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Water Insecurity Looms as a Major Global Issue

By Julia Pyper, E&E reporter
3/23/2013 12:40:29 PM

As if the scorched fields of the Great Plains or the stories of women who walk miles to fetch water each day aren't reminder enough, water issues still plague many parts of the world today, and they're expected to get worse.

Alida Vanni

According to the United Nations, global water use over the last century has been growing at twice the rate of population increase. Climate change is adding to the challenges. Predictions show rainfall variability alone could damage existing water infrastructure and push more than 12 million people into absolute poverty.

Momentum has been growing to make the notion of universal water security one of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, to replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015 (ClimateWire, Feb. 21).

Marking the 20th anniversary of World Water Day today, U.N.-Water, a U.N. interagency group, released a working definition of water security in a new report to help guide international dialogues.

U.N.-Water defines water security as: "The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of and acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability."

The meaning of security in this context goes well beyond military risks and conflicts, according to Michel Jarraud, chairman of U.N.-Water and secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organization.

"Security has now come to mean human security and its achievement through development," he said in a statement. "Water fits within this broader definition of security -- embracing political, health, economic, personal, food, energy, environmental and other concerns -- and acts as a central link between them."

Conflict or cooperation?

The water security framework will now be considered by a group of 30 U.N. member states, led by Hungary and Kenya, that have been tasked with drafting the SDGs. The group is expected to release a draft report by midyear, which will be taken up by the U.N. General Assembly next September.

Calls are also mounting for the U.N. Security Council to put water issues on the agenda. In 2011, the Security Council recognized the implications of climate change, including drought and flooding, as potential drivers of conflict. But it has yet to explicitly recognize the threats that water creates.

Today, the United Nations reports that nearly 800 million people do not have access to safe, clean drinking water. But that number alone fails to show the full scope of the issue.

According to a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, 1.2 billion people, or nearly a fifth of the world population, live in areas of physical water scarcity, where there is simply not enough water to meet demand. Another 1.6 billion face economic water scarcity, where people do not have the financial means to access existing water sources.

By 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity and almost half of the world will live in conditions of water stress. Parts of India, China, the Middle East and Africa are especially vulnerable.

Climate change, urbanization, energy and food need, and population growth will all put a strain on water resources that could fuel tensions between communities and countries. But Supriya Kumar, communications manager at the Worldwatch Institute, said managing water is just as likely to encourage cooperation as it is to spur conflict.

"There are some studies that show there have been certain conflicts that have occurred because of the lack of water, but I think more sources point out that water can be a source of cooperation," she said. "With the absolute necessity that we need this resource to survive, it can really create ways to provide partnerships between countries."

There are already 3,000 international water treaties, and many of them have held up even in tense regions, such as the Indus Waters Treaty, which governs water resources between India and Pakistan. There's also hope that cooperation on water, in the Middle East for instance, will encourage cooperation on other issues, said Kumar.

Not just pipes and pumps

Fittingly, 2013 has been named the International Year of Water Cooperation to forge a multidisciplinary approach to water problems.

In that spirit, the Brussels-based European Water Partnership and the U.N. Global Compact's CEO, Water Mandate, announced a new partnership today to develop the "Water Action Hub," an online platform to improve water management. IBM similarly launched a smartphone application today that enables citizens in South Africa to protect their local waterways by feeding data to policymakers.

The international nonprofit group Water for People has been targeting on-the-ground partnerships with leaders in 30 districts and 10 countries to achieve universal access to clean water and sanitation in those regions. Many times, the biggest barrier to that goal isn't building infrastructure; it's building the institutional capacity to manage these projects, said John Sauer, head of external relations with Water for People.

"It's not just about the pipes and the pumps. It's about the desk job, making sure the people have the skills to manage the financial resources going into this and contribute in a meaningful way," he said.

In Honduras, the organization Global Communities has been collaborating with the private sector to build reservoirs so that farmers have a reliable source of water. Between landslides and prolonged droughts, farmers have been too afraid to diversify their crops beyond resilient corn and beans. But by harvesting water in reservoirs and collaborating with companies like John Deere to build drip irrigation systems that feed the crops, farmers have been able to grow higher-yielding crops like papayas and squash.

The model relies on the government donating land and the private sector purchasing the irrigation systems up front. But over time farmers pay off the projects through a village banking system.

"Think about how this benefits John Deere," said Brian Brian Husler, country director for Global Communities. "They can't sell those systems if there's no water, so within the south, their sales are very low. So if there's a way of capturing this water ... then obviously they can increase their sales."

The real 'water mine'

Food and agriculture is actually a greater driver of the world water crisis than some might think.

In new research, the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition has determined that 3.6 percent of per capita daily water use is for domestic consumption. Another 4.4 percent of use is needed to produce industrial goods, like paper and cotton. The real "water mine," the group contends, is hidden in food, which consumes 92 percent of the water people use each day.

Seventy percent of water withdrawals globally are for agriculture. Agricultural water consumption is also expected to increase by 19 percent by 2050. This high dependence puts food supplies at high risk if water resources become scarcer.

"I think the drought in the United States last year ... is, for better or for worse, a really good reminder that the United States and American agriculture are not immune to the problems that farmers in other parts of the world have been facing for decades now -- extreme weather, drought and flooding," said Danielle Nierenberg, co-founder of the think tank Food Tank.

But while climate change is a driver behind many of these threats, the development community can't focus on climate change alone, she added. "We really need to focus on alleviating hunger, poverty and also protecting the environment," said Nierenberg. "If the new [SDGs] focus on those three things, that will be a huge step forward."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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