All hands to the pumps
PlanningResource (UK) | 19 March 2009
The World Economics Forum (WEF) has a chilling way of putting things.
Imagine Planet Earth at the time of the dinosaurs. The amount of water available then was the same as today and homo sapiens had yet to appear on the scene. The big difference today is that the planet has 6.7 billion souls to contend with.
Mankind drinks only about three per cent of the water on the planet, while 70 per cent goes towards agriculture. But at the very time when the world needs more food, the pressures on water have never been greater.
Water scarcity has become the latest member of that unholy pantheon of intractable global problems that includes the financial crisis, terrorism and climate change. The issue underpins numerous policy agendas: food, energy, climate, economic growth and even security.
So much so that 20,000 delegates attended the World Water Forum this week in Istanbul to debate the future. And just like the credit crunch, there are uncomfortable parallels with the state the world is in.
For the first time, experts are pointing to unsustainable water bubbles that will tip the world into chaos - in the same way as known economic risks were ignored only to explode later on.
Already the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that there could be 150 million environmental refugees by 2020. Given the controversy surrounding immigration today, the political consequences of that are immense.
The WEF, best known for running the annual Davos conference of the great and the good, says consumption is outrunning the growth in population to such an extent that significant parts of the world are on the verge of “water bankruptcy”. Around 2.8 billion people already live in areas of high stress.
That will rise to 3.9 billion by 2030. And that means more than half the world’s population will go thirsty. Rising temperatures from climate change will mean less water for much of the planet’s heavily populated areas. After years of argument over “peak oil”, the world is in fact facing an era of “peak water”.
“We are now on the verge of bankruptcy in many places with no way of paying the debt back,” admits the WEF. This scarcity is already hindering economic growth in places as far apart as Australia, California, China, India, the Middle East and Indonesia.
More will follow, with dire consequences for economic and political security. The concept of wars for water has been transformed from nightmare scenario to a very real possibility. A business as usual attitude will lead to disaster.
By 2025, water scarcity could hit up to 30 per cent of the world’s crop yield, with a quarter of India’s harvest alone under threat as groundwater supplies run out.
Then there are the glaciers which act as “water banks” for much of Asia and Latin America. Those in the Himalayas and Tibet alone feed seven of the world’s greatest rivers, providing water supplies for more than two billion people. They are also melting and under current trends most will disappear by 2100.
Global demand for food, especially meat, is rising sharply and is expected to grow by 70 to 90 per cent by 2050, placing more pressure on water for agriculture. Indeed a typical meat eater’s diet needs about 5,400 litres of after a day, twice that of a vegetarian.
Global meat production is projected to rise from 229 million tonnes in 2001 to 465 million, particularly across Asia in response to diet changes.
As demand for food rockets, countries across the world are likely to allocate less water to agriculture and more to the demands of their urban, energy and industrial sectors. By 2030 at the latest, energy production in the USA and the EU will have grown by 50 per cent. This means that water consumption for energy will grow by 165 per cent in the USA and as much as 130 per cent in the EU.
The pincer movement is completed by urbanisation, with 60 per cent of the global population living in cities by 2030. Already 60 per cent of China’s 669 cities are short of water while in Delhi, Dhaka and Mexico City about 40 per cent of the water is either sold illegally or leaks out of the corroded system.
So are there any answers to this looming crisis? Some countries are buying land. Saudi Arabia has set up an investment fund to buy land to grow crops in Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. China is following the same route in southern Africa, as are countries across South Asia and the Gulf.
That aside, there is vague talk about governments introducing “water management reforms” across their agricultural, energy and municipal sectors. Even more opaquely, there are calls for “multi-country discussions on trans-boundary issues, international trade and investment flows”.
What all this bureaucratic jargon may boil down to is how successful governments are in bringing together their populations and business leaders to acknowledge the problem, never mind fixing it. At the very least, this implies huge investment programmes in water infrastructure. In other words, all hands to the pump.
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