Water should be central to development and climate change strategies. Over half the world could live in water-stressed areas by 2050 due to population growth, climate change, and increasing demand for water per capita. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, this would put at risk approximately $63 trillion of the global economy just 39 years from today. By 2030 global water demand could be 40% more than the current supply. This could change with new agricultural practices, policy changes, and intelligently applied new technologies. Otherwise conflicts over trade-offs among agricultural, urban, and ecological uses of water are likely to increase, along with the potential for mass migrations and wars. Although water-related conflicts are already taking place, water-sharing agreements have been reached even among people in conflict and have led to cooperation in other areas.
Today, some 2.4 billion people live in water-scarce regions. Falling water tables worldwide and increasing depletion of sustainably managed water lead some to introduce the concept of “peak water,” similar to peak oil. Nevertheless, the world is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) target on drinking water, but it is likely to miss the MDG sanitation target by almost 1 billion people. Since 1990, an additional 1.3 billion people gained access to improved drinking water and 500 million got better sanitation. Yet 884 million people still lack access to clean water today (down from 900 million last year), and 2.6 billion people still lack access to safe sanitation. Nature also needs sufficient water to be viable to support all life.
About 80% of diseases in the developing world are water-related; most are due to poor management of human excreta. At least 1.8 million children under five die every year due to unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and the lack of hygiene. Diarrheal disease in children under 15 has a greater impact than HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. The World Health Organization estimates that every dollar invested in improved sanitation and water produces economic benefits that range from $3 to $34, depending on the region and types of technologies applied.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of human usage of fresh water; the majority of that is used for livestock production. Such water demands will increase to feed growing populations with increasing incomes. Global demand for meat may increase by 50% by 2025 and double by 2050, further accelerating the demand for water per capita. The UN estimates that $50–60 billion annually between now and 2030 is needed to avoid future water shortages. Some 30% of global cereal production could be lost in current production regions due to water scarcity, yet new areas in Russia and Canada could open due to climate change. Cooling systems for energy production require large amounts of water. Energy demand may increase 40% in 20 years; coupled with increased food demands, dramatic changes in water management will be required.
Breakthroughs in desalination, such as pressurization of seawater to produce vapor jets, filtration via carbon nanotubes, and reverse osmosis, are needed along with less costly pollution treatment and better water catchments. Future demand for fresh water could be reduced by saltwater agriculture on coastlines, producing pure meat without growing animals, increasing vegetarianism, fixing leaking pipes, and the reuse of treated water.
Development planning should integrate the lessons learned from producing more food with less water via drip irrigation and precision agriculture, rainwater collection and irrigation, watershed management, selective introduction of water pricing, and successful community-scale projects around the world. Plans should also help convert degraded or abandoned farmlands to forest or grasslands; invest in household sanitation, reforestation, water storage, and treatment of industrial effluents in multipurpose water schemes; and construct eco-friendly dams, pipelines, and aqueducts to move water from areas of abundance to scarcity. Just as it has become popular to calculate someone’s carbon footprint, people are beginning to calculate their “water footprint.” The UN General Assembly declared access to clean water and sanitation to be a human right.
Challenge 2 will have been addressed seriously when the number of people without clean water and those suffering from water-borne diseases diminishes by half from their peaks and when the percentage of water used in agriculture drops for five years in a row.
Africa: Africa’s rapid urbanization has outpaced its capacity to provide sufficient water; the population without such access has nearly doubled since 1990 to over 55 million today. The ZAMCOM (Zambezi Watercourse Commission) agreement to consolidate regional water management in southern Africa needs ratification by one more of the eight countries sharing the Zambezi river basin to come into effect. In the meantime, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe moved ahead and signed a memorandum of understanding to improve power generation along the river. Foreign aid covers up to 90% of some sub-Saharan African countries’ water and sanitation expenditures. Without policy changes, this region will not meet the MDG target on water until 2040 and the one on sanitation until 2076. Uganda launched a €212 Kampala Lake Victoria Water and Sanitation project to upgrade and rehabilitate water supply and sanitation in urban and peri-urban Kampala. The “Safe Water for Africa” partnership plans to raise over $20 million to provide safe water to at least 2 million Africans by 2012. Since the majority of Africa depends on rain-fed agriculture, upgrading rain-fed systems and improving agricultural productivity will immediately improve millions of lives. Putting sanitation facilities in some village schools could bring girls back to school.
Asia and Oceania: Asia has 60% of the world’s population but only 28% of its fresh water. Inadequate sanitation costs the economies of four Southeast Asian countries the equivalent of about 2% of their GDP. Agriculture accounts for between 65% and 90% of national water consumption across the Middle East, and underground aquifers are rapidly depleting. Yemen may have the first capital city to run out of water; it has the world’s second-fastest growing population; its water tables are falling by 6.5 feet per year, and increasing water prices could spark social unrest. A massive infrastructure project plans to take water from the Yangtze River Basin and supply Beijing by 2014. In the meantime, the Beijing government will set aside $3.5 million to buy water from other provinces in 2011. More than 70% of China’s waterways and 90% of its groundwater are contaminated; 33% of China’s river and lake water is unfit for even industrial use; deep-groundwater tables have dropped by up to 90 meters in the Hai river basin. The water situation in China is expected to continue to get worse for the next six to nine years under the best-case scenarios. With only 8% of the world’s fresh water, China has to meet the needs of 22% of the world’s population. Forced migration due to water shortages has begun in China, and India should be next. The Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges, and Indus are among the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. India feeds 17% of the world’s people on less than 5% of the world’s water and 3% of its farmland. Mobile and nearly waterless public toilets that need to be cleaned only once a week will be piloted in Delhi, India. Saltwater intrusion into Bangladeshi coastal rivers reaches 100 miles inland and will increase with climate change. By 2050, an additional 1.5 billion m3 of water will be needed in the Middle East, of which about a third will be allocated to the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. Chapter 10 of the Middle East Geneva Accords explains how to resolve Israeli-Palestinian water issues.
Europe: In 2009–10, water scarcity occurred in much of Southern Europe: the Czech Republic, Cyprus, and Malta reported continuous water scarcity; France, Hungary, the UK, Portugal, and Spain reported droughts or rainfall levels lower than the long-term average. The EU is to conduct a Policy Review for water scarcity and droughts in 2012. EU took Portugal to court for failing to submit river basin plans, an obligation under the EU Water Framework Directive. Water utilities in Germany pay farmers to switch to organic operations because it costs less than removing farm chemicals from water supplies. Spain is the first country to use the water footprint analysis in policymaking. The European Commission launched a €40-million fund to improve access to water in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific. The world’s largest reserves of fresh water are in Russia, which could export water to China and Middle Asia.
Latin America: The region has 31% of the world’s fresh water, yet 50 million people there have no access to safe drinking water, 125 million lack sanitation services, and 40% live in areas that hold only 10% of the region’s water resources. The region’s water demand could increase 300% by 2050. Mexico launched “2030 Water Agenda” for universal water access and wastewater treatment. Costa Rica needs to invest $2.4 billion to improve water and sanitation conditions by 2030. El Salvador will be hit hardest by water shortages in the region. Glaciers are shrinking, risking the region’s water, agriculture, and energy security; 68% of the region’s electricity is from hydroelectric sources. Water crises might occur in megacities within a generation unless new water supplies are generated, lessons from both successful and unsuccessful approaches to privatization are applied, and legislation is updated for more reliable, transparent, and consistent integrated water resources management.
North America: The U.S. may have passed its “peak water” level in the 1970s. More than 30 states are in litigation with their neighbors over water. Some 13% of Native American households have no access to safe water and/or wastewater disposal, compared with 0.6% in non-native households. Each kilowatt-hour of electricity in the U.S. requires about 25 gallons of water for cooling, making power plants the second largest water consumer in the country (39% of all water withdrawals) after agriculture. Western Canada’s tar sands consume an estimated 20–45 cubic meters of water per megawatt-hour, nearly 10 times that for conventional oil extraction. Canada is mapping its underground water supplies to help policymakers prevent water shortages. Government agricultural water subsidies should be changed to encourage conservation.
To contribute to finding a solution for this challenge, please click here.