Water challenges for today and tomorrow

Scarcity is a complex concept

Is water scarcity/physical shortage a real problem? Although some statistics show that more than 200 million sub-Saharan Africans live in water-short countries (a figure predicted to increase to 700 million by 2025), the 2006 World Water Development Report shows low water stress and adequate supply for most of this region (UN, 2006) - at least on paper. Neither impression is wrong; each highlights how scarcity is not necessarily due to a physical lack of water. What is missing are investments and infrastructure, in particular, and the political will to take firm decisions, in general. Water can be scarce; but sensible decision-making for adapting to available resources and using them sustainably is even scarcer. The effects today are staggering; the implications for tomorrow are scary.

The scandal

On the individual human level, the water supply and sanitation challenges are most acute. As mentioned earlier, it is scandalous that almost 1 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 2.4 billion lack adequate sanitation (WHO and UNICEF, 2008). Every year 12 million people die of easily preventable water-related diseases, including 3800 children who die every day (WHO, 2004). This human catastrophe caused by lack of clean water following poor infrastructure and inefficient water management also represents lost economic and social development opportunities.

To reach the Millennium Development Goal targets in water supply and sanitation requires about US$11.3 billion (WHO and UNICEF, 2005) annually. Yet, only one third of that is being invested. In addition to financial capital through aid as well as private investment, good and effective projects are prerequisites for building sustainable sanitary infrastructure, developing human capacity to deal with the issues locally, and promoting education about good hygiene, etc.

Integration is a must

The future of water resources management will not only have to take into account these gaps in drinking water and sanitation coverage. It will also have to deal with feeding and providing energy for 9 billion people; sustaining economic growth to alleviate poverty; and sustaining economic growth to increase living standards, all the while ensuring environmental sustainability. Issues cannot be solved one by one; integrated approaches in management, albeit easy to say and hard to apply, must be further developed.

There are roadmaps to a sustainable future in the form of top-notch, knowledge-based reports from which good policies and management strategies can be drawn. However, the prevalence of so many reports and analyses is also a weakness, for the planet is assessed through a sectoral or issue-oriented approach. It is fundamentally challenging for policy and decision-makers to find a comprehensive analysis (from the multitude of assessments on water, climate, biodiversity and energy) that presents both the interdependencies and conflicting interests.

Climate change - the ultimate challenge?

Climate change adaptation is a case and point. From 1992 to 2001, nearly 90 per cent of all natural disasters were of meteorological or hydrological origin (UN, 2006). However, our understanding of climate change impacts upon water resources is limited, in part because the interactions are complicated and because the effects are governed by a range of non-climate factors. Modified landscapes and infrastructure development as well as changes in hydrological systems (river modification) strongly influence the effects of climate variability and change. With increased flooding, for example, it is difficult for the planner to understand an essential question: how much of the increase is due to climate change and how much results form non-climate factors?

The most recent authoritative and comprehensive scientific assessment of climate change and the effects on water and society is presented in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007; and, in particular, Kundzewicz et al, 2007). The Human Development Report (HDR) 2007/2008 places climate change in a wider human development perspective (UNDP, 2007). In common, they state that our societies are at great risk and water is a critical factor. The IPCC (2007) predicts increased runoff (leading to more annual water availability) in the high latitudes of North America and Eurasia and in the tropics, while Mediterranean-style climates will see decreased runoff. Changes in the seasonality of runoff due to shifts in the snow/rain ratio in high latitudes and mountainous regions are expected with a high degree of certainty. The Human Development Report (UNDP, 2007), being more policy oriented, states more clearly that large areas of the world face imminent water stress and water availability for human settlements and agriculture will decrease.

Changes in precipitation are not the only important factor. Most mountain glaciers are retreating (Lemke et al, 2007) and, for now, this increases annual net flow of water in rivers. At the same time, however, their storage capacity decreases. When (or if) a glacier eventually disappears, the effects on the seasonal availability of water in downstream regions can be dramatic. The IPCC (2007) states that one sixth of the global population relies part of the year on meltwater from glaciers and permanent snow packs, so the implications are staggering.

For a water resources planner at the local or even national level, the IPCC predictions are still not very helpful: 'There is a scale mismatch between the large-scale climatic models and the catchment scale, which needs further resolution' (Kundzewicz et al, 2007). Although the IPCC stresses the uncertainties in its assessments of future changes in water resources due to climate change, as it should, it clearly points out that there are a range of challenges and risks that need to be considered in future adaptation strategies. These range from the particularly difficult situation related to basic water availability in semi-arid and arid regions, to the complex impacts upon ecosystems and the effects from climate change on the functioning and operation of infrastructure.

For the planner, non-climatic factors need to be considered as well. Adaptation strategies should not disregard such other factors or else the risk will be that investments are made in vain. Land-use changes, large-scale water diversions, changes in consumption patterns, changes in production (agriculture, industry), changes in population and population patterns, etc. will influence both water resources and local regional climates in various ways, sometimes even more than the local regional manifestation of the global climate change. Feedback systems, in reality, become an intrinsic web of relationships and outcomes. Understanding such links forms the foundation for any understanding of the water-climate-society interface.

The potential effects of climate change also need to be revived in a wider risk analysis setting. One in ten humans lives in coastal areas of less than 10m above sea level (McGranahan et al, 2007). These people are not now suddenly living at risk due to climate change. They have always been at risk in these areas; climate change simply changes the dynamic and adds an additional dimension. Clearly, efficient physical planning may be our most powerful adaptation tool.

Urbanization will also drive changes and often imply higher sensitivity to climate change. In 2007 humans for the first time became more urban than rural in real numbers, with more than 50 per cent of the world's population living in cities (UN, 2005), including 900 million in urban slums (UN, 2006). Urbanization adds complexity to understand climate change impact upon water by changing the physical properties (runoff, soil water and groundwater recharge, evaporation, etc.), but also by affecting water consumption trends and management opportunities. Both aspects need to be considered.

Food and energy

Maybe the key driver of our water future will be to cope with biomass production for both food and energy. The Comprehensive Assessment (Molden, 2007) called for drastic changes in how water is used and managed; otherwise there will not be enough water to meet the food, feed and fibre needs of humanity in the coming 50 years. Between 2000 and 2030 the production of food in developing countries needs to increase by 67 per cent. At the same time, a rise in water productivity should make it possible to limit the increase in agricultural water use to about 14 per cent (UN, 2006).

The recent rise of biofuels has altered the water agriculture equation dramatically, with far-reaching consequences unknown just a few years ago. The emergence of biofuels exemplifies the evolving way in which land and water resources are managed. It shows that the increasing complexity makes the task of accurately projecting future scenarios nearly impossible. Land previously used to grow food is now being used to grow crops for biofuel.

One thing this will do is affect the production and price of food crops and increase the amount of water used by agriculture (Molden, 2007). In areas experiencing water stress, biofuel production could reduce the availability of water for more basic needs of people and ecosystems. As Varghese (2007) states: 'the indiscriminate promotion of biofuel development as a "cheap and green" energy option may interfere with optimal water allocation, and/or the pursuit of appropriate public water policies that will help address the water crisis'. Although biofuel feedstock accounts for only 1 per cent of the total area under tillage, and a similar percentage of crop water use, production continues to grow rapidly.

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