Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the World's Water Problems
- Aug 12, 2010
- "Water is the driver of Nature."
- —Leonardo da Vinci
Why Is Water Important?
Twenty years ago, it was rare for water to be in the news. Today, in some parts of the world, it is unusual not to see an article about water, or lack of it, in newspapers and influential magazines on a weekly basis. Furthermore, water shortages have occurred in areas previously considered well-endowed with rainfall including Southeast England and parts of the southeastern United States (Georgia, for instance). Authorities are now starting to realize that water supplies are not infinite, and the general public is now realizing that taking 30 minute showers and hosing down driveways might be rather profligate ways of behaving. Elsewhere, in drier regions, reduced water availability has not only caused crop failures and starvation in developing countries, but is threatening economic development in the developed and developing worlds. While climate change will undoubtedly have an increasing impact on water availability and food production over the coming decades, there are many other factors including urbanization and industrialization, people's changing diets, and biofuels production that already affects and will increasingly impact water availability. The growing twenty-first century "water gap" between supply and demand is going to have major ramifications for the entire planet. This book examines how and why it has developed, its causal factors, and where its consequences will be most severe.
In the years following the Second World War until about 1990, availability of water resources was not seen as a factor that might ultimately limit development except in the driest countries. Just as in the case of land, water resources were viewed as an almost free good there for the taking, and governments and private investors gave them little thought. Where water resources problems existed, these were generally associated with water quality. However, in the western world more stringent environmental laws, applied over the last 50 years, have seen many rivers being returned from little more than open sewers to relatively clean systems capable of supporting significant aquatic life once again.
Yet in the same time period in many countries, politicians allocated water to agricultural and other users as if it were an infinite resource. There seemed to be no realization that water could or would eventually become scarce. Many developing countries had little or no policy or regulation focused on water resources management. By the mid-1980s water resources were showing signs of stress particularly in some Middle Eastern countries and also in developed countries including Australia and the Southwestern United States. At the turn of the millennium numerous countries were facing water scarcity. Then came 2008, a year of crises, which saw a food crisis, a fuel crisis, and a financial meltdown. The 2007–2008 food crisis was primarily one of supply and demand imbalance, although world food stocks did reach alarmingly low levels. While many people don't realize it, there are direct relationships between the food crisis and water scarcity that were manifest initially through drought in various regions. The growing world population and its increasing demand for food has undoubtedly been the primary driver behind increasing demand for water. Dietary changes from cereal- and vegetable-based to more animal-based foods have also caused increasing agricultural demand for water. Water requirements for the production of a kilo of beef can be as high as 3000 gallons, as is demonstrated later in this book. Similarly, the fuel crisis pushed up the price of biofuels, thus creating competition with food production for land and water. The financial crisis may also have profound ongoing impacts on water resources availability as billions of dollars of investment are needed in many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa to build water infrastructure. The extent to which the financial crisis will reduce overseas aid spending is uncertain. However, in times of financial stringency, it is much harder for all borrowers, including governments, to access funds for infrastructure development. The 2007–2008 food crisis has come and gone, but a delayed monsoon in India in 2009 again alerted authorities to the precarious relationship between food insecurity and water availability. As we move through the twenty-first century, the underlying fundamental problems of concern to water resources management include continued population growth, the rapidly growing megacities, general urbanization and industrialization across the globe, biofuels production, and the increasing effects of climate change. All have to be reckoned with as we struggle to ensure that there is enough water for people, food, and the environment. Sadly, the last of these, the environment, always loses out in such competition for water, and it is no coincidence that very significant declines in biodiversity, particularly in aquatic habitats, have occurred over the last few decades as development and consequent pollution have increased.
Given the pressures that water resources now find themselves under from all sectors of the economy and the environment, there is, in our view, an emerging world water crisis. While the severity of the water crisis may vary geographically, unless we find adequate solutions, its consequences—in the form of famine, environmental decline, social and public unrest, and migration—may impact both water-scarce and water-rich countries. Whether these ramifications result in water riots or wars, as postulated by some commentators, will depend on both the availability of innovative, science-based solutions to water scarcity and on governments' ability to reform water governance and ensure socially equitable outcomes for all water users. However, it is significant to note the comments of Professor Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University, who has pointed out that there has not been a significant war over water for approximately 4500 years and that water issues have often resulted in political agreement between peoples.1
As well as exploring the key factors that control water availability, scarcity, and use and to determine what increasing demand will do to global water resources, this book also looks at ways in which we can learn to use and manage our water resources better, with more innovation and with greater equity between all water users.