Water Scarcity

archive material: updated May 2021

Water scarcity is a favourite topic for the headlines of doom, in company with overpopulation, climate chaos and nuclear war. The threat of a destabilising water crisis invariably wins attention in the annual Global Risks Reports published by the World Economic Forum.

In reality, our water woes reflect international political dysfunction as much as scarcity. If governments were more willing to collaborate in safeguarding the water cycle on which we all depend, and to share its beneficence fairly, they would discover that there is more than sufficient water to meet our needs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the shameful inequality of global access to water. Frequent handwashing was universally recommended as the first line of defence against the virus. Yet only 25% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population of one billion people have access to safe handwashing facilities in their homes, according to the most recent UN data.

The Water Cycle

Our planet is a miserly distributor of freshwater. Most water is rendered useless to humanity by dilution with salt in the ocean. Only 3% is available as freshwater, of which two thirds is locked up in ice and snow.

The water cycle is driven by evaporation from land and sea, condensing into clouds which have the potential for precipitation as rain. Again, nature is unkind in depositing almost 80% of rain over the sea.

Of the rain that falls over land, only 40% finds its way as “blue water” into aquifers, lakes and rivers which are accessible supply sources. The “green water” balance is absorbed by the land, of great potential value to agriculture but notoriously fickle for that purpose in volume, timing, intensity and location.

Thanks to this natural cycle, the movement and action of water is a renewable source of energy and life. However, unlike other renewable resources such as sun, wind and tide, freshwater availability is not plentiful. And the amount of water on the planet is fixed, on the human timescale.

The advent of human civilization has superimposed its own version of the water cycle on nature. We extract water for our various contemporary uses and discharge whatever remains back into the natural cycle, rarely in its original condition.

For example. agro-chemical pollution through run-off of nitrates and phosphates causes eutrophication, the excessive growth of algae whose eventual decomposition removes oxygen from the water, killing the aquatic ecosystem.

Another profound interference with the natural water cycle is the construction of a major dam, or other deliberate disturbance of the natural course of a river. Examples include India’s controversial river-linking project to transfer freshwater from the north to south of the country. Further north, the fatal 2021 collapse of a dam on the Rishiganga river in the Himalayan district of Chamoli highlighted the delicate interaction of glaciers, lakes and rivers in the water cycle.

Quite apart from inevitable human displacement, altering the natural flow of a river can destroy sensitive delta ecosystems on which freshwater fishing and agriculture depend. The vast 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi Dam recently completed in Laos provokes concerns for agricultural output in Vietnam and fish catch in Cambodia, amongst many other cross-border impacts.  

Similar unnatural degradation is found in aquifers, underground reserves charged by the passage of water through soil and rocks. If extraction exceeds the natural rate of recharge, the level of an aquifer will fall, eventually drying up altogether.

As aquifers lose volume, their water becomes more vulnerable to contamination by minerals from surrounding rocks. Large areas of South Asia are unable to utilise groundwater due to dangerous levels of arsenic or fluoride. In coastal regions, depleted aquifers increase the risk of saline intrusion.

Pioneering satellite-based measurement has revealed that 21 out of 37 of the world’s major aquifers are being exploited unsustainably. Many cities are located above degraded aquifers and are known to be sinking. This factor was one cause of the serious flooding in Bangkok towards the end of 2011.

“Freshwater use” is listed as one of nine planetary boundaries in the influential studies published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. These endorse the assertions of hydrologists that, at global level, there is enough water to meet human needs. At regional level the picture is very different, with damage to some ecosystems approaching “tipping points” which can trigger abrupt change.

Lake Chad is one example. Misguided governance of the natural cycle of the Lake led to its area of water collapsing by 90% in the space of 30 years, affecting 20 million people.

Causes of Water Scarcity

The direct cause of water scarcity is the insatiable need for freshwater in modern industry, agriculture and extractive technologies. The further dependence of these sectors on energy generation, itself water intensive, compounds the demand.

Population growth, climate change and aspirational lifestyles act as powerful catalysts on this thirsty combination, ensuring no respite from unsustainable demand for a finite resource. And widespread political cowardice denies sufficient protection to the world’s most precious commodity.

Agriculture is the dominant underlying cause of water scarcity, accounting for 69% of all global freshwater use, rising to over 90% in South Asia. The dynamic expansion of food grain production over the last 50 years has been achieved through high-yielding seed technologies which require substantial input of chemicals and water, especially for wheat and rice. The globalisation of meat and dairy-based diets has compounded the water dependency of agriculture.

The consequence has been the over-extraction of freshwater and pollution of surface water that together create scarcity. Surface waters are polluted by run-off of chemicals used in farming, as well as untreated industrial and household wastewater in cities. This is an acute problem in less developed countries where environmental regulations remain inadequate or unenforced. About 80% of global wastewater is returned to nature untreated.

Over-extraction has been most serious in India where outdated laws and complacent politicians have indulged landowners in unlimited and even free access to water, underpinned by guaranteed prices for their produce.

The energy sector is responsible for 10% of global water withdrawals, largely for cooling in thermal and nuclear power generation. Freshwater now quenches the voracious thirst of fracking, as well as more traditional technologies for extraction of coal, oil and gas.

Population growth adds impetus to all of these drivers of water scarcity. World population is projected to grow from 7.8 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050; most of this growth will occur in the largest cities of developing countries, many of which are already logistically overwhelmed by unregulated development.

Whilst cities were often founded in proximity to good freshwater supplies, the benevolence of nature rarely extends to megacity concentrations of over ten million people. The Nature Conservancy estimates that 36% of cities will face water crisis by 2050.

Politicians cannot excuse their inadequate response to water scarcity on grounds of ambiguous environmental science. The symptoms of unsustainable consumption of a critical natural resource are explicit.

In parts of India, the water table has fallen catastrophically since the so-called Green Revolution; in the Punjab, groundwater is projected to be exhausted by 2039.

A quarter of the world’s rivers fail to complete their natural journey to the sea, including the once mighty Yellow River in China and the Murray-Darling River in Australia. Where rivers do flow, pollution often destroys fish and aquatic life which once provided protein and livelihoods.

Despite these environmental distress signals associated with water scarcity, government policies on freshwater have generally bowed to the insatiability of consumerism. There has been poor understanding of the interdependence of the building blocks of human development, often described as the water energy food nexus.

Too many governments lack the coordination necessary to anticipate how policies targeting one element of this nexus will almost certainly have consequences for the other two. For example, almost half of India’s thermal power capacity is located in regions of water scarcity, suffering regular disruption to energy supplies.

Another example relates to new fossil fuel technologies such as gas fracking and oil sands. Government enthusiasm has tended to overlook the intrusion and demands on the water cycle. Fears of depletion and pollution of local water sources has played a part in the widespread public unease about these technologies.

Climate Change and Water Scarcity

With projections of supply and demand for freshwater veering off in opposite directions, global warming represents the worst possible intervention.

About two-thirds of the world’s freshwater is frozen in glaciers, snow and ice, self-evidently vulnerable. Rising planetary temperatures will accelerate the pump of the water cycle through faster evaporation from land, rivers, lakes and oceans. A warmer and more volatile atmosphere will receive this added moisture, with uncertain consequences.

The natural cycle for frozen freshwater in mountainous regions involves accumulation during winter and release of meltwater during summer. This seasonal availability of irrigation is vital to farming communities across vast areas, most notably those downstream of the Himalayas, embracing several South Asian countries.

Temperature increases across the Himalayan “water towers” currently exceed the average of global warming. Retreating glaciers and reduced snow cover threaten to disrupt crop yields for hundreds of millions of small farmers.

The implications of global warming for rainfall are of equal concern. There is broad agreement that monsoon patterns will change in timing and intensity, that arid and semi-arid regions will become drier, and that extremes of drought and flooding will become more frequent. Rising sea levels will aggravate the problem of groundwater salinity.

Much uncertainty remains, not least in mapping climate predictions on national or regional areas that coincide with the political reach of water management policy. Whilst the effect of climate change on the El Nino and La Nina phenomena is likely to be considerable, the detail remains very difficult to anticipate.

Even where predictions of rainfall trends are confident, there is insufficient understanding of the mechanics of run-off and groundwater recharge to fully grasp the implications. The net impact on crop yields and soil conservation is also uncertain.

Climate change and water scarcity therefore present policymakers with a perfect storm of known and “known unknown” threats. Planning of vital freshwater infrastructure has become fraught with risk, even for the most sophisticated municipal authorities.

Reports already suggest that the impact of global warming will significantly increase the global count of those affected by water scarcity, including the lack of safe drinking water. An example is the Nile Delta, where salinization caused by rising sea level threatens the fertility of a densely populated region.

Nature offers little sympathy to hesitation and uncertainty in response to challenges of water scarcity. Recent droughts in Cape Town and Chennai prompted the concept of  “Day Zero”, the inauspicious moment when household taps would fail, a disconcerting preview of water scarcity in a warming world.

Solutions to Water Scarcity

As for any scarce commodity, demand for freshwater can be brought under control through greater efficiency in its use. Technology will play an important role, for example in recycling of household and industrial wastewater. Effective water management also requires much greater coordination of policy-making, both within countries and internationally.

Agriculture is the vital sector.  In its report, The State of Food and Agriculture 2020, the UN warns that the goal of zero hunger in the world can be achieved “only by ensuring more productive and sustainable use of freshwater and rainwater in agriculture, which accounts for more than 70 percent of global water withdrawals.”

The search for water scarcity solutions differs greatly between richer and poorer countries – the former prefer to tackle the dysfunctional economics of water whilst the latter strive to align poverty reduction with sustainable water objectives.

Solutions in Poorer Countries

Household poverty reduction is a high priority for most of the world’s low income countries. As most poor households are engaged in subsistence farming, the optimum strategy for water scarcity is to align rural economic development strategies with greater efficiencies in water use.

In Asia the challenge is to reduce demand through more efficient irrigation and to increase supply by capturing more rainfall, either in aquifers or by simple harvesting technologies. Most irrigation is currently performed by indiscriminate flooding of fields, highly inefficient and wasteful. Modern drip irrigation technology can reduce water use by around 50% and increase yields through its targeted application. Introducing crops that require less water than rice and wheat is often a challenging option for small farmers but does deliver a lower threshold of demand.

Groundwater recharge requires maintenance of neglected storage tanks and drainage systems. Aquifers are resilient to the effects of climate change, thereby rewarding investment in their sustainability.

In sub-Saharan Africa the problems are very different. Nearly all of the farming is rain-fed but only a tiny percentage of rainfall is captured for the purpose. Soil moisture is often lost through land degradation caused by poor farming practices and deforestation.

The solution for water scarcity lies in smarter farming methods which sustain ecosystems, integrating improved crop yields with protection of water and forest resources. A low input approach known as agro-ecology has attracted particular interest.

Solutions in Richer Countries

Technology can contribute to balancing supply and demand for freshwater in more advanced economies. For example, a water efficiency label for household appliances, enforced by regulation, is a recognised technology solution to demand management in consumer societies.

A similar quantitative approach focuses on the amount of water consumed throughout the manufacturing supply chain. The figures are startling: 140 litres of freshwater are required for a single cup of coffee, 6,000 litres for a pair of denim jeans and more than 15,000 litres for a kilo of beef. This invisible input has become known as “virtual water”, opening up potential for addressing water scarcity through pricing and transparency.

Richer countries are acutely aware that failure to price water as a scarce environmental resource is one of the fault lines of contemporary market economics. Nonetheless, progress towards market-based solutions to water scarcity is very slow. Few politicians are prepared to contemplate risk of cultural change on this scale. The exception might be the Middle East region, where extreme methods of demand management of freshwater are accepted as part of everyday life.

Supply management for the most water scarce countries in the Middle East indeed looks to the ultimate solution of desalinisation. Whilst production by this means has become more efficient, desalinisation remains a controversial technology on account of its very high energy requirement and its by-product of brine which may pollute ocean ecosystems.

Water Governance Solutions

Across richer and poorer countries alike, policymaking that reconciles the demands of competing users of water, and anticipates the impact of policy on other sectors, rarely meets the challenge. Water resources are susceptible to tension between local and national political interests, resulting in misguided subsidies and other inconsistent policies.   Lack of enforceable regulation in India lies at the heart of the country’s groundwater crisis.

Governments are accordingly encouraged to develop national plans which integrate their policies on poverty reduction, food security, energy security and climate adaptation so that actions necessary for water security are coherent. Described as “integrated water resources management,” this discipline features in assessments of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal relating to water.

Sustainable Development Goal for Water

The international response to the growing crisis of water scarcity has been to dedicate one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to water. Approved by global leaders at a UN summit in 2015, Goal 6 aims to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (by 2030).”

Freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available freshwater resources is the indicator for monitoring progress towards the SDG6 target to “substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.” This assesses an established measure of water stress (25%) and scarcity (60%) at country, region and global levels.

Based on the most recent available data (2017), the global average for this indicator is 17%, evidence of the relative abundance of freshwater. Alas, its distribution is very uneven and scarcity is more realistically assessed within regions, countries or individual river basins.

Northern Africa and Central and Southern Asia withdraw freshwater at a rate of over 70% of available resources and are classified as regions of water scarcity. Thirteen countries in these regions consume more than 100% of their renewable water resources.

This measure of water scarcity fails to indicate the impact on individual households and livelihoods. This will depend on the density of population in an affected region or country. An alternative approach therefore considers the absolute availability of freshwater, regardless of actual withdrawal. Availability of 1,000 cubic metres per person is regarded as the minimum necessary to meet the needs of households, agriculture, and industry – and to sustain local ecosystems.

A state of water scarcity exists below that threshold. Below 1,700 cubic metres, the less severe description of “water stress” applies. By way of illustration of regional extremes, renewable freshwater availability in the US is over 8,600 cubic metres per person; in Jordan and Israel availability has fallen below 100 cubic metres.

Regardless of these finer points of measurement, the UN’s 2020 Progress Report for the SDGs warns bluntly that: “water scarcity could displace an estimated 700 million people by 2030” if action is not taken. It also warns that “increasing donor commitments to the water sector remains crucial in sustaining progress towards Goal 6.”

Such appeals to member governments lack the ideal backing of strong governance at international level on water scarcity. UN Water is not an implementing agency – its role is to strengthen coordination and coherence among other UN entities dealing with freshwater. There is no UN Convention to tackle water scarcity in parallel with those for climate change, biodiversity and desertification.

Unnerving projections of future demand for freshwater, driven by the needs of a growing world population for food and energy, certainly make the case for strong political leadership. The cumulative effect of these projections will lift global demand for freshwater by 53% by 2030, according to the 2030 Water Resources Group, a consortium of private sector interests supported by the World Bank. The UN’s 2018 World Water Development Report warns that, by 2050, between 4.8 billion and 5.7 billion people will live in areas that are water scarce for at least one month each year.

Access to safe water

A vital subset of the water scarcity agenda concerns the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in July 2010 that recognises “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.” SDG6 includes a target to “achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all (by 2030),”

The key indicator to monitor this target insists that the source of water should be “located on premises”. A less demanding indicator of a “basic service” refers to a source of safely managed water that can be collected from outside the home by means of a round trip of less than 30 minutes. A well-maintained source which separates the delivery of drinking water from potential contamination, such as a piped supply or a protected well or spring, is deemed to be “safely managed”.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, 2.2 billion people lacked access to safe drinking water in their homes. This figure includes 785 million who were unable to enjoy even the “basic service” standard, of which sub-Saharan Africa accounted for more than half. Prospects for achieving the drinking water goal by 2030 are considered to be very challenging.

Water Wars

History is replete with water conflict, from squabbles between neighbouring farms to wars decided by cutting off, or poisoning, a water supply.

Fear of water wars pervades the modern era. The ingredients are certainly there – the mega-dam technology that denies supplies to downstream countries, the location of major rivers in regions already convulsed by conflict, and the relentless shift towards water scarcity on a global scale. According to data maintained by the Pacific Institute, the incidence of water-related conflict has doubled over the last decade.

However, it would be naive to attribute water-related conflicts to scarcity alone. Near neighbours, whether villages or nation states, have a predilection for disagreement on any issue. Water has become a global security issue due to evidence that weak governance or regional political tensions can overwhelm the basic logistics of water management.

There are many studies suggesting that the Syrian conflict had its origins in the country’s rapid expansion of agriculture, at the expense of water security. The Middle East and North Africa region is constantly at the mercy of unstable water governance. An obvious vulnerability is the River Jordan which supplies water to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan and Syria.

Within the Middle East’s most serious recent turbulence in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, there is constant vigilance over any reports that civilian water supplies have been the target of violent attacks. Alleged examples include the actions of Turkey in Kurdish areas of Syria. Such violence would constitute a breach of international law, a provision that contributed to the International Criminal Court’s successful indictment of Omar al-Bashir, the former ruler of Sudan.

Management of a transboundary river is a zero sum game; if one country gains in distribution rights, another loses. Bangladesh is almost bound to challenge Indian schemes such as the north-south river-linking project, given that 54 out of India’s 56 rivers pass through Bangladesh.

In Southeast Asia, concerns centre on the impact of a sequence of dams on the Mekong River under construction in Laos, combined with China’s management of 21 dams on the upper Mekong. Potentially significant downstream impacts in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam range from the degradation of ecosystems to human displacement and loss of livelihoods.  

The Mekong River Commission is an inter-governmental agency formed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to further their interests of shared water resources of the Mekong River. The Commission lacks powers of enforcement and has been unable to persuade Laos to scale back its proposals.

Similar impotence has been the experience of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), established in 1999 to coordinate the interests of no fewer than ten countries that share the resources of the River Nile. Egypt, historically the dominant partner, believes that filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will undermine agriculture in the Nile Delta. In recent failed attempts to facilitate a negotiated solution, mediation was conducted by the African Union.