Running Dry: the humanitarian impact of the global water crisis IRIN

GLOBAL: The global water crisis: Managing a dwindling resource

NAIROBI, 2 October 2006 (IRIN) – “Our demand for water has turned us into vampires, draining the world of its lifeblood. What can we do to prevent mass global drought and starvation?” asked Fred Pearce, the New Scientist’s environmental expert and author of ‘When the Rivers Run Dry”, published in February 2006.

There is some mordant irony that in the last 18 months parts of the world have witnessed colossal damage and lost of life due to the excess of water, at a time when the diminishing stock of freshwater continues to affect millions of people and threaten future crises.

Since the tsunami of December 2004 claimed more than a quarter-million lives and caused billions of dollars of damage, excess of water has created other natural disasters, including the 2005 hurricanes in the Caribbean, western Pacific and the United States and flooding from unprecedented rainfall across Europe. Even now, post-earthquake Pakistan is bracing itself for a season of landslides as the monsoon rains loosen and let slip the ruptured mountainsides of the Himalayas.

At the same time, millions of people live without access to adequate or clean water, with little hope their situation will improve as the global water-shortage crisis escalates. Droughts caused devastating living conditions in Niger in 2005 and in parts of eight countries in eastern Africa in early 2006, affecting over 13 million people. Although the poor – both rural and urban – are typically the most vulnerable whenever resources are squeezed, the dimensions of this crisis will affect us all.

According to the United Nations Water Development Report of March 2006, the combination of lower precipitation and higher evaporation in many regions is diminishing water quantities in rivers, lakes and groundwater. In addition, increased pollution is damaging ecosystems and the health, lives and livelihoods of those without access to adequate, safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

Photo: Edward Parsons/IRIN 
A skeletal child receives food through a tube at an emergency feeding centre in Niger. Malnutrition is a serious problem each year in Niger; the drought and famine of 2006 brought it to catastrophic proportions

From the Aral Sea to Lake Chad and including most of the major rivers of the world, water reduction through environmental change and human exploitation is massive. In Africa, studies have shown rainfall patterns shifting away from the continents’ interior to its coasts, leaving millions of fast-growing inland populations without sufficient water for consumption or food production.

The triennial UN report further claimed that “major demographic changes are also seriously affecting the quality and quantity of available freshwater on the planet.” For the first time in human history, a smaller proportion of the global population now lives in rural areas, according to UN statistics from June 2006. Increased urbanisation, especially in developing countries, leads directly to poor heath as the work necessary to develop infrastructure required to deliver clean water and sanitation proves insurmountable in many countries. Inadequate water not only leads to poor health but also a low quality of life and, in some cases, social unrest. The tragedy of the water crisis is that irrespective of the changes caused by global warming or the pressures of modern man on the environment, there is a lot of water around, if only we knew how to share and manage it.

Water resources

The Washington-based thinktank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) stated in a recent publication that “global trends in population, urbanisation, economic development, industrialisation, migration and other areas have pushed water demand to unsustainable levels.” The indicators are alarming.

Our planet’s total freshwater resource available for human consumption every year is approximately 14,000sqkm, but this represents only 0.03 percent of all the Earth’s water. If this amount were divided equally amongst the population of the world, it would provide more than enough water for everyone’s needs.

However, different people have varying levels of water access for socioeconomic and political reasons, and the location of water is disproportionate to the concentrations of human settlements as well. For example, the Amazon River carries about 15 percent of the Earth’s freshwater runoff but supplies water to less than 1 percent of the world’s population. Advances in human engineering and technology have only exacerbated both the disparities in water access and the rate at which we use our freshwater.

Heavy use of groundwater was not made possible until relatively recent technological advances in geology, well-drilling, pump technology and rural electrification. For most areas exploiting groundwater and deeper ‘fossil’ aquifers, these advances date from the 1950s but have been greatly accelerated in the last decade.

Photo: Naresh Newar/IRIN 
Children of the Banke district, western Nepal – Scores of children became sick due to water-borne diseases and unhygienic conditions as a result of the floods there in 2006. Many suffered from eye-borne diseases, fever, diarrhoea, cholera and scabies

According to the International Association of Hydrologists, “Today a global withdrawal of 600-700 km3/a [cubic kilometres per year] makes groundwater the world’s most extracted raw material.” In ‘From Development to Manag

ement’, a publication from January 2003, the association explained that this level of extraction has been and remains a cornerstone of the Asian ‘green agricultural revolution,’ it also provids about 70 percent of piped water supply in the European Union and effectively supports rural communities across large areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Many experts said that current levels of usage come with an expensive environmental pricetag. The unregulated use of boreholes and private pumps represents what Pearce described as “an extraordinary ‘barefoot’ hydrological revolution”. Today, more than 21 million Indian farmers use private pumps to tap underground reservoirs to water more than two-thirds of all their irrigated crops. This water took millennia to build up and is rapidly running out.

Even in 1999, the rate of demise of these fossil aquifers was about 3m a year in India alone. And what one expert described as the “colossal anarchy” of underground water management in India is being repeated all over the world. “From China to Iran and Indonesia to Pakistan, rivers are running dry under the impact of increased abstractions,” Pearce said in the February edition of New Scientist.

According to some estimates, the amount of water being used globally is more than twice the quantity being recharged by rainfall every year. India, China and Pakistan alone account for more than half the world’s total use of underground water for agriculture. While farmers produce bumper crops and high-yielding crop varieties flourish, the prognosis for water resources is bleak. Clearly, the level of current usage is unsustainable. “The farmers are certainly destroying their children’s future, if not their own,” Pearce said.

During the course of the twentieth century, global water consumption rose six-fold, more than double the rate of population growth.


Water is a cross-cutting factor affecting every aspect of human well-being and prosperity. Critical to basic human health, water availability is precondition for the production of food, raising of livestock, slaking of thirst, prevention of disease and provision of good hygiene and sanitation.

Clean water is also crucial for social and economic development through health facilities and education, through energy production and industrial expansion.

In relation to security from water-related crisis, there is an increased need for protection from floods and drought which, for a variety of reasons, are affecting people more regularly – especially communities in the developing world, where protection and mitigation from natural disasters is less common and where a disproportionately high number of victims of natural disasters live.

Photo: Sarah Simpson/IRIN 
The Abidjan skyline in Corte D’Ivoire. For the first time in history, more people now live in urban rather than rural areas across the globe

Today, millions of people, mainly women, struggle to locate and transport water for the drinking, cooking and washing needs of their families. From China to Peru, Niger to Palestine, Afghanistan to Mexico, the effort to access water of adequate quality and quantity absorbs a major part of the daily efforts of millions of poor people. Harrowing stories of the difficulties or high cost for families trying to obtain the minimum of water are only too common from rural or urban communities in the developing world. Of course the cost is not only effort and opportunity cost and a reduced quality of life, but also health and life itself is lost. Millions of people, possible as many as five million, and most of them children, die each year from illnesses and diseases caused by contaminated and unclean water.
A desperate ‘Catch 22’ situation exists for most developing countries: The very thing these countries need to raise funds to tackle water problems – economic development – requires yet more water to supply agriculture and industries that drive it.

Consumption patterns and virtual water

Global consumption preferences are dangerous and arguably unsustainable when it comes to efficient water use. Economists use the term ‘virtual water’ to express the quantity of water wrapped up in the growing and manufacture of goods traded around the world. To produce 1kg of coffee, a staggering 20,000 litres of water are needed. The virtual water content of a single, 250g hamburger is 11,000 litres, while 1kg of cheese and sugar require 5,000 and 3,000 litres respectively. Even 1kg of milk sucks up 2,000 litres of water, while a normal cotton T-shirt hijacks as much as 7,000 litres, according to Fred Pearce’s grim calculations.

Consumption patterns show an ever-increasing desire for products that require high levels of water, while global population growth continues unabated. It is increasingly difficult to resist the Malthusian logic of those who warn of a major crisis of demand and supply in relation to water.

According to analysts, some countries will increasingly be forced to import more of their food to cope with water scarcity. Countries that rely on agriculture need immense amounts of water for irrigation. It is estimated that one needs 1,000 cubic metres of water to grow one tonne of grain. By importing wheat, water-stressed countries can allocate more of their scarce freshwater to other industries or cities.

According to the New York-based Global Policy Forum, 26 percent of global wheat imports come from water-stressed regions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is estimated that in the next 15 years, as countries join the ranks of food importers, the demand for international grain will increase by 30 percent. For instance, countries like China, India and Pakistan, which are currently grain self-sufficient, will likely start importing food in coming years due to water and land scarcity. For those nations without sufficient foreign exchange to turn to imports, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, higher world grain prices, combined with detrimental changes in rainfall, will likely mean greater hunger and more calls for humanitarian aid.

“Widespread over-consumption of freshwater resources is causing a collapse in global freshwater systems that will be a primary driver in future water scarcity,” stated CSIS in their 2005 report, ‘Addressing Our Global Water Future’. The report claimed that according to the UN Population Division’s population projections, 15 countries – home to 2.3 billion people – would be ‘water stressed’, meaning per capita water availability is below 1,700 cubic metres per year, by 2025.

Future conflicts?


Photo: Stuart Price/IRIN 
Women and children wait with their jerry cans to collect water from a borehole in Padibe internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp in Kitgum District, northern Uganda. Every day millions of women struggle to locate water for their families needs

Financial markets are beginning to take an interest in investing in water companies, recognising that if an estimated two billion people are expected to be short of water in 2050 the resource could become more valuable than oil. Regional disputes and intrastate conflicts over water are already common in many countries. Some analysts say that future wars will be fought over water, not oil, and claim that water wars are inevitable.

Five year ago, the US National Intelligence Council reported that the likelihood of inter-state conflict over water would increase in the next 15 years. Publications and research papers with titles linking water and war reverberate around the world, and the current statistics give little cause for optimism.

History has shown that there has always been a shortage of water in some place on Earth at some time. Whenever this happened, there was competition for water and sometimes conflict. Locally and regionally, competition for water is currently increasing. A publication presented at the Third World Water Forum in Japan in 2003 outlined the scope of the problem. This report, compiled by Bill Cosgrove and published by Green Cross International with the UN Environmental, Scientific and Cultural Organization, stated that the threats to regional and global ecosystems caused by manmade and natural climate change are significant, with serious security implications. Inequities are increasing between the rich, who can afford to cope, and the poor, who cannot. The Earth may near a “point of discontinuity in human civilisation” unless it learns to cooperate, it warned.

The report is one of many highlighting the grave need for increased international management and cooperation if conflicts over water are to be avoided. Despite increased recognition that the present crisis is a combination of the interrelated factors of environmental mismanagement, poor governance, overpopulation and climate change, additional claim add that learning to share water would also build peace. Optimists argue that history teaches us that people cooperate over water rather than fight over this life-giving resource and also point to a range of low-tech, community-based methods of conserving freshwater and recharging diminished aquifers. Cosgrove’s analysis, in conclusion, sided cautiously with the optimists.

Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN 

The challenge

The world’s governments agreed at the Millennium Summit in 2000 to halve the number of people who lack access to safe water, mainly in the world’s cities, by 2015. With rapidly growing urban populations, the challenge is immense, and with current levels of surface and groundwater depletion, it is not clear what impact such an aspiration, in the unlikely event that it is achieved, would have on the environment.

The CSIS report, using statistics from UN Children’s Fund and the UN World Health Organisation, estimated that in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals approximately 1.5 billion people will need to be given access to water over the next nine years. Little wonder the UN declared 2005-2015 the International Decade for Action, launching a Water for Life campaign in an effort to address the most detrimental humanitarian results of the current, and increasing, global water crisis.

This IRIN In-Depth focuses on the most pertinent issues surrounding the water crisis through feature essays dealing with some of the ‘macro’ issues and direct field reports from the communities and people most affected by water scarcity and contaminatio

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