Water scarcity is expected to increase globally as populations boom and climate change sharpens uncertainty around the resource's availability, according to a report by the World Bank.
The conclusion adds to a growing body of research, and it comes days before this year's Climate Action 2016 summit in Washington, D.C. The report, titled “High and Dry: Climate Change, Water, and the Economy,” highlights the importance of water to human health, agriculture and geopolitical stability.
Water scarcity is expected to cost a swath of countries in regions such as sub-Saharan and northern Africa, the Middle East, and large parts of Asia roughly 6 percent of their gross domestic product, the report found. That's under a scenario in which emissions continue to be released as they are today.
It's a stubborn problem, the report found. Even in a scenario where nations increase their water efficiency, northern Africa and the Middle East would still see 6 percent losses to their economy.
“Water is to adaptation what energy is to mitigation, and the challenges the world will face in adapting to water issues are enormous,” the report said.
Richard Damania, a lead economist at the World Bank and an author of the report, told reporters, “Climate change is really about hydrological change, and it's really about water change.”
It's a lot easier for governments to pull more water from the ground than to fix big infrastructure problems like leaky pipes, said Damania.
“Of course the easy thing to do is to increase supply. The much harder stuff is the softer stuff—increasing efficiency, trying to reallocate water,” he added.
Water impacts reverberate far beyond the economy. Water shocks often emerge as a threat multiplier, the report finds. Drought is often associated with migration and regime change, said Carl Bruch, an attorney and director of international programs at the Environmental Law Institute.
“One thing we've found in context of water security and climate change—it really comes down to institutions and governance,” said Bruch. “Changes in water availability, timing, temperature—these are stresses. And how well a country or community copes with those stresses depends substantially on governance.”
In broad terms, a country's ability to equitably allocate water and resolve disputes peacefully can mean survival and peace for its people, he said. On the flip side, if individuals use water scarcity as an opportunity to consolidate political power, or accuse others of stealing water, the result can be war.
“This is why you see in the Sahel [region] different responses to long-term drought. Some countries, like Sudan, undergo brutal civil war, while others have escaped it,” he said.
Efficiency can spark fights
In places like Sudan, where refugee camps have sprung up and morphed into populous, semi-permanent cities housing thousands of people, water is being drained at an unsustainable rate. Many of those encampments rely on limited sources like fossil aquifers, bringing their long-term viability into question, Bruch said.
Water poses big questions in established population centers, too. Many governments are unprepared for future water shortages.
“Countries like Pakistan can only store about 30 days’worth of water—that's hugely inadequate when you look at climate change,” said David Michel, a nonresident fellow of the Environmental Security program at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit organization that works on U.S. security challenges.
Still, if countries manage to increase water efficiency and ease climate variability with increased storage, their action may also have negative consequences, said Michel. Any action on water may spark political friction, he said.
Take the example of two farmers. One of them pumps his water from an underground aquifer next to an irrigation canal, and another draws his water from the canal. If you line the canal, increasing its efficiency and cutting down on leakage, you may be helping the second farmer to the detriment of the first.
“Because leakage from the canal might have been an important source of replenishing groundwater where it was leaking,” said Michel.
That same principle can be applied on the scale of communities, and even countries.
By increasing an upstream user's ability to store water, you potentially lessen water security for people downstream. If you have two water-scarce neighbors like India and Pakistan, water action could ignite conflict.
That means organizations must tread carefully when setting international water policy, Michel said.
Then there's the question of maintenance.
“We build pumps and wells all the time, but then they break and the budget didn't include maintenance or parts,” said Michel. Or people trained to maintain the infrastructure take their skills elsewhere.
Upkeep is essential.
“Because the problems are long-term, sticking with them will also be a long-term issue,” Michel said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500