Our way to water crisis

More and more, water is becoming a stringent issue in the academical, but also international arena.

Following the 6th World Water Forum that was held in Marseille, today’s water crisis is not that much a matter of natural depletion, but more of a man-made and political issue, which calls for a better governance regarding its share worldwide, and cooperation for protection.

Global warnings

At the world level, despite the fact that water covers 75% of the surface (what we call the “Blue Planet”), the proportion of effectively available fresh water is slightly less impressive. Oceans and seas representing 97,5% of total water stocks, the freshwater left (2,5/3%) is in its bigger part prisoner of glaciers ( Antarctica and Greenland represent 65% of fresh water stocks), or groundwater, letting the drinkable water actually reachable at the level of 0, 26 % of total water stocks [1]. According to the FAO, over 1, 4 billion km3 of water on earth, only 45000 km3 are drinkable water and 9000 to 14000 km3 are reachable.

This quantity of water is however stable because it is renewable and thanks to the ‘water cycle’ it regenerates itself in its different forms: icecaps, but also rivers and groundwater [2]. However humans’ use of this water, on-going with economical development, is challenging this apparent stability. Humanity would have already appropriated more than a half of the world’s accessible freshwater runoffs [3]. Water consumption rate at the global level is nowadays four times higher than in 1950 [4]. And this phenomenon is nowadays worsening, with the on-going degradation of the water resources, related to the overexploitation, mainly in the agricultural sector, but also pollutions and salinization due to the rise of ocean level.

Today, more than 1, 1 billion people don’t have access to drinking water. Due to extreme climatic events as droughts, related to climate change, or simply lack of economical access to water, thousands of people have already been displaced, mostly in Africa. Meanwhile, violent precipitations and inundations are hitting the coasts of more temperate countries.

Pollution and lack of effective waste-water systems cause the death of more than five million people per year. [5]

There is enough water

However, despite of the common belief in shortage of water, there is enough water on earth for everybody [6]. If approximately one third of the planet’s population does not have access to more than one litre of drinking water per day, it can be better explained by the structural water scarcity of certain regions, added to the weaknesses in terms of socio-economic development [7].

Hubert Savenije wrote in March 2000; “thirst[…]is not a problem of water scarcity; it is a problem of water management. There is enough water, virtually everywhere in the world, to provide people with their basic needs: drinking, cooking and personal hygiene» [8].

Water itself is not lacking, but it is subject of huge discrepancies in its distribution around the world – mostly linked to climatic trends related to precipitation rates and temperatures. While some regions are subject to droughts and lack of precipitations, others suffer from floods. The water crisis, in this sense, is better defined by a ‘water gap’ pointing at the inequalities between the regions of the world which have a natural access to available and ‘safe’ fresh water basins, and those which struggle with water stress and for which water become a stringent issue and a matter of survival [9].

The water gap is most likely to increase according to all today’s scientific forecasts. Water resources are indeed facing more and more pressures together with the demographic growth and the associated changes in technologies, diets, and more widely ways of life, implied by economic development. World population is expected to rise up to 9 billion by 2050, a growth that is already mostly taking place in emerging countries where consumption habits are changing rapidly. The global rise of the population is most likely to pressure food availability as well: Already 70% of world total water withdrawals are in the agricultural sector, and “food security” will be one of the biggest challenges Humanity will have to face in the coming years. In addition, there will be a growing demand for high water-consumer products, such as meat and industrial goods, in a ‘Western-style’ development direction. In parallel, the probability of an Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) – in which water withdrawals per capita would initially rise and then decline with the income increase, has not been yet totally verified [10].

A man-made issue

This water gap corresponds also more or less to the economic notion of poverty gap [11]. Most of the countries which will probably face situations of water stress are emerging. Developing countries which often have not enough economic and financial resources to develop sustainable systems of extraction, storage or distribution, leading to main aggravating consequence: the degradation. Specifically, it shows itself as degradation of current water resources’ quality, which is very problematic in terms of health conditions–especially in cities; and also as the degradation of future resources in pressuring the countries to extract always more water and further contributing to the degradation of resources and ecosystems. Moreover, one can assume that with the current Climate Change affecting all the parts of the planet, the developed or not, there is a bigger risk to see the development of a preference towards “Corrèze rather than Zambèze”, in Marc Laimé’s words, and to see a diminution of the public financial help for development in Least Developed Countries (LDC) or developing countries, to the benefit of developed countries’ affected regions [12]. Water as a factor or even an essential basis for economic development is here in the heart of a future crisis, aggravating water access, but also famine and poverty.

Fundamentally, behind natural pressures, the water issue is a man-made problem, an issue that is highly related to political repartition of the resources rather than only natural distribution. The worrying forecasts for the coming years – in 2030, only 60% of the global demand could be satisfied [13], and 47 % of the world’s population should be living in areas of high water stress [14]– call then for an improvement – if not the very creation- of an international governance regarding the share of waters, especially in water scarce regions. While 1997 United Nations Convention regarding the share of International Watercourses has still not been ratified, the absence of binding international agreements has led to the use of a contradictory customary law allowing the states to act in their current interest, regardless of their neighbours, the ecosystems, and the next generations, leading to some sadly famous environmental disasters such as the Aral Sea dryness and the on-going depletion of the Dead Sea; not evoking the human and economic dramas linked to waters depletion.

The 6th World Water Forum that was held in Marseille last March called for a “Time for solutions”. Nowadays water kills more, by its absence, than any war claims through guns [15]. Hopefully, solutions will be on time.

[1] Freshwater designates water which contains less than one gram of dissolved solid matters per liter, i.e. drinkable water.

[2] It basically designates the way the water from the sea evaporates –with temperature- and then fall under the form of precipitations over the continents; precipitations which will feed groundwater as well as rivers, and go back to the sea. In this way the amount of water is always stable.

[3] Water use and economic growth : is there an EKC for water use ?, in Water, economic growth, and conflict: three studies, by David L. Katz, 2008, p.1

[4] 917m3, according to Pierre-Alain Clément, Improbable war or Impossible peace? , Raoul-Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic studies, UQAM, February 10, 2010, http://nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=145813 p.2

[5] Dying from water related diseases “that are mostly preventable”, Flavia Loures, Dr. Alistair Rieu-Clarke, Marie-Laure Vercambre, Ibid., p.5

[6]« L’eau est abondante à la surface de la Terre. En 1999, chaque habitant disposait statistiquement de 6 700 m3 [d’eau douce] et devrait disposer de 4 800 m3 en 2025. […] [L]e seuil de contrainte ou d’alerte [est] évalué à moins de 1 700 m3 d’eau par an et par habitant. » Frédéric Lasserre, « Introduction » in Frédéric Lasserre et Luc Descroix (dir.), Eaux et territoires : tensions, coopérations et géopolitique de l’eau, Sainte-Foy, Presses de l’Université du Québec, 2002, pp. 1 et 8.

[7] Ulrich Albrecht, « War over Water? », Journal of European Area Studies, mai 2000, p. 14.

[8]Hubert Savenije, « Water Scarcity Indicators: The Deception of the Numbers », Physics and Chemistry of the Earth (B),mars 2000, p. 199

[9] Term used in Maria Mutagamba (Minister of State (water) of Uganda and President of the African Ministerial Council on Water, Bridging the Water Gap, 2003 http://www.ourplanet.com/imgversn/161/mutagamba.html

[10] David L.Katz, Ibid., 2008, p.10

[11] Up to now, Today, an average American citizen would consume 600 liters a day and a European 100 to 200 liters a day; while some inhabitants in developing countries live with less than 25 liters daily.

[12] In his article, Marc Laimé explains that with increased Climate Change effects, also in industrialized countries, Governments of the Northern countries will more likely invest in adaptation measures for their own sake face to dramatic events such as droughts or floods, in ‘Corrèze’; rather than invest money to other parts of the world, suffering from the same, or other Climate changeinduced challenges. Marc Laimé, Pourquoi plus d’un milliard d’êtres humains n’ont-ils pas accès à l’eau ?, Carnets d’Eau, Le Monde Diplomatique, Friday, March 14th, 2008 http://blog.mondediplo.net/2008-03-14-Pourquoi-plus-d-un-milliard-d-etreshumains-n-ont

[13] According to the Water Resources Group 2030, in its report “Executive Summary : Charting our water future, Economic frameworks to inform decision-making”, 2009

[14]According to the OECD’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report.

[15] United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). (2006). Human Development Report 2006, Beyond scarcity: power, poverty, and the global water crisis