GLOBAL WATER CHALLENGE: International partnerships can help us progress towards a solution.
The world is walking towards a crisis that it barely recognises. In scale and significance, it dwarfs all the others it is intricately connected with.
This issue is water. As unbelievable as it sounds, we are running out of it and the window we have to solve this issue is narrow and rapidly closing. Over the next 20 years, the world’s thirst for water will grow by 50%. By 2030, water withdrawals will exceed natural renewals by 60%.
This will have a devastating impact on the quality and cost of the water we all need to survive, but in ways that are perhaps not immediately obvious. The water we drink, clean, and cook with represents only the smallest part of the water we use. Far greater is the 90% of the world’s total supply of water that we use to grow the food we eat.
This is because it takes one litre of water to produce one calorie of food. Compared to the 3-4 litres of water we drink, the average daily diet requires up to 6,000 litres of water to grow the crops that find their way on to our plates.
Put this in the context of feeding a growing population and you immediately realise that the acute water shortages, which will directly affect a third of the world’s population by 2030, will also ultimately lead to a critical shortage of food the world over. Less food will result in higher prices and plunge millions into poverty and famine.
We face global shortfalls by 2025
If we continue the way we are using water today, and factor in higher food needs for a growing population, competing water users such as oil and thermal energy, as well as municipal water for a rapidly growing number of urban dwellers, we should expect global shortfalls in cereal production in the order of 30% by 2025. This would be a loss equivalent to the entire grain crops of India and the United States combined.
As we can see, the crises affecting water and food are interdependent. Astonishingly, however, it remains absent from international to-do lists.
Suggesting solutions to a formidable challenge
By writing this blog, my aim is to bring greater visibility to the issue, and to dare to suggest solutions to such a challenge. In practice, many of these challenges are intensely local. This was first, and perhaps most powerfully, brought to life for me in March 2004 during a conversation with farmers in the Indian Punjab region.
With water tables falling across the region one metre per year, these farmers were dealing directly with the effects of an overuse of water to irrigate fields with pumps originally subsidised by the government and electricity provided for free. They knew that if groundwater tables continued to fall, their own livelihood would be at risk. But with neighbouring villages likely to continue withdrawing water, and ongoing government subsidies, the farmers saw the utter futility of changing their own habits without effective joint efforts of all major stakeholders in their watershed; and so they wouldn’t.
Played out on an international scale, this is the crux: without partnership between all those who share a stake in the problem we won’t make progress towards any meaningful solution.
The enormity of the challenge is great, and the need to act is urgent. Over the coming weeks, I will also explore and share some of the thinking and potential solutions that I come across as part of my job and through my involvement in international groups such as the WEF 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG). There is no silver bullet to solving a challenge of this enormity, so practical thoughts on how we can better address this issue are always welcome.