based Flowserve Corp, and New York-based Xylem, said Matthew Sheldon, a portfolio manager for the Calvert Global Water Fund. “They all have very strong business models,” he said.

No surprise, then, that the $197 million Calvert fund’s largest holding is infrastructure stocks, along with technology plays for leak detection. Canada-based Pure Technologies Ltd which inspects and monitors pipelines, is a player in the water efficiency niche. The company is growing 20% to 30% per year, added Sheldon. UK-based Halma PLC also makes leak detection equipment.

Reusing water is the fastest growing niche though, said Sheldon. So water treatment and filtration companies such as Kurita Water Industries Ltd in Japan and China Everbright International in Hong Kong are set to prosper, said Sheldon.

“Much of the world is catching up with purification,” added Neil Berlant, a partner at Crowell, Weedon & Co, a brokerage and money management firm in Los Angeles. “Water treatment transcends all borders.”

Desalination, which removes salt from water, is being heavily used in Israel, Spain and Australia. The main reason: its price is decreasing.

“Up until now, desalination has been a small part of the water industry,” said Sheldon. “But it should begin accelerating next year.” Desalination players include big water utility companies such as VeoliaEnvironnement and Suez Environnement in France and the smaller pure-play company Energy Recovery in the US.

Oddly, few innovative emerging water companies are making waves. The initial public offering market, like the broader market, is still suffering. And new biological treatments for recovering energy and nutrients from waste water are still in their infancy, said Sheldon. More


Saturday, August 3, 2013

Beware water privatization and the foul stench of exploitation

Sounding more like an admonishing primary school teacher than ever, Margaret Thatcher announced in 1976 that the was that they" always run out of other people's money". I have thought since the crash of 2008 that the same can now be said for the vast system of state capitalism she bequeathed us.

The price of deregulating the banks we know about to our cost. We have received fair warning that George Osborne's taxpayer-subsidised mortgage market will be emptying your wallet when the next bubble bursts. But how long will it be before the stench from the monopolistic exploitation of water – the very stuff of life – reaches the public's nostrils?

That stink is actual as well as metaphorical. As Damian Carrington and Sophie Barnes report on theObserver's news pages, the most pestilential polluters of England's rivers are the privatised water companies charged with protecting them. They leak untreated sewage for a reason that ought to find a place in the "national conversation", but never does because of a depressingly familiar complacency. The political class, respectable opinion, call it what you will, assumes that the water industry is beyond political argument. Thatcher fixed the status of the privatised utilities and it is now as unchangeable as the weather. I wonder how long that line can hold.

The negligence of successive governments allow dubious companies, private equity firms more often that not, to take over a vital national interest. They have engaged in widespread tax avoidance. They have hidden what ought to be a public service behind the high walls of commercial confidentiality. Most egregiously, they have loaded their books with debt, not to improve Britain's decaying network of sewers and pipes, but to provide fantastic returns to investors from a captive market of consumers.

By the reckoning of the ratings agencies – not the most reliable guides, I know, but all we have – the debts are unsustainable in several instances. You will pay if the companies go bust. Indeed, you are already paying.

A devastating analysis by George Turner of the liberal thinktank CentreForum listed the ways last month. "Since 2005," it concluded, "prices for water have been too high, more than required to run a decent service for customers whilst providing a reasonable return for investors." Investors have taken an unreasonable return instead. So unreasonable, indeed, that as well as making the public pay through inflated prices and the taxes they dodge, the water companies are looking for direct taxpayer support.

The one example that has received attention is Thames Water asking the government for money to build a new and much needed super-sewer through London. Readers old enough to remember the capitalist utopianism of the 1980s can gaze on that demand and see how the promises of the Thatcherites have turned to ashes. Conservatives at the time said privatisation would turn Britain into a "share-owning democracy". They ran a bizarre but effective advertising campaign asking viewers to "tell Sid" about the wealth privatisation would bring him. As it turned out, Sid no more ended up owning the water companies than you or I did.

Thames is controlled by a consortium led by Macquarie, an Australian bank. Despite making healthy profits for years, the company is too enfeebled by debt to fund a major building project without taxpayer support. Once again, we old timers will remember with all the clarity we can muster that the Thatcherites also promised that their privatised water companies would no longer suck on the public teat but would be free to raise money in the marketplace. That pledge has gone down the drain too.

If it were a respectable company operating in any kind of functioning marketplace, Thames Water would have had to have changed its ways years ago or go bust. But private monopolies are free to pursue private interests, restrained only by a regulator whose behaviour to date has been flaccid to the point of impotence.

The water companies' environmental record makes the point better than I ever could. In the past nine years, they have polluted waterways and beaches about 1,000 times. The naive reader might wonder why they don't change their ways. The answer appears to be that it is not worth their while. Two-thirds of the spillages resulted in a caution without further punishment. The remaining third attracted fines of £10,800 on average. No private equity manager will wake up screaming at such sanctions.

The level of debt is the thread that ties incompetence, negligence, tax avoidance and over charging together. It allows private equity firms to leverage their original investment and increase their returns exponentially. It also allows them to escape tax. If they raise equity, they must pay tax on profits before they can give dividends to shareholders. If they raise loans, however, they can charge the interest payments against tax.

Today, the average debt to equity ratio of an English water company is around 70%. Some water companies have reached ratios of 80%, (that is, 80% of the value of the company has been borrowed with only 20% invested by the shareholders). The levels are so high that Standard and Poor's has cut credit ratings for water companies, citing as justification that debt has not only been used to finance long-term investment, as debt should, but also to produce "sizable dividend payments", a dangerously short-sighted practice.

CentreForum uses Yorkshire Water to show how the public is being fleeced every which way. In 2006, it whacked up its gearing. Dividends followed suit. Despite spending more than it received from customers, it still paid out £886.8m in dividends – a return for debt and equity investors of 24.1% Overall, the costs to its customers of paying such inflated returns was £139 extra every year on the average water bill between 2005 and 2010.

There is no shortage of ideas for reform. Sir Ian Byatt, a former regulator, wants to see payments in dividends matched by cuts in tariffs. Turner ends his report by concluding that the only way of dealing with private monopolists is to turn their firms into not-for-profit companies. As far as the Westminster bubble is concerned, such ideas are beyond the fringe, but I doubt they will stay there for ever. More