World Water Day: Coping with Scarcity

Today is World Water Day, and this year’s theme is “Coping with Water Scarcity.”  In its WWD report (PDF), UN-Water (the official United Nations mechanism for follow-up of the Millennium Development Goals), warns that water scarcity will increase in the coming decades, driven by four main factors:

  • Population growth will increase water use
  • Increased urbanization will further concentrate the demand for water
  • Per-capita water consumption increases as the world becomes more developed
  • Climate change will alter freshwater resources

The report’s authors also note that polluting or otherwise degrading water contributes to scarcity, too.

As usual, the poor suffer disproportionately from water scarcity. One in five people in the developing world lacks access to sufficient clean water, and 2.6 billion people – nearly half of the total developing-country population – lack access to adequate sanitation. These people spend large percentages of their time and money trying to get the water they need, while battling the effects of water-related diseases like diarrhea, which kills more people than tuberculosis or malaria. (For more on this, see my previous post on the water and sanitation crisis.)

The UN-Water report highlights the largest water-consuming sector: crop production. Agriculture accounts for more than 70% of the world’s water use, so it’s important to keep improving the water productivity in this sector. It’s crucial in sub-Saharan Africa, where water scarcity is common and where agriculture is a principal avenue for social development, as well as a means of subsistence for much of the population.

At the local level, improved soil and water conservation practices and conservation agriculture can improve water productivity. The UN Development Program (UNDP) is also promoting community water management, in which the poor – particularly poor women – are involved in decision-making and management for local water resources. Their Community Water Management Initiative makes grants of $20-30,000 for such projects in remote rural areas where improved access to water is essential for poverty alleviation.

At the national level, UN-Water calls for “institutional integration of water policies and increased stakeholder involvement in decision-making processes” and notes that “conflict resolution mechanisms will become increasingly important.”

Marc Levy of Columbia University’s Earth Institute gives a starker warning about the need for conflict resolution (via the Mail & Guardian). He and his colleagues analyzed precipitation records, geospatial conflict information, and other data and found that “severe, prolonged, droughts are the strongest indicator of high-intensity conflicts” – specifically, conflicts within countries that involve more than 1,000 battle deaths.

Of the four factors contributing to water becoming more scarce, climate change and per capita water consumption are the two that those of us in the developed world can influence most directly. We should also remember that when it comes to distributing funds for international development, improving water quality and access is crucial for health, prosperity, and security.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.