The New Humanitarian (TNH)
London - Is the world ready to face water shocks? For water shocks are certainly coming; water shocks, in fact, are already here.
A meeting of ecologists, policymakers and water professionals gathered recently at London’s Chatham House to contemplate the prospect. Asia, they heard, was the continent where problems were already most acute.
Pavel Kabat of Vienna’s Institute for Applied Systems Analysis told IRIN: “We have been worried about water in other parts of the world - it’s still a very important issue in Africa - but we were forgetting that the because of the economic growth and the population growth, the surge in food demand will come in Asia. Already now the fresh water for agriculture is being consumed at very high rates. Asia is the hotspot… and I would say that the first big issues will have to be faced by 2020 or 2030.”
Seventy percent of the global use of water is for agricultural purposes, and that is where the crisis is likely to show itself. “In India, 75 percent of all irrigation water comes from groundwater,” says Kabat, “and we are kind of assuming that it will stay like this.” But he points to Europe and the USA, which have seen groundwater levels in some areas dropping by as much as five metres a year, and laws have had to be introduced to restrict the lifting of groundwater for agriculture; the same thing, he says could happen in Asia.
There is also the issue of water quality. With reduced flows of fresh water from Asia’s great rivers reaching the coast, and with sea levels rising, the Brahmaputra, Ganges and Mekong deltas are suffering increasing salt water intrusion, with salinity in some places reaching levels at which normal crops will not grow. Some coastal areas of Bangladesh are already unfarmable.
Developed countries are certainly not immune from the impending problems. In some areas of the USA ancient aquifers have been tapped to allow agriculture in naturally desert areas. This “fossil water” is now depleting fast and not able to be replenished. One speaker told the meeting he could see areas where there would soon be no more groundwater, which means no more agriculture, and, since people only settled there because they could grow irrigated crops, no more viability as a populated area - a prospect so alarming that, he said, “it causes policymakers not to want to tackle that problem.”
Across the border in Mexico, it is the capital city which is threatened by an unsustainable situation. Already Mexico City has a serious water deficit and is facing a drop in rainfall of something like 30 percent. The situation has been made worse by the fact that Mexico subsidizes public services in the capital; water is cheaper there than in the countryside, and the population is growing very fast. And once consumers are used to subsidies it becomes very hard to introduce a realistic price.
Polioptro Martinez Austria, director of the Mexican Institute of Hydrology, says water managers cannot solve this problem on their own. “Today there are huge subsidies for water in the area,” he told IRIN, “and as a result, the aquifers are overexploited, and the public awareness of water use is not enough to save water. I believe we need a new policy of urban development if we are going to solve the water problem.”
In India and Bangladesh, the arid areas of the USA and Mexico City, the impression is of a dreadful inevitability, like a slow-motion car crash. And politicians are not good at dealing with this kind of slow onset event. “We know it has to come,” says Kabat, “but there is a general lack of ability of governments globally to look beyond the next election period, I am sorry to say. We have a lot of studies, as scientists, of the scenarios for the next 10, 20, 30 years, but it is simply too far ahead for politicians to act.”
The Chatham House meeting did offer some policy tools that could address water issues. There was discussion of tariffs and the creation of water markets, where water rights can be bought, sold and leased.
A market of that kind is now working quite successfully in Australia’s Murray Darling Basin. There the government “unbundled” land rights from water rights, so that just having water on your land, in the form of a river or groundwater, no longer gives you automatic rights to use it. And allocated water rights can be sold, permanently or on a temporary basis. During the recent severe drought, the result was that farmers stopped growing thirsty but lower-value crops like rice. They sold their water allocations to growers of higher value, less demanding crops like grapes, and the income they received helped them through the drought period until they could resume their normal farming.
A discussion of tariffs revealed that many countries still do not charge for water at all, and some give a kind of buy-in-bulk discount, so that the more water you use, the cheaper the unit cost.
China, which has traditionally sold water very cheaply, is starting to charge more, and has begun moving to so-called “increasing block tariffs” where water gets increasingly expensive the more you use. With different cities currently using different systems, a recent comparative study was able to show that tariffs did have an effect. Beijing, which now has higher prices and a sharply rising tariff, showed a real drop in consumption, while usage is still rising in some other cities.
At the international level there was some discussion of the fact that water was “everywhere and nowhere”, affecting many other agendas, but with no UN agency dealing with water alone, perhaps reflecting the fact that, while the world has one climate and one atmosphere, it has many separate systems of river basins and aquifers, some of which are severely depleted, while others are well supplied.
But water systems do cut across political boundaries and as water shortages increase, the use of the water will have to be negotiated by both sides. Tariq Karim, Bangladesh’s ambassador in Delhi, is a veteran in negotiating water-sharing agreements with India, but he told IRIN that there had to be a change of approach. “When you talk about sharing,” he said, “you are talking about dividing something up, and whenever you come to dividing up, it’s like dividing the spoils. There is going to be contention. And you can’t physically divide a river, and you can’t manage it in segments. It makes better sense if you talk in terms of managing the river together.
“In Bangladesh our land space is not increasing but our population is, and for 80 percent of our population their source of livelihood is agricultural, so for us this is absolutely crucial.”