Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 1 March 2010

The global crisis of water scarcity

While climate change has captured the headlines, the growing scarcity of water is an even more immediate crisis as many countries are running out of freshwater supplies, threatening human health and causing conflicts between nations.


In recent years, climate change seems to have elbowed out other environmental issues to become the number one global problem.  But the alarming world-wide water scarcity is an equally important issue, and an even more immediate threat.

A decade ago, it was predicted that a third of the world’s population would be facing water scarcity by 2025.  But this threshold has already been reached. 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.

It is a now frequently said that water will be in this century what oil was in the last.  Even more dramatic, wars will be fought over water this century, just as wars were and are still being fought over control of these past decades.

“The global population tripled in the 20th century but water consumption went up sevenfold,” noted Maudhe Barlow of the Council of Canadians and an expert on the global water crisis 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.”

There is a rapidly growing demand for freshwater, but its supply is limited and decreasing.

Water supply is affected by the loss of watersheds due to deforestation and soil erosion in hills and mountains. There is also a severe depletion of valuable groundwater resources as water is taken up for agriculture and industry, and is being dug from deeper and deeper sources.  Mining of groundwater has caused the water-table to drop in parts of many countries, including India and China, West Asia, Russia and the United States.

Agriculture uses 70% of water, because industrial agriculture requires large amounts of water.  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 because of the grain fed to the cows.

A lot of surface water is also polluted, and thus not available for human use, or if it is used the polluted water causes health problems.  Five million people die from water-borne diseases annually.

Water supplies are also being affected by climate change.  Global warming is causing an accelerated melting of the glaciers, and there will be less glaciers in future.  For example, the Himalayan glaciers feed many of the great rivers in India, China and Southeast Asia,   “The full scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe,” according to Yao Tandong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.  

The acute water problems facing Yemen are described in the London-based Guardian on 27 February.  The country’s capital Sana’a is predicted to run out of water in 2017 as four times as much water is taken out of its river basin as falls into it each year. Of the country’s 21 main water acquifers, 19 are no longer being replenished after a drought and increased demand. The water situation is so serious the government has considered moving the capital, as well as desalinating the coastal seawater and pumping it 2,000 metres uphill to Sana’a.

Water scarcity has also become a reason for conflict. This is especially when a source of water such as a major river serves more than one country.  The country or countries that have the upper reaches of the river can affect the volume of water flowing into the countries at the lower parts of the river

In Africa, about 50 rivers are each shared by two or more countries.  According to an issue of Population Reports, access to water from the Nile, Zambezi, Niger, and Volta river basins in particular has the potential to ignite conflicts.   It also describes how the Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia is beset by international conflicts over water among Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan which all depend for their survival on the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.

The Middle East has been running out of water.  In that situation the grounds for conflict have increased.  In his recent book “Water”, Steven Solomon describes the growing tension over the sharing of water resources of the Nile especially between Egypt and Ethiopia.  In the Jordan River basin, writes Solomon, “in one of the world’s political hot spots, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians contest to control and divide the scarce resources of a region that long ago ran out of enough freshwater for everyone.”

There can also be similar competition for water within a country, for example between states that share the same river.  According to Population Reports, in the western US, farmers who want more irrigation water face off against urban areas that demand more water for households and other municipal uses In India, Karnataka state was in a water dispute with Andhra Pradesh over the height of a dam on the Krishna River, which could affect the amount of water available for use by both states.

Another issue is the fight over the systems for owning and distributing the scarce water resources.  In her book, Maudhe Barlow describes the recent policies to privatise water, which until recently was under direct control of government authorities.  Privatisation was first carried out in Western countries and then spread to developing countries through World Bank loans and projects.

This has led to adverse effects on people’s access to water, according to Barlow, who also documents the fight by citizen groups in many countries to make water a public good, and to make access to water a human right.

All the above issues should be taken with the same seriousness as climate change, because water is about the most important item needed by everyone, and its scarcity affects both human health and geo-politics. 

As Solomon puts it:  “An explosive new political fault line is erupting across the global landscape between the water Haves and water Have Nots….Simply, water is surpassing oil itself as the world’s scarcest critical resource.  Just as oil conflicts were central to the 20th century history, the struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world order and the destiny of civilization.”

Thus, water must be recognized as a crisis issue and solutions to the crisis should be at the top of the global and national agendas.