Urgency of water in the context of other resource and environment issues

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

11 July 2016 See comments (0)


2015 saw a new record: 74.8 million tons of oil equivalents in the form of biofuels, the equivalent of 750 trillion calories (kcal), enough to feed more than 800 million people during one year. It was one of the points I raised in a panel on ‘Leadership and Governance’ at the joint CleanEnviro Summit of the 2016 Singapore World Cities Summit (WCS) and the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW), taking place on Monday 11 July. The key issue here is not the land used to grow the ‘food for fuel’, but the enormous water withdrawals required, as we are quickly moving to a situation of water shortage due to overuse.

Our panel was chaired by Prof Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore; and Chair of SIWW Water Leaders Summit, Fellow-panelists were His Excellency Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister & Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, Singapore, Hon Shri M Venkaiah Naidu, Minister of Urban Development, and Minister of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, Republic of India, Mrs Lucy Turnbull AO, Chief Commissioner, Greater Sydney Commission, Australia, HE Zhao Yingmin, Vice Minister of Environmental Protection, China and HE Dr Han Seung-Soo, United Nations Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Disaster Risk Reduction and Water

Preparing the session, I was asked to look into the following question: “Mr Brabeck-Letmathe, at a time when the world is focused on climate change and how to mitigate it, you have warned us that water scarcity is an equally, if not more urgent threat. May I invite you to share with us why this is so? Furthermore, how can a company like Nestlé contribute towards ensuring water sustainability? What are some solutions fellow companies can adopt to reduce their water usage and impact on the environment?”

Here are some of the points I made.

Most importantly, I underlined right at the outset that by no means do I underestimate the risk from climate change. But then made two main points underlining why water is so important in present times and a near future, points that, I believe, relate directly to leadership and governance, i.e., todays subject:

  • First, any policy reduced to one single factor and variable risks to distort a balanced outcome, even risks to be wrong
  • Second, there is a matter of urgency in the timing. In the case of water, a massive crisis seems possible within 10-15 years.

So my first point looks at biofuel policies and the water needed for it.

2015 saw a new record: 74.8 million tons of oil equivalents in the form of biofuels, in the Americas mostly ethanol, in Europe and the rest of the world mostly biodiesel.

Oil equivalents are one form to measure energy content. As biofuels are mostly derived from food, let me recalculate in the measure of energy for human nutrition. We get to 750 trillion calories (kcal) (enough to feed more than 800 million people).

Those supporting biofuel stress that there is enough spare land to grow this additional food. This may be right; the real issue is water.

According to data of the US Department of Energy: it takes up to 0.8 litres of water per kCal from bioethanol, up to 1.1 litres of water per kCal from biodiesel. Let us take a rough average of 1 litre per kCal of biofuel, this brings us to water withdrawals of up to 750 km3 per year to grow the food for this fuel and to transform into a form that allows you to drive your car. Increasingly, this water is used in places where it would be most urgently needed to grow food for humans, such as Africa.

Why does this matter?

Actually, we are heading towards a major food crisis due to water scarcity from overuse. Global shortfalls in cereal production in an order of 30% by 2030 seem possible. The 750 km3 of water withdrawals for biofuels amount to more than 22% of total withdrawals by agriculture, water that is urgently needed to grow the food and textile fibres for the global population.

In other words, we risk destroying the livelihood of millions of people based on water for food with government policies pushing biofuels with the help of subsidies and mandates, policies meant to slow down global warming.

My second point, the urgency. Water overuse is a fact already today. In 2015, the global sum of withdrawals in watersheds with water scarcity exceeded the sustainable supply by more than 19%. And the gap is quickly widening.

For the time being, we can still exploit buffers meant for times of drought. All over the world, water tables of underground aquifers with fossil water accumulated 10,000 and more years ago are quickly sinking; lakes and rivers are drying. It is not primarily the droughts getting worse, it is the increasing lack of the buffers to be used in dry spells, water reserves exhausted during times of normal precipitation.

This is the basis of the forecast quoted a moment ago, of 30% shortfalls in global cereal production by 2030, leading to famine and turmoil.

I indeed see these two points as highly relevant for global, regional, national and local leadership and governance. Let me summarise: first - continue to take threats from climate change very seriously, but put these threats and related policies in a context of other major challenges, in particular water overuse. Second: let priorities be influenced by the urgency of challenges. 2030 is right around the corner!

As ever, I welcome comments and suggestions from the readers of my blog!

Blog commenting form