Water: worth dying for?
Future of our planet relies on how we manage our water resources
Water is THE essential element on earth. We need it for the continuation of life. In September 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a binding resolution affirming the 'human right to both safe drinking water and sanitation'. But as we know, human rights are often ignored in many parts of the world blighted by ongoing conflict. In our region, the West Bank and Gaza are particularly affected by enforced restrictions on water and the illegal appropriation of upstream water. As our climate begins to feel the intensification of temperatures across the globe, the long-term effects of droughts that hit major cities are expected to be more damaging and costlier than floods. A recently released World Bank report, Unchartered Waters, provides tangible solutions and options that will hopefully help world leaders make the right decisions when it comes to preserving our water supplies. A new report by the World Bank, Uncharted Waters: The New Economics of Water Scarcity and Variability1, looks at how the increasing number of droughts and floods impact farms, firms and families in ways that are far costlier and longer lasting than known before. New research shows that while the consequences of drought are often invisible, they are significant and cause “misery in slow motion”. With growing populations and greater affluence, the demand for water is growing while the global supply of water is constant, causing increased water deficits especially in areas of particularly high population growth which are also often poor, fragile or in conflict, exacerbating existing problems for vulnerable populations. To compound the problem, with climate change rainfall will become more erratic, causing more frequent and intense droughts and floods with even more damaging impacts, as seen in 2017 across the United States, the Caribbean, in subSaharan Africa and elsewhere.
This report shows how today’s ways of managing water are outdated and proposes solutions to help the world avoid a thirsty and uncertain future. Since 2001, rainfall shocks have caused a loss of produce sufficient to feed about 81 million people every day, for the entire year. That’s equivalent to the population of Iran or Turkey. Because droughts destroy crops, new data shows that farmers are forced to expand their farmland into nearby forests to grow more food. But cutting down trees destroys watersheds, which causes rivers in the forest to dry up, decreasing the water supply that the farmers depend on. Deforestation also destroys carbon sinks, which worsens climate change and sets in motion a negative spiral, causing more droughts. Uncharted Waters also shows that droughts in cities are costlier than floods. For firms in cities, the economic cost of droughts is four times greater than that of floods, with even more severe and longerlasting effects. While the damage of floods is immediate, severe and grab the headlines, the effects of droughts are silent, slow and hard to detect. Droughts mean water shortages, power outages and stalled economic momentum. And with less water there is an increase in diseases such as diarrhea. The impacts are particularly acute for firms in the informal sector – their sales fall by around 35% and workers employed by these firms see their incomes fall. The report author, Global Lead Economist in the World Bank's Water Practice, Richard Damania explains using a metaphor: “A drought is like an undiagnosed and untreated disease because it is less visible. A flood is like a disease that is visible and so it gets treated. As a result, the aid comes in, the reconstruction starts, and therefore the city recovers reasonably rapidly. We are not saying that floods don’t do damage; we are saying that because it is much more visible and we know what to do, we do the right thing so the final impact is often not as great as with a drought.” The report also finds that for far too many families, rainfall is destiny. A dry shock in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life shapes their future. Low rainfall leads crop failures and nutritional deficits among children. A child who suffers from malnutrition in infancy will typically not develop to her full cognitive potential and may end up also being physically stunted. As a result, the child spends fewer years in school, marries earlier and bears more children. And it means less earning potential because of her reduced human capital. These impacts ripple through generations – the children of women who experienced drought in infancy are also less nourished and less healthy, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty.
Damania explains why tackling these challenges is so crucial.
“Given the magnitude of the problem, countries might grow, but they will not develop, exacerbating poverty and misery. If government policies don’t change and action is not taken, we will not reach our development goals. We will see wasted lives that don’t achieve their full potential, with far reaching human and economic implications.” The report offers tangible solutions to face this enormous challenge:
• For farms, the right economic signals are needed to control demand for water by incentivising and encouraging farmers to cultivate less thirsty crops in water-scarce regions. For example, instead of subsidising key inputs such as water, which encourages farmers to grow produce like rice and cotton in water-scarce areas, farmers can grow drought-resistant crops, which means that when a drought inevitably hits, the farmers are more resilient. • Safety nets such as conditional cash transfers and insurance triggered by droughts can help protect vulnerable families so rainfall shocks do not plunge households into starvation.
• Improved urban water supply infrastructure and better regulated water utilities can increase resilience and lead to better access to reliable and safe water for both formal and informal firms in cities. This means plugging leaks and pricing water right, so it is not wasted, and possibly subsidising water for the poorest consumers. Such solutions need to be interconnected and mutually reinforcing, says Damania: “These policies are essentially links in a chain. Each one must support and strengthen the others to be truly effective. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” By learning from the lessons of the past and implementing these solutions today, policy-makers can help shape a future which avoids a parched path and instead charts a new course when it comes to water.
Regional water tensions
Water security is not a future issue, but is a problem now. We have already witnessed many localised disputes over the control of resources - not just oil, but now water. The Pacific Institute, which studies issues of water and global security, 2found a fourfold increase in violent confrontations over water over the last decade. "I think the risk of conflicts over water is growing – not shrinking – because of increased competition, because of bad management and, ultimately, because of the impacts of climate change," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. Gleick predicted such conflicts would take other trajectories, with water tensions erupting at a more local scale. "I think the biggest worry today is sub-national conflicts – conflicts between farmers and cities, between ethnic groups, between pastoralists and farmers in Africa, between upstream users and downstream users on the same river," said Gleick. "We have more tools at the international level to resolve disputes between nations. We have diplomats. We have treaties. We have international organisations that reduce the risk that India and Pakistan will go to war over water but we have far fewer tools at the sub-national level."
In Asia, the iconic Mekong River stretches 2,700 miles from China’s Tibetan Plateau to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Along the way it snakes through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and for many of these countries the river is an economic lifeline, irrigating crops, replenishing fish stocks, and providing an abundance of fresh drinking water, local trade channels, and hydroelectricity generation. A drying Mekong increases the risk of various negative economic and humanitarian effects: reduced agricultural output, drinking water shortages, and electricity shortfalls to name a few. It also represents a water conflict with wider geopolitical implications since China can influence the hydrological fate of downstream states by adjusting the fill levels of dams in its own territory. 3
Egypt has demanded Ethiopia stop construction of a mega-dam on the Nile, vowing to protect its historical rights to the river at "any cost". The Nile River Delta is a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles from the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5% of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1% of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.
The dam, which is scheduled to be completed soon on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, supplies 59% of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also bring in $1 billion a year in badly needed foreign exchange revenue. “During this period of fill,” a new study in the Geological Society of America’s journal GSA Today4 reports, “the Nile’s fresh water flow to Egypt may be cut by 25%, with a loss of a third of the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam.” That is of course Egypt’s own massive dam on the Nile, completed in 1965, roughly 1,500 miles downstream. The GSA study, led by Smithsonian Institution geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley, says Egypt faces “serious country-wide freshwater and energy shortage by 2025.” Agriculture in the delta, which produces up to 60% of Egypt’s food, could also suffer from shortages of irrigation water.
The Lake Chad Basin is centred around the rapidly shrinking Lake Chad, and the area is home to some 30 million people across four countries. Food insecurity is already commonplace, and it’s predicted to worsen as water levels continue to drop due to climate change. This instability has been a major factor in the rise of Boko Haram, the terrorist group involved with a violent insurgency since 2009. Fleeing violence and hunger, large numbers of civilians caught up in the crisis have been displaced, further adding to the region’s instability. Without significant assistance from the international community, the crisis will certainly worsen. 5
http://www.worldbank.org/en/events/201717/10// uncharted-water Download the Report Uncharted Waters: The New Economics of Water Scarcity and Variability 1. http://www.worldbank.org/en/events/201717/10// uncharted-waters 2. http://pacinst.org/issues/water-and-conflict/ 3. https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/ water-conflict-the-mekong-river-and-chinas-water-diplomacy/ 4. http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/275//abstract/ GSATG312A.1.htm 5. https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/ climate-change-hunger-and-terrorism-in-the-lake-chad-basin/