Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 14 January 2013

The water crises must be addressed now   

The disruption of water supply in parts of Selangor and the floods in the East Coast have highlighted water as a most important resource and to re-organise society to manage water in much better ways.


In recent days, many thousands of Malaysians have suffered from two water related crises.  In the East Coast states, the floods have disrupted lives, damaged homes and other property.  There are warnings of even stronger storms to come.

The breakdown of a water pump has caused hundreds of thousands in Ampang, Gombak, Cheras to do without piped water supply for many days.  People have had to rely on water supplied by trucks, from rivers and in office bathrooms.

The present water problem in parts of Selangor is strictly not about scarcity but has to do with management of supply, especially on coping with a technical fault. 

But it provides more than a glimpse of the crisis that happens in ordinary people’s lives when what we take for granted – ready supply of water from the tap – is disrupted.

The world is facing multiple water crises, yet societies continue to be run with little regard of how water is taken for granted.  There is still disregard for the need to re-organise production and consumption to take into account the need to manage our water supplies.

Floods are often caused by storms and hurricanes but also excessive rainfall which in recent years is worsened by climate change.  Increased evaporation from warmer seas and higher concentration of water in the air increases the intensity of rainfall, which leads to the increased flooding in many countries, with immense damage. 

The floods in Pakistan and Thailand in a couple of years ago are estimated to have cost each country around US$30 billion. 

But floods also result from the chopping of forests, especially in highlands.  Instead of seeping into soils, the rains run off into streams, because of the removal of tree cover.   Moreover, erosion of soils and flow into streams raises the beds of the rivers.

This causes more flooding when the waters overflow from river banks.  The higher volume and strength of the water flow downstream also makes urban areas more susceptible to intense flooding.

In the cities, the old drainage system is unable to cope with the higher rainfall and the stronger flows from upstream.

It is thus imperative to tackle climate change, to stop the chopping of forests and levelling of highlands, to conserve soils, and to vastly improve the urban drainage systems.

Deforestation is also linked to water scarcity, the second aspect of water crisis.  The removal of trees and vegetation prevents water from collecting underground, thus depriving water catchments and reservoirs from having the same volume of water supply.

We should instead treat water catchment areas and forests as treasures to be protected.

Freshwater supply is limited and decreasing.  Yet demand for it is rising fast.  No solution is in sight to address this mismatch.

Two billion people live in countries that are water-stressed. And by 2025, two-thirds the world population may suffer water stress, unless current trends alter.

“The global population tripled in the 20th century but water consumption went up sevenfold,” noted Maudhe Barlow in her book Blue Covenant. “By 2050 after we add another 3 billion to the population, humans will need an 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves. No one knows where this water is going to come from.”

Besides the loss of water supply from deforestation and soil erosion, there is also depletion of groundwater resources as water is taken up for agriculture and industry, and is being dug from deeper sources.  The mining of groundwater has caused a drop in the water-table in India and China, West Asia, Russia, the United States.

Our production systems did not take account of limited water supply.  Agriculture uses 70% of water, because industrial agriculture requires large amounts of water.  For example, it takes 3 cubic metres of water to produce a kilo of cereals, and 15 cubic metres of water to produce a kilo of beef. Some industries, including electronics, also require a lot of water to facilitate production.

Some surface water is also polluted, and thus not available for human use.  If polluted water is used, it results in health problems; five million people worldwide die from water-borne diseases.

The climate change crisis also affects water supplies.  The increased melting of glaciers reduces water supply.  The shrinking of Himalayan glaciers that feed many great rivers in India, China and Southeast Asia is expected to cause an ecological catastrophe.

Present production systems did not consider the issues of water intensity and limits to water supplies. 

Already there is growing competition for water use between households, agriculture and industry, and this will get worse.  Agricultural and industrial methods should now be re-assessed; in future methods that require low water use should be chosen or developed.  And wastage of household water use should be reduced.

Another issue is the ownership and distribution of water. Barlow describes the recent policies to privatise water, which until recently was under direct control of government authorities.

This has led to adverse effects on people’s access to water.  Barlow’s book documents the fight by citizen groups in many countries to make water a public good.

This was given a boost in 2011 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution making access to water and sanitation a human right. 

People everywhere thus have a right to water.  The challenge is how to make this right a reality.  This will require changes in our societies.  Conserving water has to be given top priority.  The way we treat forests and organise agriculture and industry has to change. 

And water should not be seen as a commodity for commercial revenue but a right for people to enjoy.