Home The Washington Diplomat March 2009 World Forum Looks to Replenish IdeasAs Era of Abundant Water Dries Up

World Forum Looks to Replenish IdeasAs Era of Abundant Water Dries Up


Consider some ordinary beverages you consume every day: a cup of coffee in the morning, apple juice at lunch, maybe a beer with dinner. By some estimates, more than 2,370 liters (approximately 625 gallons) of water went into those three drinks, from the water that goes into growing the coffee beans, for example, to the water used in the whole roasting process. Or maybe you had a cup of tea before hopping on the Metro, orange juice at lunch, and a glass of wine with dinner — your tally is 2,080 liters, or about 550 gallons of water used.

That’s not including the food you eat — agriculture takes up at least 70 percent of the world’s total freshwater resources, and some 2,000 liters to 5,000 liters of water are required to produce enough food for just one person for just one day, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

The figures illustrating water scarcity are indeed staggering. Of the water we can consume — only .014 percent of the world’s water is actually available for human consumption — not everyone gets to quench their thirst for mankind’s most basic necessity. In fact, about 1.1 billion people have no access to clean water, according to the United Nations, which predicts that number will jump to 1.8 billion by 2025.

And as climate change creates geographic shifts in water availability and growing populations consume more food and energy — at the same time that freshwater stocks required to meet that demand remain fixed or decline due to pollution — ordinarily mundane issues like what we eat and drink may alter the entire geopolitical landscape, potentially driving conflicts and making the poor even poorer.

The problem is especially dire in countries hit hardest by a double whammy: global warming and growing populations, both of which will only exacerbate their water woes. World population is projected to rise from 6.7 billion to more than 9 billion by 2050, and most of that growth will be in countries that already lack adequate clean water access and are most vulnerable to climate change.

Such challenges are on the agenda of the fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul from March 16 to 22, a triennial confab of world leaders designed to place water at the top of national policy agendas and enhance collaboration on water challenges. The theme of this year’s forum, “Bridging Divides for Water,” addresses differences in water use between modern and traditional cultures, rich and poor, developed and developing regions of the world — all in an effort to shift and distribute the world’s liquid assets in a more equitable way.

Looking Down Bottom of India’s Wells A case study of what happens when you combine an exploding economy and population with a strained water supply and climate system is India, which faces the gamut of water-related problems.

One expert with firsthand expertise in this arena is Meena Palaniappan of the California-based Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan research center. Palaniappan is a contributing writer to the biennial series “The World’s Water,” which examines global use and abuse of freshwater resources, and she will be speaking at the water forum on the interaction between climate change and water.

But first, she’s headed to her native India for a month of work on the specific water challenges faced by Indian cities confronting global warming. An engineer by training, Palaniappan first witnessed the human impact of water after college during her fieldwork in India, where she saw how access to clean water often means the difference between life and death.

“In India and a lot of developing countries, climate change will really add increasing pressure on water,” she said, citing utilities in the country that are dependent on declining snowmelts and depleting reservoirs and groundwater. In particular, large Indian cities in coastal areas such as Chennai, Mumbai and Calcutta are seeing an increasing intrusion of salt water as sea levels rise and seep into coastal groundwater aquifers.

Palaniappan cited the consequences of such changes on her hometown of Chennai, where only half of all residents are served by water utilities, with the rest forced to get water from their own wells or private water vendors, which can be pricey and spotty. Ironically, the poor often pay more for water from private vendors than wealthier residents who can rely on utilities. Both though will have to contend with shrinking supplies, according to Palaniappan.

“Each of these actors will be affected differently by climate change,” she said. “Utilities will be affected by decreasing reservoirs, and those who pump their own water will be affected as aquifers dwindle due to over-pumping.”

Palaniappan said India fortunately is not experiencing the same changes in eating habits that are being seen in other booming economies such as China that are leaning toward more meat-heavy, water-sapping diets.

However, Palaniappan noted that India’s past irrigation revolution gave farmers a greater ability to pump water from aquifers on an unprecedented level, which has led to “astonishing” decreases in aquifer levels around the nation. Palaniappan added that the over-pumping of groundwater is exacerbated by government policies that charge nothing for water or electricity use in the country’s agricultural production, which in turn sucks up approximately 80 percent of India’s freshwater (a fairly typical figure around the world).

Although food puts huge strains on the country’s water resources, interestingly enough, industry does not. Palaniappan pointed out that as a result, depleting water supplies should have little overall effect on the country’s burgeoning economy because industry uses less than 10 percent of all water.

“There’s a huge opportunity for India to turn this into a way to grow the economy sustainably,” she said, noting that up to 50 percent of water in India is lost through leaky pipes and speculating that improvements in water efficiency by the nation’s farmers may free up water resources for more economically productive uses.

Indeed, water waste occurs in both developed and developing countries, with the latter losing it to inefficient irrigation and industry, and the former squandering it because of excessive, often careless consumption. The United Nations estimates that just a 1 percent drop in water used to grow and harvest crops would increase water available for other means by 10 percent.

“We always thought that you needed water for economic growth, but in many developed countries we’ve broken that link,” Palaniappan said, observing that Western economies saw a drop in both per-capita and absolute water use as their economies shifted from manufacturing to services.

“We used to use 200 liters of water to produce a ton of steel, but are using orders of less magnitude now,” she said. “It’s the same in silicon chip manufacturing and other processes. We’re doing more with less. That will be the drumbeat in the next era of water. The idea that water is infinitely abundant and cheap — that era is over.”

Palaniappan argued that India must also make smarter infrastructure choices that adapt to the realities of climate change: fewer dams that store water that just evaporates in hotter temperatures, as well as more small-scale solutions that take advantage of local conditions, such as rainwater harvesting. “This would let water management be decentralized and build capacity,” she said.

Although she acknowledged that such decentralized programs are difficult to implement, Palaniappan said these solutions would build on what’s already the norm in India. “We need new bureaucrats who are good at implementing policies to make decentralized solutions possible,” she said, noting that some parts of India already have laws requiring each new structure to have a rainwater harvesting system.

On a broader scale, Palaniappan said the energy required to treat and distribute water means that we need new “dual plumbing” systems — one for so-called “greywater” (such as rainwater that can be used for non-potable household needs), and one for drinking water. She explained that the intense energy used to create potable water for such needs as flushing toilets (“one of the most ridiculous uses of drinking water”) creates negative feedback loops. Growing populations like India’s require more energy to process more potable water, creating greenhouse gas emissions from energy consumption that in turn perpetuate climate change and related water scarcity.

The Chennai native suggested that India expand the use of low-energy alternatives such as rainwater harvesting. “Even developed economies are looking at this as a very low-cost way of using rainwater to recharge aquifers,” she noted.

Parched ‘Canary’ India is just one hotspot around the globe where climate change is having serious impacts on water. Palaniappan called Australia, with its years of drought, the “canary in the coalmine.” Its change to shorter, more intense periods of precipitation (and related biomass buildup) coupled with longer dry spells have resulted in destructive yearly fires that could foreshadow what’s to come in such areas as the American West. In fact, California in the past few years has started to experience the pain that Australians have experienced for nearly a decade.

Australia is taking measures to improve its water efficiency and stave off potential disaster. In northern Victoria, for instance, a class=”import-text”>2009March.Environment.txt.3 billion overhaul of the region’s antiquated irrigation system is under way. Likewise, in Las Vegas — a desert built largely on tapping water from a drying-up reservoir — “water cops” patrol for excessive outdoor water use, and the city has approved various laws to curb the thirst for water consumption through rate hikes.

Whether Australia or Vegas, everyone is worried about water — and the resulting fires, droughts and floods that an out-of-whack climate system will wreak. Such weather patterns are also being felt in China, where parts of the country are experiencing their worst drought in half a century, threatening the water supply of millions of people and devastating livestock. Palaniappan said China faces the dual problem of declining water availability and extreme water pollution, and the Pacific Institute estimates that 300 million Chinese lack access to safe drinking water.

She also called Africa “our number one concern,” with many countries on the continent far behind in providing access to clean water for all. “Dealing with water security and lack of access will be a huge challenge for these countries,” she said.

Time to Talk About Toilets A different issue at the forum will be progress on the U.N. Millennium Development Goal of doubling the number of people around the world with access to clean water by 2015. Although the world in general is on track to meet that goal by 2015 according to most experts, some pockets such as sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania have actually seen conditions worsen.

One group that has consistently called for improved access to clean, sanitary water is Washington-based Water Advocates. John Sauer, communications director for the nonprofit, said the upcoming U.N. water forum is primarily aimed at sharing best practices and experiences, but that some tangible outcomes could come out of the discussions, such as scaling up existing water projects that work well.

Water Advocates focuses on an often unmentionable but enormous water-related issue: sanitation — in other words, simple things like the toilet, or lack thereof.

In fact, 2.5 billion people around the world don’t have a toilet, nearly 1 billion of them children. And that lack of sanitation and hygiene is an easily correctable public health disaster: Poor sanitation and unsafe water cause illnesses that fill half of the hospital beds in the developing world and 10 percent of the entire global disease burden, Sauer pointed out. Disease spread by human excrement kills more children each year than HIV, TB and malaria combined, and open defecation is the leading cause of some of the deadliest, but most ignored, communicable diseases affecting the world’s population today.

The lack of simple plumbing also poses a tremendous burden socially and economically. “More than half of all girls who drop out of primary school in developing countries do so because they lack separate toilets and access to clean water. Providing basic sanitation to people improves their lives dramatically and helps break the cycle of poverty,” said Caitlin Werrell, Earth Day Network’s international program director, during last year’s World Toilet Day.

Water Advocates has been pushing hard for hygiene and sanitation in schools, especially in the developing world, where Sauer said about 1,000 schools in the past year have received access to clean water through the group’s efforts. The next goal is to scale that up “in a dramatic way.”

Sauer pointed out that health improved greatly in the United States in the early 20th century thanks to improvements in water sanitation, which eliminated diseases such as cholera and typhoid that in turn contributed to the nation’s economic and social development. He cited modern examples among developing countries such as India and Ghana, where improved water sanitation has led to lower child mortality rates and declining birthrates.

“We haven’t addressed the issue the way we should have and could have,” Sauer argued. “We don’t have to wait until climate change happens or population goes through the roof to take action. The house is on fire now, so to speak. The solution is adaptation, putting things in place that we have accessible now which will improve people’s health.”

Sauer spent more than three years working with NGOs in Africa, where he saw the problems caused by lack of access to water, sanitation and hygiene. He recalled watching women and children carrying jerry cans containing up to 20 liters of water on their heads over long distances, a practice he said looked like a “very painful” form of torture.

Sauer said that although President Barack Obama referred to helping poor nations with water access, it is too early to predict what the new administration would do. Water Advocates is calling for an increase in funds for the Water for the Poor Act from 0 million currently to 0 million next year, and is working to ensure that the State Department and USAID prioritize the issue. “The structure exists,” Sauer said, “but isn’t being supported at a high enough level within State and USAID to make it a long-term priority.”

Ending Dry Spell of Inaction Sauer said that the water forum’s discussion of the Millennium Development Goals is evidence of growing awareness of the interrelations between water sanitation and other poverty indicators. “You’ll have a lot of people coming together sharing information and pushing for more resources,” he predicted. “There will be a focus on what is working and how can we increase that.”

Climate change will be a focus throughout discussions at the Istanbul forum, Palaniappan added. “We’re really at a place now where we’re starting to see the reality of climate change’s impact on water resources,” she said. “I expect to see many governments come back from the forum and put water on their national agenda. We’re really at a turning point. Now that we have the U.S. on board finally, it’s a matter of adaptation.”

“There is growing pressure on governments to put emphasis on water,” Sauer agreed. “Those who get it should be pressuring their neighbors to also take action. It’s a good way to get people out of poverty, but right now it’s not being prioritized in a lot places.

“We’re not putting the tools in place that we already have to help the poorest of the poor,” he complained, citing examples of such ready-to-go products as Ecosan waterless toilets, which increase access to sanitation for the developing world while protecting the environment. Who knows though — with a major expo at the forum, attendees may be able to test one out in person and take the lesson back to their country.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.