You are here: Home Review 2010 Table of Contents Press Releases Tackling the Tragedy of the Water Commons - Looming world water scarcity demands global action now

Tackling the Tragedy of the Water Commons - Looming world water scarcity demands global action now

 

Investment in water storage and ways to improve its effectiveness is critical in the defence against climate change and food insecurity, according to Colin Chartres, Director General of the International Water Management Institute, speaking at this week’s 2010 Global Economic Symposium.

He will argue that, given current global rates of economic development, demand for usable water sources is on course to outstrip supply by 2030. In India this gap is predicted to be as high as 50%. It adds that climate change further threatens to increase temperatures and evaporation, shorten wet seasons and intensify storms. Governments must therefore respond to avoid ‘water scarcity’.

While countries such as Australia and the USA store between 5,000 and 6,000 cubic metres of water per person, even this may prove insufficient. In a recent drought, Australia had to reduce water allocations to farmers and enforce water rationing in major cities. While many of these cities are now turning to climate-proof sources of water such as desalination of sea water to ensure future supplies, these options have a high capital and energy cost making them less accessible to poorer countries. In many of poorer countries, over 90% of agriculture is reliant upon rainfall and yet water storage is as low as 4 cubic metres per person.

Chartres recommends investment in determining the best and safest ways to store water, including

  • Major dams
  • Rainwater harvesting systems and structures such as those used in Rajasthan, India where 10,000 structures have helped irrigate 14,000 hectares to the benefit of 70,000 people.
  • Smaller scale reservoirs and dams.
  • Underground aquifers that are not subject to evaporation loss

The International Water Management Institute estimates that nearly 500 million people in Africa and India could benefit from improved agricultural water management.

Water storage: an insurance against climate change

Colin Chartres

Agriculture uses about 70% of the available water resources in many countries. Increasing competition for water suggests that a gap between supply and demand will emerge by 2030 given current rates of economic development and water usage. In India this gap has been predicted to be as high as 50%.

Climate change threatens to increase temperatures and evaporation, shorten wet seasons and intensify storms. As a response to these factors, which will impact all water users, it is imperative that we investigate to what extent and by what methods we can increase water storage.

Countries like the USA and Australia store approximately 5000-6000 cubic metres per person respectively. Yet recently in Australia under a drought probably driven by climate change even this volume was insufficient. The outcome was very significant reductions in allocations to farmers and water rationing in major cities. Many of these cities are turning to climate-proof sources of water such as desalination of sea water to ensure future supplies. But desalination comes at a high capital and energy cost and is not an option for smallholder farmers or landlocked countries.

If we consider many of the poor, agriculturally based economies of sub-Saharan Africa, levels of water storage are often less than 100 cubic metres per person. Kenya and Ethiopia, for example, store as little as 4 and 43 cubic metres per person respectively.

These numbers demonstrate that too little investment in the development of water resources is often the reason why women and children often spend hours carrying water to their homes, livelihoods and health standards decline in droughts and people are subject to famine. The International Water Management Institute describes this underinvestment as economic water scarcity.

A lot can be done to alleviate the situation. Water storage systems are not just those that we associate with major dams, which often are subject to social and environmental controversy. In reality, they range from improving the soil's ability to store water, through rainwater harvesting systems, to small reservoirs to medium and large dams. Also, not to be forgotten is the fact that underground aquifers can store very large volumes of water, Furthermore this water is not subject to evaporation losses.

The livelihood, health and broader economic benefits arising from having access to stored water are very significant. This water can be used to irrigate home gardens that can tide families through periods of drought when rainfed crops fail or yield poorly and provide drinking water for animals that often underpin smallholder production systems. It can also be used to grow cash crops that are marketed and thus allow farmers access to cash to buy staples, fertilizers or to invest in education of their children.

The critical issue is, however, that storing water costs money. We need to see significant investment in determining the best and safest ways to do this (remembering that poorly managed storages create physical and health risks from insect borne diseases such as malaria) and we need investment to build the most appropriate structures and means of extraction.

In my view investment in these areas is equally as important as in drinking water supply and sanitation. Furthermore, well designed multiple water use schemes can be used for food production and domestic uses. So, the critical challenge is to convince governments and donors (from countries to individuals) that investment in multiple use water supply systems is critical.

While large and medium sized dams may be built anyway because of hydropower demand, we need to explore micro and meso-financing schemes that can be used to install smaller systems and exploit groundwater where sustainable supplies are available. This investment will not only insure against climate change impacts and food insecurity, but also against competition for water from other users.

The GES is a very appropriate forum to bring together the cross sectoral expertise that may be able to facilitate the required investment.

Back to Press Releases

Back to Table of Contents