Water Worlds – Scarcity and Access

Originally posted on Reuters AlertNet


The world is in the midst of a water crisis. The typical story is that fresh water supplies are running out and that we are bleeding the earth dry.

Water, one of the fundamentals for all life, is getting scarcer so we need to value it more and manage the fresh water resources to ensure that they don’t run out. But the real story goes deeper than that.

There is solid evidence behind concerns over scarcity. The 2030 Water Resources Group suggests the world will face a 40 percent global shortfall between forecast demand and available supply by 2030, and that by then more than a third of the global population will be living in river basins coping with significant water stress.

The negative effects of this water stress can be felt across the world’s ecosystems as rivers silt up, habitats are destroyed and people struggle to farm and grow crops.

Lack of water has a huge impact on food security, and in extreme cases such as we’re currently seeing in the Horn of Africa, a water stressed area can be easily pushed into famine.

This growing scarcity, worsened by demand growth and climate change, means that we need to work out how to fairly share a finite resource as well as how to use water that we have more effectively.

But that is only one part of the crisis – the scarcity challenge is intertwined with a second, less-acknowledged dimension of the global water crisis – the “challenge of access”.

Some 884 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water, for them this is a crisis happening right  now – preventable diarrhoea kills more children in sub-Saharan Africa than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

This puts a huge disease burden on the health systems in developing countries and holds back overall economic development.

If we are to really tackle the global water crisis, we must realise that scarcity and lack of access are intimately linked. Fairly sharing a finite resource cannot happen without universal access; and universal access is threatened by physical limits to the resource and political attention being diverted by more visible issues.

Solving these interlocking challenges is deeply linked to addressing other major issues, including energy, food and climate change.
Water worlds

Water is used in a wide range of ways, so water means different things to different people – and water issues are talked about separately depending on the context. I have loosely characterised these “water worlds” below:

•    Water stewardship – Focus on management of water resources and ecosystems. Key issues include: efficiency of use; cost-recovery; management and distribution.
•    Water and sanitation poverty – Focus on access to improved water sources by the most marginalised of society. Key issues include: addressing political and power dynamics of access.
In addition, these “worlds” interact with others
•    Food Security – predominantly concerned with agricultural supply, price dynamics, and production efficiency.
•    Millennium Development Goals – particularly nutrition (MDG 1, 4, 5, 6), but also maternal health (MDG 5), child mortality (MDG 4), education (MDG 2) and gender equality (MDG 3).
•    Climate change – the common narrative is that climate change is all about water – too much, too little, the wrong type. This is true for surface water, but much more complicated for groundwater.

Pooling the waters

Tackling the global water crisis means that these ‘water worlds’ need to be linked. Yet, to date the growing number of water security initiatives fails to take into account the human dimension of exclusion. For example, the 2030 Water Resources Group’s ‘Charting our Water Future’ breaks new ground in finding practical ways of meeting growing demand, but is largely irrelevant in the context of the least developed countries, with no mention of access or the debilitating impact of WASH poverty on economies. If decision makers around the world really want to tackle the world’s water crisis, then they need to take action to address both scarcity and access.
Experts from around the world will meet next week in Stockholm – if they can step outside their boundaries and work together with others, it’ll go a long way to turn this crisis into a real opportunity to show how economy, environment and development can be addressed together to unlock green growth.