Water for Nine Billion

By Steven Venable

Photo from wallpoper.com

Photo from wallpoper.com

It's Going to Get Tight Around Here

According to the U.S. Geological survey there are 326 million cubic miles of water. Of that, 97 percent is salt, leaving 1 percent of fresh water readily available. The other 2 percent is locked in polar ice caps and reserves across the world. Having only 1 percent available leaves roughly 1/3 of the world in “water stressed” countries.  The world has an estimated 7 billion people inhabiting the earth, growing to an estimated 9 billion by the year 2050.  

A Growing Problem
Photo from sydenhamcurrent.ca

Photo from sydenhamcurrent.ca

According to Kirsty Jenkinson of the World Resources Institute (a Washington think tank), water usage has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century, posing the question how are we going to provide fresh water to these people using the 1 percent available? This provides a unique obstacle that must be looked at from angles. First, we must find fresh water and source clean water to consume. Second, we must look at the processes for cleaning and producing water in large quantities for consumption. Then we must be locate the “water stressed” countries and determine how to provide relief to their already stricken country. Other essential factors to consider will be agriculture and combatants for that, as a shortage of fresh water not only affects consumption of water and hygiene of the ‘water stressed’ countries, but also the impact it will have on their agriculture. 

Direct Consequences
From: youtube.com

There are currently 43 ‘water stressed’ countries; Ethiopia, Haiti and Niger facing the worst water shortages (an estimated 700 million people by the World Bank). The need for clean water has been echoed through time as waterborne illnesses reach around the globe, a direct consequence of the lack of fresh potable water, leading to poor cleanliness and health. Tom Koche wrote, “With each new health crisis, with each new disease, the old history is reformed and relived as resources are marshaled to confront yet another new threat.” 

From: hdrinc.com

From: hdrinc.com

Converting salt water to fresh water by through the collection of condensation is a method sailors out to sea have used for centuries. Although this method is still employed, technology has evolved and created much faster ways to generate sustainable fresh water for use. In the book Science and Technology in World History: an Introduction, it states: “Science has undoubtedly bestowed genuine benefits upon on mankind in this century, and it has fostered the hope that research can be channeled in the direction of a social utility”.  With the growth of knowledge technology has bestowed on us, one more current and efficient method used to generate fresh water is desalination, a process that removes dissolved minerals (including but not limited to salt) from seawater, brackish water, or treated wastewater. A number of technologies have been developed for desalination; reverse osmosis (RO), distillation, electro dialysis, and vacuum freezing. Seawater provides an unlimited, reliable water supply for coastal populations worldwide and brackish water is a plentiful, relatively drought-proof water resource for inland populations, reducing dependency on imported water. Water run through the desalination process is safe to drink and consume. 

Desalination, No Big Deal
From: hdrinc.com

From: hdrinc.com

According to the International Desalination Association (IDA), desalination is used in more than 100 countries, with more than half the freshwater output used in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Saudi Arabia tops the list, using close to 25 percent of worldwide desalination output produced in its more than 2,000 plants. By comparison, the United States, ranked second worldwide in desalination use, produces about 16 percent of the total output. There may be growing concern or questions as to why there aren’t so many built to date. Developing and building a desalination plant is expensive, with costs running from the millions and even billions making this not the most viable cost efficient way to end the war on water. Africa being one of the more water stricken areas desperately needs more desalination plants as does the entire middle east in preparation of 2050 and being able to produce water for their portion of the 9 billion people. 


Going To Have To Rethink Some Things

By 2050, due to water shortage resulting from population growth, land management and climate change, countries will need to reduce their consumption and improve efficiency of existing resources. National governments will face increased temporary competition internally and internationally until resources become centralized. In some instances, instability, disputes and security threats may evolve but even in this extreme illustration there are viable solutions. To cure future problems we must look at what current governments are doing to rectify or remedy water shortages. As climate changes evolve, national governments will need to operate under higher risks and uncertainties (although governments are always making decisions in areas of relative risk and uncertainty). 

National Planning

Awareness and understanding of the impact climate change will have on the world’s water resources is increasing, but the magnitude and significance is widely unknown. It is still unclear the degree of influence climate change will have on a country’s vulnerability to water disputes and instability. A set of national policy guidelines, the adaptation of coherent national planning, programs and interventions, would prevent such disputes at a national level and reduce potential international threats. In addition, policies related to water legislature revisions and national capacity, conflict management should be given priority, especially in light of the following factors:

  • Implications of climatic variability and climate change on flood control and on reductions of the quantities of surface water and groundwater
  • Adherence to co-operative arrangements and implications on water legislation and regulation
  • Consequences in relation to protection from pollution and deteriorating water quality
  • Allocation of water to consuming sectors such as agriculture – timing, spatial distribution and amount
  • Increased pollution from local and transboundary sources
  • Improving the analytical capacity of relevant water resources data as international co-operation on these issues increases
  • Fostering multiple stakeholders’ dialogues--as water management often affects diverse stakeholders, involving them would increases legitimacy and the sustainability of decisions. 

What Can We Look Forward To?

Some countries are already entrenched in conflicts. The current and the new conflict dimensions will create additional challenges. Issues to be addressed by the various governments would include:

  • Reformulations of hydro-political positions and interests
  • Changed conditions for the conflict in terms of internal and international dimensions (foreign influence creates both constraints and opportunities)
  • Ability to adopt international assistance (both technical assistance and so-called process tools -like negotiation assistance)

The international community is faced with current and new challenges in assisting countries, or groups of countries, that are already entrenched in domestic or regional conflicts (either water-related or not). International organizations (the United Nations, multilateral organizations, development banks and regional organizations) have different roles in resolving water security issues as well as preventing and resolving water-related disputes. Since the core of many of the causes behind instability, security challenges and disputes is the same, the key is not necessarily to create new interventions and institutions, but rather to improve and target the instability/conflicts in a different way than in the past. Many attempts have been made to analyze how such improvements could be done, and there are unfortunately no quick-fix solutions. For example, recent comprehensive studies of how a pivotal organization could improve its performance in preventing instability and disputes but do not offer any substantial new insight into how multilateral institutions can effectively act. 

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