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Environment > Biosphere >

Quenching the Thirst: International Water Shortages?

Paper ID: 48 Last updated: 31/01/2012 09:08:31
Criteria: bullet Impact:  Likelihood:  Controversy:  Where: Regional When: 21-50yrs+ How Fast: Years
1 person thought this paper expanded their thinking bullet
Keywords: bullet environment, water, natural resources, agriculture, industry, international relations

Summary bullet

By 2050, 60 per cent of the world’s population is expected to be water scarce – will not have the freshwater it needs to feed itself, drink and maintain necessary hygiene. This is twice the number of people who suffer from a lack of water today. Climate change will combine with an increase in the demand for water to compound the existing shortage. The growing lack of freshwater will intensify the spread of death, disease and violence while the number of migrants moving to escape these threats will increase. The increased shortage in freshwater might also lead to more extreme forms of violence such as international wars or eco-terrorism. These threats mean that investments in water management and climate-resilient infrastructure are crucial.

Discussion bullet

In the next 20 to 50 years freshwater will become increasingly scarce in most areas of the world. It is believed that by 2050, 60% of people will face severe freshwater shortages. [1] That is twice the number of people who suffer from a lack of water today. [2] There are two key drivers for this trend: reduced water availability due to climate change and an increase in demand for water.

Global climate models predict that there will be major increases in the magnitude and frequency of flooding and drought episodes during the 21st century. Although there is some uncertainty over the speed and scale of change, it is clear that in some regions the effects of global warming will be profound. In terms of global human impacts, arguably the biggest challenge will be that of water shortages. It is believed that by 2050, 60% of people will face severe freshwater shortages. [1]

The freshwater shortage will also increase as a result of a growing demand for water, due to the combined factors of population growth, an increase in industrialisation, a more intense use of land, as well as the spread of urbanisation. [1]

Populations’ access to the limited freshwater resources is a major concern which compounds the problem of water shortages. Already today, many countries which have sufficient amounts of water are unable to give all citizens the minimum they require. Areas which are poor and remote often lack the infrastructure needed for freshwater to reach them, and they often also lack the power to influence governmental resource allocation in their favour. Yet these areas tend to rely on freshwater for their livelihood more so than others, there being few – if any – markets in their reach. [3] In addition, due to their remoteness and poverty, these areas often cannot benefit from new technologies. The process of desalination for example, is still very costly and is for this reason only being used by rich countries such as the United States, Australia and Middle Eastern states. [4]

On top of water quantity and accessibility, quality poses great concern. The increased frequency in flooding and cyclones that climate change is expected to cause in the next 20 to 50 years will endanger some of the infrastructure which safeguards the quality of the water. Higher water temperatures and longer periods of low flows are also likely to exacerbate water pollution. An associated problem will be the spread of infections through water-borne diseases. [1]

Implications bullet

The increased water shortage and the risks to freshwater quality expected in the coming years will carry a number of implications. Firstly, they are likely to have significant impacts on the health and mortality rates of populations. Malnutrition and starvation are likely to spread as the amount of freshwater limits the variety and amount of food at the disposal of subsistence farming and cash crop agricultural communities. In turn, the sub-standard quality of water will make diarrhoeal diseases and helminth infections more common, as well as those insect-borne diseases which affect aquatic ecosystems (for example, malaria and schistosomiasis). [5]

The declining quantity and quality of freshwater will mean that growing numbers of people will migrate to escape the health and mortality risks. Such migration will occur when a number of factors combine to make adapting to the ecosystem’s new conditions impossible or unappealing. Such factors might include a local reliance on agricultural production, a national inadequacy in water and food management, rapid population growth, macroeconomic and political instability, and regional tensions. In contrast, the ability to change eating patterns, governmental assistance to herders and farmers, and international assistance and relief are likely to reduce the pressure to migrate. [6]

Water shortages will also increasingly contribute to violence, either in the form of local tensions, civil war, international war or even terrorism. [7] Hundreds of violent interactions between local populations over access to freshwater can be traced back to as early as 3000BC. [8] Population growth, migration, the provision of public goods and a country’s history of conflict often combine with the lack of freshwater to cause these tensions. [3] International conflicts are expected to be less likely than such local tensions and civil wars since countries generally favour cooperation to war over water. [9] Finally, water shortages will increase the value of the resource and make its transport to areas in need more common. [10] Water could thus become the “oil of the 21st century”, and as a commodity that can be controlled to affect the highest political levels, it could provide a target for terrorists. [11] [10] [12]

Faced with the prospect of disease, death, migration, and violence, increasing our investments in water management and disaster-resilient infrastructure is crucial. The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development concluded the need to include an Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) in all national plans. The IWRM is “the process of promoting the coordinated development and management of water, land and related resources, in order to maximize the resultant economic and social welfare in an equitable manner without compromising the sustainability of vital ecosystems”. [5] The World Health Organisation also recently confirmed the importance of installing infrastructure that is resilient to extreme climate throughout the world, and making sure that the poorer and more remote areas benefit from this. [13]

As a final note, it is important to remember that new technologies are being developed to mitigate the threat of water scarcity - such as desalination - and while these are expensive when they arrive on the market, their costs reduce with time. Depending on their progress in research and development, these technologies may one day lower the threat of water scarcity. [4]

Early indicators bullet

Deprivation of irrigation and drinking water in remote areas.
An increase in migratory movements and violent events which are attributed directly to water by locals.

Drivers & Inhibitors bullet

The realisation of climate change predictions.
Bad water management.
A water infrastructure which is not resilient to climate change and climate shocks.
A heightened demand for water due to an increase in population, industrialisation, land use, and urbanisation.

Less changes to water availability than climate change predictions suggest.
Good water management.
A water infrastructure which is resilient to climate change and shocks.
Greater efficiency in water use so that an increase in population, industrialisation, land use and urbanisation does not affect water availability as strongly as expected.

Parallels & Precedents bullet

Droughts in Jordan (1999-2001) as well as Kenya and South Africa (2004) affecting food security.
Droughts in Zambia (1992-2002) on water-borne diseases and child nutrition.
Droughts in Somalia and Ethiopia (1972-1975), Pakistan (1997-2001) and India (2001-2003) leading to shortages in migration.

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Sources bullet

1Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change2007Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007). IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. [online]Visit siteEnv
2World Health Organisation2009World Health Organization (2009). 10 facts about water scarcity. [online]Visit siteEnv
3German Advisory Council on Climate Change2007Schubert, R. et al. (2007). World in Transition: Climate Change as a Security Risk. German Advisory Coucil on Global Change. [online]Visit siteEnv
4US Geological Survey2010US Geological Survey (2010). Thirsty? How 'bout a cool, refreshing cup of seawater? US Department of the Interior. [online]Visit siteEnv
5World Health OrganisationWorld Health Organization (no date). Health through integrated water resources management. WHO Water Sanitation & Health Programme. [online]Visit siteEnv
6RAND CorporationBassford, M. et al. (in print). Climate Change, Drought and Migration. RAND Corporation.Env
7Migration Development Research Centre2008Black, R. et al. (2008). Demographics and Climate Change: future trends and their policy implications for migration. Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty. Working Paper T-27. [online]Visit siteEnv
8Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Envi2008Gleick, P. (2008) Water Conflict Chronology. Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. [online]Visit siteEnv
9Navigating Peace07/2006Wolf, A.T., et al. (2006) Water Can Be a Pathway to Peace, Not War. The Environmental Change and Security Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [online]Visit siteEnv
10Sonoran Institute2005Cornelius, S., et al.(2005) Recent Developments on the California River: Implications for Delta Conservation. Sonoran Institute, Arizona. [online] Visit siteEnv
11Other2000Water Education Foundation (2000). California Issues: Briefing on California Water Issues. [online]Visit siteEnv
12The Huffington Post07/12/2009Solomon, S. (2009) Water is the New Oil. Huffington Post [online], 7 December.Visit siteEnv
13World Health Organisation2010Howard, G. and Bartram, J. (2010) Vision 2030. The resilience of water supply and sanitation in the face of climate change: Technical report. Geneva:World Health Organization. [online]Visit siteEnv
The contents of this paper were provided by the Outsights-Ipsos MORI Partnership. Any views expressed are independent of government and do not constitute government policy.