By Laurie Goering, April 16, 2012
Water is increasingly becoming a scarce resource and shortages could drive conflict, hit food and energy production and threaten growth in renewable energy technology, experts warned at a water security conference on Monday.
And climate change – which appears to be bringing more extreme weather events such as droughts and floods – is likely to make the situation even more difficult, they said.
“Climate change will hit more people through water than in any other way,” said David Grey, a University of Oxford water expert, pointing to record floods in Thailand, Pakistan and Australia and record droughts in Somalia, Russia and the U.S. state of Texas in just the past two years.
But cutting waste in water use, particularly in irrigation, as well as making good use of mobile phone technology, gathering better data and putting in place better water use policies all could help stem conflict, improve safety and ensure better water security, particularly for the world’s poorest people, the experts said.
“The scale of the challenge, and therefore the scale of the opportunity it presents, is unprecedented,” said Ian Walmsley, pro-vice chancellor for research at the University of Oxford.
Worldwide, farming accounts for 70 percent of the world’s freshwater use each year. But in agricultural breadbaskets like central India, the northern China plains, and the central western region of the United States, much of the water is drawn not just from rain but from deep aquifers that are quickly being depleted.
Peter Gleick, a leading water expert and head of the U.S.-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, likened the issue to drawing down a bank account. The situation could present huge problems in the future as the world tries to increase food production by at least 70 percent by 2050 to meet growing demand, experts said.
“A substantial amount of our food production worldwide comes from non-renewable groundwater resources, and in the long run that is not sustainable,” Gleick said.
Renewable energy production also is threatened by water shortages, he said. Huge solar energy arrays are planned in the western United States, but many of the best places to locate them also suffer severe shortages of the water needed to cool them.
Conflicts over access to water are as old as recorded history, Gleick said – his institute has created a map of 225 water conflicts dating back 5,000 years – but today “the risks of water-related conflicts are growing,” as shortages loom in many parts of the world.
Those shortages will hit the poor hardest, warned Letitia Obeng, chair of the Global Water Partnership, an organisation that aims to improve water management, and which is backed by the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and the Swedish development agency.
Increasing water insecurity in rural areas, she warned, is likely to bring worsening food security and more migration to cities, which in turn will have problems supplying enough water to their inhabitants. That is likely to lead to growing conflict and, in extreme cases, failure of fragile states, she said.
The link between water availability and economic success is particularly stark in Africa, which relies heavily on rain-fed agriculture, she said. In Zimbabwe, for instance, economic growth – which has been hugely variable – almost exactly matched rainfall levels from 1979 to 1993, she noted.
Around the world, “livelihoods are being destroyed by water or its absence,” she said. “Whether you live in Pakistan or the United States, the risk of extreme weather and water-related issues is increasing every year.”
The good news is that extreme events – like the extreme floods and droughts around the world in recent years – often “are a stimulus for action. They provide the policy window for change to take place,” said Jim Hall, an expert on water and risk at the Oxford Environmental Change Institute.
After more than 5,000 people died or went missing during Typhoon Isewan in 1959, for instance, Japan began investing in flood control measures. By the early 1960s, deaths from flooding in the country had fallen to small levels, according to figures from the Japan Water Forum.
Building capacity to deal with an anticipated surge in extreme water events – such as floods or droughts – will be crucial, experts at the conference said. Both the U.S. state of Texas and Somalia suffered extreme drought last year, noted Eric Wood, a Princeton University water expert. But only in Somalia – a nation without strong institutions and ability to react – did the drought bring widespread famine and deaths.
To effectively address coming water shortages, irrigation – a major source of water use worldwide – will need to be made much more efficient, and a share of fresh water must be protected to keep ecological systems functioning as human needs grow, experts said. How much groundwater remains – and how fast it is disappearing – needs to be much more accurately measured and monitored.
Ensuring a mobile phone is within reach of most people on the planet – something the world is already on the way toward – could dramatically improve early warning about floods, drought and other climate-related extreme weather events, the experts said.
“One thing is clear: We can’t continue to do business as usual,” Obeng noted.