Revamping the world's use of water is crucial, expert says

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 6 September 2010 16:20 GMT

LONDON (AlertNet) Â? Rethinking the way the world uses, shares and manages water will be crucial to avoiding conflicts, feeding a growing population and limiting vulnerability to the effects of climate change, a leading water scientist says.

"We have taken water for granted, and what we're seeing is it has gone from an abundant supply to scarcity," said Colin Chartres, head of the International Water Management Institute, an arm of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

"Water scarcity may not be sexy," he said. "But it will become phenomenally important. The tougher it gets for people to access water, the more migration there will be and more political conflict. It's critical."

India, for example, is expected to have a 50 percent gap between supply and demand for water by 2030, according to a study by management consulting firm McKinsey and Company. Southwest China saw its worst drought in 100 years earlier this year, and water shortages are now part of daily life in China, particularly in the arid north.

With 150 water basins of the world running across national boundary lines Â? nearly 70 of them in Africa Â? the risk of conflict over water is likely to increase, even as international commissions struggle to revamp water sharing agreements along major waterways such as AfricaÂ?s Nile and Southeast Asia's Mekong, said Chartres.

And feeding a population expected to grow from 6.7 billion people to 9 billion people by mid-century, including many more people demanding meat and dairy products in places like China and India, will require twice as much food - and the water to produce it.

Finding ways to make the world's limited supplies go further will require not just clever solutions and dogged negotiations but most importantly ideas politicians can get behind, added Chartres, an expert in agriculture and natural resources.

"Politicians won't take up solutions that mean they will be booted out of office," he warned. "So you have to be very, very innovative."

Chartes' new book, "Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the WorldÂ?s Water Problems", looks at the actions likely to help ease water scarcity and avoid conflict, from revamping how water is used for farming and improving water storage to restructuring how the resource is divided up, priced and managed generally.


He says solutions start with gathering and making available good-quality data on just how much water is out there, where it is, and what will happen to it as climate change takes hold. That information today is surprisingly spotty, or not publicly available, handicapping efforts to plan how most effectively to use what's available.

"If we can't measure it, we can't manage it," warns Chartes, who lives in Australia, the world's driest continent.

Finding ways to improve water storage will also be critical, he says. Australia has storage capacity of about 5,000 cubic meters of water per person, and that has proved insufficient in some parts of the country to deal with the increasingly dry conditions climate change is bringing. In Kenya, water storage per person is four cubic meters, he says, one reason the country suffered so terribly during its recent prolonged drought.

Capturing rain and stream water when it is available, storing it behind dams, in reservoirs and channeling it into groundwater aquifers will effectively create "insurance for farmers and communities against the vagaries of climate change", Chartres said.

But storing water can create its own problems, from conflict with communities downstream to growing problems with malaria- or dengue-carrying mosquitoes breeding in standing water, he warned.

In Asia, one of the world's most heavily irrigated regions, farmers will need to find ways to use water more efficiently. And in Africa, irrigation programmes need to be started in regions with abundant groundwater, to ensure farmers now relying on rain can survive when rain patterns change.

Making all the needed changes will require political leadership Â? perhaps the toughest challenge, he said. To alter the way things are done now, "you have to recognise the problem and be prepared to do something about it," he said. The truth is that "the politics will be devilishly hard".

The good news is that a growing number of political leaders, faced with worsening droughts, floods and other extreme weather, now see water and climate-related problems as a current concern Â? one that can cost votes Â? rather than as a distant threat.

In terms of climate change "I think we've missed the boat on mitigation (cutting emissions to curb climate change)," Chartres said. "So what we're faced with is learning to adapt to the changes. And water is the thing that's going to be hit hardest and quickest."

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