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Living in a water insecure world

by Zafar Adeel and Robert Sandford, UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health
Thursday, 21 April 2016 10:47 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The familiar stability of the world’s water cycle won't return in the lifetime of anyone alive today

The familiar stability of the world’s water cycle won't return in the lifetime of anyone alive today. 

We now understand more fully the extent to which the stability of our political structures and global economy are predicated on the predictability of the water cycle -- that is, how much water of certain quality becomes available in what part of the year. 

For generations, global water cycle stationarity has allowed us to confidently anticipate and manage the effects of weather and climate on our energy systems, cities and food production. Engineers and planners working in infrastructure development also rely on this predictability to design and implement long-term projects.

The loss of this stability and resulting water insecurity – such as severe droughts and floods –require innovative and adaptive policy responses. We anticipate that this will transform political, economic and social systems.

Human migration associated in part with climate change is one of the major shifts already underway. Food- and water-insecurity has been one of the drivers of mass movement of people in Africa. Some researchers have correlated extended droughts and urban-to-rural migration in Syria to the triggers of the continued civil war. 

And we are witnessing only the tip of the iceberg.

Our ability to feed growing populations, reduce poverty and sustain prosperity will depend on a greater realization and appreciation of the important nexus formed by water, climate, food and energy -- managing them as a whole, not as separate elements unrelated to one another.

Among a large suite of policy options to achieve water security:

  • Reduce food waste (estimated at up to 40 to 50% worldwide, including Canada), which squanders huge volumes of water and energy used to produce it in the first place
  • Reduction and eventual revocation of subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, and bringing greater water accountability in the energy sector
  • Enhance soil conservation, which worldwide could sequester billions of tons of carbon, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations by an estimated 3 ppm each year
  • Review urban development in floodplains and strengthen emergency response systems
  • Accelerate the restoration of natural wetlands
  • Enhance governmental capacity – human and technological – for integrated policy making

Even the most advanced nations are vulnerable

Meanwhile, we have to start thinking the unthinkable: that extreme events might reverse development, even here in Canada. Figures from the Insurance Bureau of Canada, for example, show the costs of storm-related disaster relief averaged $36 million dollars annually in the 1970s but now amount to over $1 billion a year.

These numbers partly reflect aging infrastructure but they also reveal more frequent and intense flood events. In many cases, infrastructure is sound but not designed to handle the new intensity and frequency of storms.

The issue of water supply and quality is existential for much of the developing world, and touches on most of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed last year at the UN.  We must act urgently to implement the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change, formally signed this month, which provide the necessary policy tools and financial resources.

Timing is critical.  If we do not achieve water security, we face stalled or even reversed development, more people in poverty and greater national insecurity with the potential to heighten international tensions.


Zafar Adeel is Director, and Robert Sandford is the EPCOR Chair for Water and Climate Security, at UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health, the UN's Think Tank on Water, hosted by the Government of Canada and McMaster University. UNU-INWEH is marking it 20th anniversary in 2016.