Over the past 60 years, China has lost 27,000 rivers, mostly as a result of over-exploitation by farms or factories. China has 20 percent of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its fresh water, and several years ago former prime minister Wen Jiabao said water shortages threaten “the very survival of the Chinese nation”.
And yet, China is far from the worst off of the world’s water-stressed nations. Sub-Saharan Africa had the largest number of water-stressed countries of any other place on the planet and of an estimated 800 million people who live in Africa, 300 million live in a water stressed environment. It is estimated that by 2030, 75 million to 250 million people in Africa will be living in areas of high water stress, which will likely displace anywhere between 24 million and 700 million people as conditions become increasingly unlivable.
To hydrologists, water resources of less than 1,000 cubic meters per person represent a state of “water scarcity”, while anything below 500 cubic meters represents a state of “absolute scarcity”, and according to the U.N., 6-8 million people die annually from the consequences of disasters and water-related diseases, 783 million people do not have access to clean water, and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation.
Water = food
Globally, water consumption is mainly allocated to irrigation and agriculture, and in many developing nations, agriculture accounts for more than 80 percent of water consumption. Yet future global agricultural water consumption alone is estimated to increase by 19 percent by 2050, and will be even greater in the absence of any technological progress or policy intervention.
Because so much of water consumption is related to food production, water scarcity has an inevitable impact on food scarcity. With expected increases in population, by 2030, food demand is predicted to increase by 50%, and increasing agricultural output will substantially increase both water and energy consumption, leading to increased competition for water between water-using sectors.
Mitigation and solutions
There are two avenues to mitigating water scarcity: supply enhancement and demand management.
Supply enhancement options include increasing access to conventional water resources, recycling drainage water and wastewater, desalination and pollution control. Demand management involves controlling water demand, either by increasing cost to users, or by constraining usage (e.g. through governance).
National and regional responses to water scarcity depend on a number of conditions, including local agro-climatic conditions, levels of water scarcity, the role agriculture plays in national economies, and societal values, as well as regional and global trade and cooperation, and the prospects for climate change.
As many of these conditions are changeable, coping strategies must be flexible and adaptive, and backed by strong monitoring and information management systems. The drivers of change for water are accelerating, forcing decisions to be taken against increasing uncertainty.
The elephant in the room, of course, is climate change, which is dramatically altering the global environment Climate change is altering rainfall patterns, which affect agriculture and reduce food security; worsening water security; decreasing fish resources in large lakes; raising sea levels, affecting low-lying coastal areas.
Because of Africa’s dependence on rain-fed agriculture, widespread poverty, and weak capacity, the water issues caused by climate change impact the continent much more violently compared to developed nations that have the resources and economic diversity to deal with such global changes. This heightened potential for drought and falling crop yields will most likely lead to increased poverty, lower incomes, less secure livelihoods, and an increased threat of chronic hunger.
Roberto De Vido is a communications consultant who has lived and worked in Asia for 25 years. He is the editor of Aidpreneur.com and producer of the Terms of Reference podcast.