Politics

Water Scarcity, Excess And The Geopolitics Of Allocation

Water Scarcity, Excess And The Geopolitics Of Allocation by Knowledge@Wharton

“When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water,” said Benjamin Franklin.

Much of the world has taken water for granted over the years, but that situation is quickly changing. Today, the use of this essential resource is being more closely scrutinized as shortages proliferate worldwide. Population growth, the rising middle class and urbanization increasingly are stressing existing resources. At the same time, water security and geopolitical stability depend on resolving global and local tensions affecting efficient and equitable use. This special report, based on a conference held in March and organized by the Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies, offers a comprehensive look at the potential challenges and solutions facing the future of water globally.

For example, estimates suggest that by 2030 almost four billion people — nearly half of the world’s predicted population — will live in areas with serious water shortages, mostly in Africa, Australia, East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Already, nearly 700 million people lack access to clean drinking water and about 2.8 billion face water scarcity during at least one month a year. Beyond drinking water and its role in food production, water is also essential for almost every source of energy — about 90% percent of all electric power generation is water-intensive.

So there is no shortage of challenges regarding water. Yet, a variety of technologies — from desalination to wastewater reuse, and from information-driven innovations to new market-based mechanisms — have the potential to improve efficiency and open up other solutions. More generally, sharing the world’s water wealth will require better management, infrastructure and technology but also delicate diplomacy, especially given the potential effects of climate change on the world’s hydrology.

Executive Summary

Water is an essential resource whose use is increasingly coming under scrutiny as acute and chronic shortages proliferate around the world. Population growth, the rise of the global middle class, and urbanization are putting stress on existing water resources. Water security and geopolitical stability are contingent on the effective resolution of both the global and the local tensions affecting the efficient and equitable use of this resource.

Water is normally considered to be a renewable resource, but its quality and distribution around the world are the subject of innumerable debates, frictions, and conflicts. Most natural disasters, as many as 90 percent, are water related. Major refugee crises have erupted as a result of droughts or conflicts over water. The OECD has estimated that by the year 2030 almost four billion people—nearly half of the world’s predicted population—will live in areas with serious water shortages, mostly in Africa, Australia, East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Nearly 700 million people lack access to clean drinking water, and about 2.8 billion face water scarcity during at least one month a year. The scarcity problem can be driven by physical/environmental or
economic factors. Some parts of the world lack enough water to support present and future population levels, while in other areas, water scarcity is due to economic reasons such as lack of infrastructure or mismanagement of resources. Water pollution further limits supplies.

More than two-thirds of worldwide human-related water consumption is for agricultural purposes, while industrial usage accounts for 20 percent and households for the remaining 10 percent. Sustainability in agriculture thus poses the greatest challenge, and it involves not just the efficient use of water but also the judicious use of soil, fertilizers, and other inputs. New irrigation techniques, genetically modified waterefficient crops, wastewater reuse, and to some extent desalination may increase water efficiency while reducing soil pollution, but may never become the fix to our growing water needs, especially in inland areas. More importantly, behavioral change, especially in terms of dietary preferences (e.g., meat consumption), could make a big difference in terms of reducing water-to-calorie ratios.

Water is also essential for almost every source of energy. According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of all electric power generation is water-intensive. Water is needed to extract, wash, and sort raw materials and fossil fuels; cool thermal power plants; cultivate biofuels; and power hydroelectric turbines. The risks affecting the water-energy connection are manifold. Pollution of aquifers needed for human consumption or agricultural use due to mining or fracking operations is on the rise. Anthropogenically-driven climate change will be a disruptive force, changing precipitation and evaporation rates on land, and more generally changing the systemic interconnections among land, oceans, and the atmosphere. Policymaking and planning needs to take into consideration the constraints and the risks inherent to increasing demand for both water and energy.

Water issues also figure prominently on the global development agenda. According to the 2015 Update of the joint UNICEF and World Health Organization report, 9 percent of the world’s population lacks access to an improved drinking water source. The Sustainable Development Goal for the year 2030 is to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.”

A variety of technologies—from desalination to waste water reuse, and from information-driven innovations to new market-based mechanisms—have the potential of improving efficiency and making available new sources of water and opportunities. An especially important challenge is the diffusion of knowledge and best practices around the world, especially in least developed countries.

The geopolitics of water has also emerged as a new field of study and concern. The Middle East, the Nile, the Colorado River Basin, and the Tibetan Plateau are among the hotspots of geopolitical conflict over water. Sharing the world’s water wealth will require not only better management, infrastructure, and technology but also delicate diplomacy, especially given the potential effects of climate change on the world’s hydrology. Novel technology; new, better-managed, and lower-impact infrastructure; innovative market solutions; effective governance and institutional mechanisms; and education and behavioral change all must play a role in ensuring water sustainability over the long run.

Water Scarcity, Excess And The Geopolitics Of Allocation – Introduction

The Worth of Water

When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water,” said Benjamin Franklin. We take water for granted as essential to our way of life. Water may be a renewable resource, but its quality and distribution around the world are the subject of innumerable debates, frictions, and conflicts. The changing geographical distribution of population growth, the process of urbanization, and the growth of the middle class of consumers will fundamentally reshape the economics and politics of water, according to Lance Donny, Founder and CEO of OnFarm, a provider of farm management data systems. Growing demand for food, which requires huge amounts of water, will be met in the future not so much by expanding the land used for cultivation but by productivity increases. As Charles Vörösmarty, a professor and water expert at the City University of New York, puts it, water is “the great integrator” that brings all  of the great issues of our time together: economic crises, poverty, sustainability, infrastructure, and the role of the state.

Water and water management lie at the root of large-scale human civilization, especially in the wake of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Every major civilization, from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley, Ancient China, and Ancient Rome developed water-management infrastructure and technologies to feed and sustain large concentrations of population. At the same time, most natural disasters, perhaps as much as 90 percent, are water related (United Nations University 2013). Major refugee crises have erupted as a result of droughts or conflicts over water, as in Somalia in 2011 or Sudan and Mali, both in 2012. In its 2011 report, Towards Green Growth, the OECD estimated that by the year 2030 almost four billion people —nearly half of the world’s predicted population — will live in areas with serious water shortages, mostly in East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

More than two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered with water, but 97.5% of that water is salt or brackish, and unsuitable for sustaining life. Linking suitable water sources to human populations remains an enormous challenge. The planet contains about 35 million cubic kilometersof freshwater, or 2.5 percent of the total volume of water. Most of that freshwater, perhaps as much as 70 percent, is also beyond the easy reach of human populations—frozen water in ice sheets, glaciers, permafrost, and permanent snow cover. About 30 percent is groundwater, and less than 1 percent is
in rivers, lakes, wetlands, and other reservoirs. Around 1.2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and about 2.8 billion face water scarcity during at least one month a year. The scarcity problem can be driven by physical or economic reasons. Some parts of the world just lack enough water to support present and future population levels, while in other areas, especially Sub Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia, water scarcity is due to lack of infrastructure, mismanagement of resources, or other economic factors. In some of these regions, women and children spend up to five hours per day procuring water for their families during droughts.

Roughly 70 percent of worldwide human-related water consumption is for agricultural purposes. Industrial usage accounts for 20 percent, leaving the remaining 10 percent for households. Sustainability in agriculture thus poses the greatest challenge for water management, and it involves not just the efficient use of water but also the judicious use of soil, fertilizers, and other inputs. Since only 11 percent of Earth’s surface is suitable for agricultural use, and the indiscriminate use of fertilizers, erosion, and global warming might further reduce it, wise agricultural management is important not only for the present but also for the future. Consumers, governments, NGOs and the agricultural community itself need to continue encouraging long-term planning. Subsidized water prices for agricultural use, which in some cases discourage conservation, pose another serious challenge. New irrigation techniques, genetically modified water-efficient crops, and desalination may expand the universe of opportunities. More importantly, however, behavioral change, especially in terms of protein consumption, could make a big difference in terms of reducing water-to-calorie ratios and reducing the pressure that agriculture exerts on water supplies. As consumers we need to also recognize that we are the ultimate end users of the water that goes into agricultural production.

Water Scarcity, Excess And The Geopolitics Of Allocation

Water Scarcity – See the full report below.

Water Scarcity

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