EXPERT VIEWS: Climate change is wild card in water security -- SEI analysts

by Julie Mollins | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 09:15 GMT
Thinking creatively about water management is not enough when our planet is threatened by a multitude of problems

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By Julie Mollins

LONDON (AlertNet) - We can think creatively about water management, but unknown large global threats could cause a fundamental reorganisation of life on Earth, according to a water expert with the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).

“A doomsday scenario would be that if the Greenland ice sheet melts, and then there’s six metres of sea-level rise -- all bets are off,” said David Purkey,  a senior scientist who heads SEI’s Northern California office. “I think we’ve got bigger problems than water scarcity at that moment.”

“What happens when L.A. has to evacuate, when New York has to evacuate? At that point, I wonder whether rational conversations about water management will be what we’re having.”

In a separate interview, Arno Rosemarin, senior research fellow at SEI’s EcoSanRes (ecological sanitation research) programme, told AlertNet that water security problems will be compounded by global population growth, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050.

Rosemarin cautioned that climate change could also have an unknown impact on vulnerable urban populations in ever-expanding cities.

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“We aren’t going to have enough water,” Rosemarin said. When you add factors like weather changes, drought and flooding -- you can’t manage -- it’s like a monster and that’s not water supply that’s a disaster.”

Treating greywater and sewage to be re-used in urban agriculture -- using less water, more efficient taps and appliances -- even choosing to eat fried food instead of boiled, are just a few water-management tactics Rosemarin recommends.

Q: How do you see growing water scarcity reshaping the world by 2050?

A: David Purkey:

In the arid and semi-arid parts of the world there's already scarcity and conflict being felt and I think those arid and semi-arid regions of the world could see the most severe impacts from changing climates as well ... I don’t think that it’s going to be a uniform level of increasing scarcity everywhere.

I fall into the catchment of people that don’t necessarily believe that water is the next “oil” and that we'll be fighting world wars over it – because I think ... as the stresses get higher, people have more and more incentive to find solutions. It's probably easier to negotiate those solutions than it is to fight a war...There are political difficulties to overcome, but certainly there needs to be a government structure that people can trust to negotiate and search for solutions.

Once that’s in place I think there needs to be much more transparency about data and information. ... I think there really needs to be a de-politicisation of data....There are many examples where they have created these kinds of government structures but then they are just basically shelved because they are not empowered to really make decisions . . . the next challenge is to improve their efficiency.

A: Arno Rosemarin:

Disaster risk reduction is where the climate-change debate is going and it will be with water at the centre -- either too little water or too much water. Water going mad in sea level changes as well as flooding . . . aggravated by the fact that the population is increasing. The vulnerability of people in cities will increase as the population goes up. They’ll be sharing resources and be more crowded.

The poor cities are not set up for saving lives. They just have to say there’s a risk, you’re taking a risk, there’s going to be a certain kill either through disease or just the physical damage. The U.N. have an institute -- an international strategy for disaster risk reduction -- the UNISDR. I think this will become a much more vigorous policy arena over the next 20 years.

Everything will be cased in terms of reduction of risks and that means building infrastructure with flooding in mind and also drought-proofing agriculture systems, water storage, green water policies. Irrigation can’t feed 9 billion people. Rain-fed agriculture will be able to feed that extra 2 billion and even 3 billion -- more harvesting systems, storage systems. Then, I think we can get enough water to feed people. I think we also have to start using the grasslands...The future of meat production is probably rain-fed grasslands and not feed-based systems that are using irrigation and fertilisers. So meat will cost way too much.

Q: Do you think cities or rural areas will see more problems with water in the future?

A: David Purkey:

I think they'll be felt in both urban and rural areas ... the amount of water that people need to do their drinking, bathing and washing – there's plenty of water for that even in arid areas -- it’s the dedication of water to agriculture which is the main consumer of water. In some places the political power of cities is resulting in some transfer of water from agriculture and rural areas to urban water supply and also to other uses of water. I think the potential place where water will be transferred from – in cases where there’s real scarcity and there’s just not enough water to go around – would be from irrigated agriculture... If you look at the amount of water consumed by people it’s relatively small compared to things like water that’s consumed by growing food, producing energy. If we didn’t do any of those things there are very few basins in the world where there wouldn’t be enough water for people to drink and meet their basic needs.

The alternative viewpoint is that it will lead to people killing each other over water and I just don’t subscribe to that … We’ve seen places where people actually have solved water management problems. I guess I just personally am an optimist more than a pessimist -- I really believe that as these systems get increasingly stressed there will be an increasing need and commitment to finding a solution. And it will take money.

I think it’s important to make a distinction between access and scarcity. Where there’s scarcity, where there really isn’t enough water to go around, there have to be choices made and that’s where you need good governance to be able to figure out what the right choices are – otherwise they will be made by the powerful . . . It’s when water is dedicated to things like irrigated agriculture that consumes most of the water that access issues arise, but then there’s that trade-off conversation about what is it that we want to achieve with the resources we have.

A: Arno Rosemarin:

If the price is right people will become more efficient and won’t waste as much. I think that’s the challenge for the next 20 years as cities increase in size. Right now, we have 50 percent urbanites, by 2050 we’ll have 70 or 75 percent urbanites. Urbanites don’t understand or care about where the water came from or where the water is going -- that’s what has to change. Rural people know it because they have to carry it, they have to pump it, whereas in the city you don’t see it and you turn a faucet on. So that’s a big, big difference.

And then there’s the leakage system -- that’s what they call “non-revenue water” from a utilities company point of view, but that’s a euphemism for badly-maintained pipes. They just figure out ways to charge consumers to pay for leaky pipes -- you just keep charging more and more because you’re producing more and more water but it isn’t getting to the consumers it’s leaking out.

When it comes to irrigation much, much more efficient systems have to be brought in. Electricity for pumping, fuel used in pumping, all of that causes farmers to say they have to become much more efficient and also make decisions about what sort of crops to grow.

Q: What else is important to improve water security?

A: David Purkey:

I think that the management challenges of water are very real. There are numerous places around the world where there are real inefficiencies and inequities in the way water is managed and allocated -- that’s what we’re talking about is allocation and who gets to use it for what. In a number of places in the world those disputes around those allocations are becoming real and very conflict-laden and I do think that the resolution of those is based on governance, information and shared analytical frameworks that allow people to address the disputes in question which really are about interests and values. If we have a commitment to negotiate then solutions can be discovered.

A: Arno Rosemarin:

The big big thing is getting people to understand how vulnerable they are to water scarcity -- either dirty water which means you can’t use it or just not having water at all. And then understanding where it comes from, how valuable it is and where it goes. That understanding, that social learning I think is the most important thing for the next 20 years.  Each individual has to take it that on with a personal agenda and do something about it. And no cheating here. We have to make sure we’re making an honest attempt in our systems, in our politicians, in our family use and our farmer use.  

When we get dialogue going with social learning you’ll see we could probably have enough water for 9 billion people. Otherwise, there’s no way. We’re killing 10,000 people every day because of malnutrition and a lot of that has come from a lack of water. We’re killing 4,000 kids a day because of dirty water and a lot of those are the same people that also have malnutrition. That’s not going away -- humans not understanding that they are part of an ecosystem. There’s a physiological challenge and social learning challenge -- I think that’s the missing component I think in this whole debate. It shouldn’t be one of just technology and statistics.

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