Local no longer: water resources and sustainable development

For sustainable development professionals, concerns about water resources have historically been framed as a suite of significant but relatively “localized” sustainability challenges.  Development responses to water resource challenges have traditionally followed a similar approach. Below are four examples.

  • Water pollution: Rachel Carson famously started the debate on pesticide pollution in the United States in the early 1960s; since then there has been a plethora of sustainable development research and activity on localized water quality in rivers, lakes and groundwater in developing countries around the world, often linked to the impacts of poor irrigation management or industrial pollution. The creation in 1984 of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), which became part of the CGIAR in 1991, was an important milestone that galvanized water research in this area, creating a vital research link between agriculture and irrigation management in particular.
  • Over use: since the 1970s, the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan has been the case study of a “shrinking lake” with its water aggressively diverted into Soviet-era cotton production. More recent oft-used examples of unsustainable water withdrawals in developing countries include the disappearing Lake Chad and India’s rapidly falling groundwater levels in several key agricultural states. Institutions such as the Pacific Institute founded in 1987 and its signature publication The World’s Water (now at Vol 7), and the Stockholm International Water Institute founded in 1997 with its annual Water Week, have helped lead the way in drawing attention to the increasing scale and impact of these various water resource challenges.
  • Water storage: balancing the economic, environmental and human impacts caused by the creation of large dams and their reservoirs in specific locations in developing countries (such as the Volta Dam in Ghana, the Aswan Dan in Egypt and the Sardar Sarova Dam in India, for example) has proven a particular sustainable development challenge for water resource professionals - as these tend to be geographic hotspots where regional economic ambitions and local sustainable development issues intersect most passionately. The World Commission on Dams, 1997-2002, shone a particular spotlight on this issue. With growing interest in scalable renewable energy and energy access for developing countries, large dams and their sustainable development issues continue to be a complicated issue for water resource professionals to address.
  • Trans-boundary issues: the difficulties in agreeing access-rights between political entities who share a common water resource has contributed to many local water “flashpoints” around the world, notably for example between India and Pakistan over access to the Indus and Ethiopia and Egypt over access to the waters of the Nile. Such problems helped to prompt the rise of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) in the late 1970 as a policy tool; and the creation of the Global Water Partnership in 1996 as a practical partnership network to help policy makers in specific river basins in developing countries implement IWRM. Regionally specific IWRM initiatives like the Mekong River Commission in 1995 and the Nile River Basin Initiative in 1999 have also emerged as location-specific institutional responses to such trans-boundary challenges.

Historically, these various water resources challenges – water quality; water over-use; water storage, and trans-boundary water resource disagreements – have been framed as local or regional “hotspot” issues. The impacts from the various locations they are occurring in around the world have rarely been conceptually linked together and presented to decision makers as a whole. “Water is local” has been the consistent mantra.

Water – scarcely considered a global challenge

This means that, unlike other sustainable development issues such as energy access or climate-change for example, water resource scarcity has never really viewed - politically or economically - as a potential risk to global growth and sustainable development.  This could explain why water professionals feel the issue has never quite “broken through” to become a truly global sustainable development concern.

Yet the world is changing fast; our economic systems – agricultural production, consumer goods supply chains and commodity markets for example – are becoming more connected than ever before. Too much water in Thailand creates floods that disrupt a number of key global supply chains and knocks 6% off Thailand’s GDP; too little water in key agricultural markets in 2008, 2011 and again in 2012 creates spikes in food and commodity prices that impact production costs, stimulate a rise in export tariffs and hurt the poorest, already vulnerable to a weak global economy.

Arguably - and perhaps related to this jump in volatility - it has only been in the last five years or so that a more holistic, risk-orientated perspective on our global water security has started to emerge; a viewpoint which increasingly presents water as a key strategic input running through the world economy. If the various “bubbles” of water trouble around the world start to burst at the same time, their combined impact has the potential to create a severe and interconnected global shock. In this way, water as a sustainable development issue becomes local no more.

Why water is no longer “local”: a global perspective unveils a huge challenge

Due to our rapidly changing and interlinked global economy, water scarcity in many parts of the world is impacting the status quo in ways we had not thought of in the last century. Shortfalls in crop yields and more variable food prices could be an early impact, as we are experiencing at the time of writing in late summer 2012.

globe above ripples of water
Water challenges have tended to be identified and addressed locally. If you take a global perspective, though, you see a different scale of challenges.

As humanity becomes more urbanized and generally wealthier, the more freshwater we require for our cities, our power plants, our factories and the production of more high-protein food such as dairy, meat and fish.

This is not just a question of more people.

Our demand for water is closely linked to economic growth. More wealthy societies demand much more water. During the 20th century, the century with the fastest economic growth so far in human history, while population grew by a factor of four, freshwater withdrawals grew by a factor of nine. If we take these past patterns and look forward, the outlook for 2030 is stark.

Currently about 70% of the world's freshwater withdrawals are for agriculture and 16% are for energy and industry. Recent work suggests that unless we change our historic approach to how we use water, we could face a 40% gap by 2030 between global demand for freshwater and what can sustainably be supplied.

Increasing demand for food

To meet the forecast growth in demand for food over the next 20 years, the FAO estimates that farmers will need to increase production by 70-100%. Changing diets will increase demand for meat and dairy products in particular. Yet a kilogram of meat requires up to 20,000 liters of water to produce (compared to about 1,200 liters to produce a kilo of grain), and global demand for meat is forecast to increase 50% by 2025.

Water irrigating agricultural crops
Globally, we currently use over 70% of freshwater withdrawals for agriculture. By 2030, demand for food is set to increase by 70%. We can't use over 100% of freshwater for food alone: clearly something has to change.

Herein lays tomorrow’s water challenge. If we already use over 70% of freshwater withdrawals for agriculture and we face an increase in demand for food by 70% by 2030, especially for water-intensive meat and dairy, it is clear that a business-as-usual approach to water resources management is not an option. We cannot use over 100% of our freshwater for agriculture. Significant, perhaps radical changes in agricultural water usage will be required.

Energy production needs water

At the same time, our demand for energy will also grow; and energy is also a thirsty sector.

The International Energy Agency forecasts that the world economy will demand at least 40% more energy by 2030. McKinsey and Company estimates that 77% of the power stations we will need by then have yet to be built. By that year, China will need to expand its power generating capacity by over 1,300 GW (1.5 times the current level of the US) and India by 400 GW (equal to the current combined total power generation of Japan, South Korea and Australia).

Increasing access to energy is a priority for many countries. 1.5bn people in the developing world still lack access to electricity and over 3bn rely on biomass for heating and cooking. Yet, energy needs a lot of water. In richer countries, up to 50% of freshwater withdrawals can be used in the production of oil, gas and electricity.

More energy – more water

Take the United States, for example. The US Geological Survey estimates that to produce and burn the one billion tons of coal the United States uses each year, the mining and utility industries withdraw 55 trillion to 75 trillion imperial gallons of water annually. That’s about equal to all the water that pours over Niagara Falls in five months. In other words, about half of all water withdrawals in the United States today are used to cool coal fired electricity generating stations (It is important to note that the vast majority of this water is not consumed, it is withdrawn from rivers and reservoirs and used for cooling etc, then returned. But access to the freshwater is still vital. No water, no power station).

Artificial lake next to power station
Coal power generation uses around half of the water withdrawals in the USA, and US energy needs are forecast to increase by 40% by 2030. New forms of energy generation can take 10x, or 100x as much water. It doesn't add up!

By 2030 the United States is forecast a 40% increase in energy demand. Using current energy cooling systems, this could translate into a large increase in freshwater access needs, up to 165%, according to some analysis. The math suggests that this simply can’t be done, given whom else also needs water, for example farmers or cities (or the environment).

New energy – much more water

And yet water’s role in the energy value chain stretches much further than just cooling power stations. A lot of water is also required to help produce a country’s natural gas and liquid fuels from raw materials. For example, the production of each litre of gasoline from traditional oil uses approximately one to three litres of water.

As more unconventional energy resources become technically viable or politically attractive, water use can increase dramatically. Gasoline made from oil sands results in water use of around three to fifty-five litres of water per litre of gasoline. To produce oil and gas resources from conventional sources requires 3-7 litres of water/Gigajoule (GJ). Unconventional natural gas resources however require the equivalent of 36-56 litres/GJ, close to a tenfold increase. Enhanced oil recovery techniques can require 50-9,000 litres/GJ; and irrigated bio-fuel crops are the thirstiest raw energy material of all – corn requires 9,000-100,000 litres/GJ, soy 50,000-270,000 litres/GJ.

Looked at in this way, energy security policies based upon unconventional gas and biofuels that the United States and others are currently pursuing may actually come undone due to water security challenges.

The needs for fuel, food and water just don’t add up

The interconnected water-food- energy dilemma which the US already faces is similar to that which many fast growing economies will have to tackle very soon. As much of Asia urbanizes and industrializes (and is encouraged to pursue lower emission energy choices) more water will have to be directed towards energy and away from agriculture. Some modeling suggests a 76% increase in water demand for energy and industry will be required across Asia by 2030 compared to today. Recall that this will occur at exactly the same time as these countries will also need to almost double their food production. Against a baseline of 70% of water already being used for agriculture, how can these competing challenges be squared off?

Wet empires: water-based land grabs

We can see first responses to the growth challenge of the food-energy-water nexus already being played out around the world as water-scarce, fast growing economies in Asia and the Gulf seek to acquire agricultural land in water-rich countries like equatorial Africa. These so called 'land grabs' are really about water. If our global trading regime offered a more effective trade in agricultural goods, there would be much less need for such land/water deals.

This challenging scenario of water trade-offs over the next two decades should also be set against the context of today's water management challenges. Unfortunately, the story gets worse. Due to a historical profligacy of water use, the old adage of "You wouldn't want to be starting from here" holds true.

Water scarcity will reduce crop production, just when it needs to rise

Many countries are extracting groundwater faster than it can be replenished (Mexico by 20%, China by 25% and India by 56%). Over 70 of the world's major rivers now hardly reach the ocean due to the extensive diversion of water for human use. If current trends continue, by 2030 increasing water scarcity could cause annual grain losses equivalent to 30% of current world consumption (just as we need 70% more food). As demand continues to grow, competition for water will intensify between economic sectors, as well as between geographies

And don’t forget climate change

In addition, let's not forget that a potentially changing climate will simply accelerate freshwater security challenges faced in many places around the world. Unlike options in energy, there are no substitutes or alternatives to water. We will simply have to adapt.

This is not just a sustainable development problem for the very poorest nations. Water security will affect people in Australia, the Balkans, California, China, India, Jordan, Greece, Mexico, North Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, South Africa and Turkey among others. Even southern parts of the UK can already be classed as under water stress.

10 years to act

Water dripping from leaf

For all these reasons business as usual is not an option. We cannot manage water into the future as we have in the past. Given the timescales associated with turning things around in the water sector, the need for long term planning, and the dire conditions some countries already find themselves in, senior analysts suggest we have about 10 years to act.

The good news is that the next few years hold great potential for a transformation in the world's water management. Unlike climate change, no-one can argue that the problem does not exist, or that solutions are quickly required. New technologies, new partnership arrangements and new policies will be required. This, then, is the “new now” for sustainable development professionals working in the water resources domain: water is local no longer.

(Dominic Waughray writes here in a personal capacity.)

August 2012