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Last updated: September 8, 2006 2:17 pm

Ask the experts: Global water shortage

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Global water shortage

This year’s hot, dry summer could become normal in the next 40 to 50 years. Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid (above left), and Frank Rijsberman (above right), director-general of the International Water Management Institute, answer your questions about the situation and how it should be tackled.

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How can we change people’s awareness of water issues at home into action to help in developing countries?
Tom Burgess, UK

Barbara Frost: We all need to become more water aware, even in the recent droughts households in the UK have been able to access high quality, safe potable water. How many of us continue to let this valuable commodity pour down the drain whilst brushing our teeth?

Yet in developing countries a woman can walk for several hours to find water which is then often contaminated with bacteria and bugs causing permanent ill health to the women and their families.

For more information on getting involved with WaterAid and seeing how we are campaigning to raise awareness and help people gain access to water and sanitation, you can visit www.wateraid.org

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I’d like to ask what the panel think governments can do about the global water problem? Do they think public pressure will make a difference?
Sally Jones, London

Barbara Frost: Increased public awareness of and action on the crisis is vital - only in this way will governments begin to prioritise financing for the sector.

It amazes me that access to drinking water is consistently in the top three priorities of communities in Africa when asked as part of the poverty reduction strategy process; but water only featured as a priority sector in just one country’s original Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans.

There is convincing evidence in the UK that public pressure on DFID has led to an increased prioritisation of water and sanitation in the aid budget; as recommended by our report “In the Public Interest” water and sanitarian are increasingly being recognised, alongside health and education, as essential services.

Frank Rijsberman: Governments are crucial in resolving the global water problem. Lack of government investments, laws that are not enforced, competing or overlapping government jurisdictions, absence of incentives to save or manage water effectively - these all need to be addressed. In many countries, reform of the water sector is urgently needed.

Public pressure is very important to get the government’s attention. Public awareness of the issues will support such public pressure. Governments are not the only stakeholders that need to take action. Community action can make a huge difference, particularly for poor people. Companies, farmers, all need to play a role - but sustainable management of water resources is at a national level is not possible without effective government action.

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Here in Manila I have been caught out a number of times in very heavy tropical rain as we make no attempt to collect the rain water. My impression of England is the same - that no effort is made to collect rainwater. The weather forecast daily predicts heavy rain somewhere in the world. Now if every household had a 500 gallon rainwater tank, how much water could be collected and could this water not be used for most household needs? It is hard to believe we are really short of water, we just make no effort to collect it!
Brian Lewis, Manila

Barbara Frost: Yes, more effort must be made to identify alternative methods for water resource management.Rain water harvesting is viable in some parts of the world, in India for example, WaterAid uses rain water collection ponds that can be used for recharging the aquifer, this is a known and tested system that should be more widely promoted.

Frank Rijsberman: True, we are not really short of water. Harvesting rainwater can indeed make a key contribution to overcoming water scarcity in places where it rains enough (and reasonably often) - in really dry places such as Rajasthan, in India, harvesting rainwater has been part of people’s lives for centuries.

Harvesting rainwater can also help to grow crops - add just a little bit of water to rainfed crops during a critical dry spell. This is in fact one of the key strategies IWMI and partners are recommending to address the water crisis in SubSaharan Africa.

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Why should we prioritise water when there are so many other urgent development projects like Aids programmes etc to invest in?
Isabella Monty, London

Barbara Frost: It’s not about either or, but recognising the contribution that access to water and sanitation makes to girls going to school, dignity for women via accessing basic services, increased economic opportunities, allowing hospital resources to be focused on diseases such as Aids rather than treating preventable water-related diseases which today claim a child’s life every 15 seconds in the developing world.

Frank Rijsberman: A project called “The Copenhagen Consensus” tried to answer exactly that question, a group of top economist argued the priority of the world’s top challenges (Lomborg, 2004, Global Crises, Global Solutions, Cambridge University Press).

They concluded that the top priorities (best projects to spend limited money on) should be:

1) HIV/Aids; 2) providing micronutrients to combat hunger; 3) trade liberalisation; and 4) malaria.

“Water” investments were rated as “good” investment opportunities (high priorities) and ranked 6, 7 and 8 out of a group of about 50 proposals. A group of UN Ambassadors repeated the same process this summer and scored “water supply and sanitation” higher - as the number 2 priority right behind HIV/Aids.

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When will we see a true global water market in place, trading the resource as the commodity it is instead of hiding under the illusion that its a god given right for 6.5bn humans, growing by mid century to 9bn if forecasts are correct? Perhaps it was a god given right in the past when the population was 1bn, but the sooner we realise that the future holds a very different path for us as a species, the sooner we can act to save ourselves and the less industrious species on this planet.
Simon Harvey, British Columbia, Canada

Barbara Frost: Water is a public good and governments have a responsibility for ensuring access for basic water and sanitation services. WaterAid believes putting processes in place that honour this in a sustainable manner is part of the solution.

Frank Rijsberman: For drinking and other domestic use (as Barbara says) water should be a public good - while for industries, agriculture and other “commercial users” water has many aspects of an economic good. That complicates things. Water is also too bulky to move around in a true global market -but the nearest thing we have is the market in food that is traded internationally.

Every ton of rice that is exported took several thousand cubic meters of water to grow. Exporting food is thus exporting (virtual) water. Importing virtual water (food) is the only option open to a water short country such as Egypt. The key water exporters are the US, Australia, Argentina and France. The outcome of the current Doha WTO round therefore has a lot do with the true global market in (virtual) water.

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Is the problem of water shortages in developing countries a physical one or a political one?
Joe Downie, London

Barbara Frost: Yes the problem is physical, political and we believe also managerial, in management terms WaterAid argues for strengthening institutions through greater public accountability and transparency. It is important to bear in mind that drinking water is typically only 10 per cent of overall water consumption and the answers to water shortage are more likely to be found in the heavy water user groups of agriculture and industry.

Frank Rijsberman: Water shortage for domestic use (drinking, cooking, bathing, washing etc.) is by and large a political issue, while water scarcity for agriculture is a physical problem for the arid countries in the Middle East, central Asia and parts of China - while it is an economic issue (lack of infrastructure, while the water is there) for most of Sub-Saharan Africa.

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With 75 per cent of the earth covered by sea water, why not consider desalination?. The process has become much more efficient and solutions are being developed to respond flexibly to water shortages in both the developed and in the developing worlds.
David Dwek, London, UK

Barbara Frost: Desalination using fuel is very demanding on not necessarily cost effective, we need to invest in alternative methods of desalination, for example non-fuel membrane technologies.

The question remains, once the water has been made safe to drink - how do we transport this water to those most in need, in often hard to reach rural areas.

Frank Rijsberman: Desalination is the answer if you live on an island with no other option, such as Singapore, or if you build a five-star hotel on a Pacific Island. Prices have come down and large cities such as Singapore can build large desalination plants combined with power plants (for cheap energy) and produce water at a acceptable costs of $0.5-1.0 per cubic meter. Hotels can simply import a 20-ft container with a complete desal plant inside: hook it up and open the tap at a cost that is small compared to the hotel bill.

For poor people or people living away from the coast this is not an affordable option. Desal plants also do have environmental impacts (they produce very salty brine). For agriculture, the value of water is often only several cents per cubic meter (up to a dollar for intensive vegetable production) and desalination is therefore not an option where there is a shortage of water for agriculture.

This also means that if there is water used in agriculture (for which farmers pay several cents per cubic metre) nearby a city that needs fresh water, then moving water out of agriculture makes more sense than desalinating it at ten times the cost.

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The World Bank reported that 80 countries have water shortages that threaten economies and health while more than 2bn people have no access to clean water or sanitation. There has been lots of talk about the need for reform of water resource management practices. I was wondering how much of the water crisis is a management issue and what kind of reforms are needed? What kind of investments (e.g. in infrastructure and water conservation education) and sacrifices (diverting the resources from arguably wasteful activities) have to be made?
Arash Nazhad, Canada

Barbara Frost: WaterAid argues that access to water and sanitation, and ensuring the equitable management of water resources, underpins the achievement of the poverty agenda. For example, with taps and toilets at home, girl children don’t have to trek for miles to find water for the family and are then able to attend school. With taps and toilets at the schools girls can continue to attend school even when menstruating.

Yes there needs to be major investment in infrastructure but this needs to be balanced with locally managed solutions where decisions on access are decided by all water users. For poor communities waste is not an issue, the average person in developing countries uses 10 litres of water a day for drinking , washing, cooking – this is the same amount we in the UK use to flush a toilet!

Improved management includes greater accountability and transparency in the way public bodies, regulators, or service providers do business.

Frank Rijsberman: Very few countries other than island nations such as Singapore do not have enough water to provide safe and affordable water for domestic use.

At the UN recommended minimum of 50 litres per person per day, it requires “only” some 20 cubic meters per person per year, where even very water scarce countries such as Egypt have something like 500 cubic meters of water per person available. To grow the food we eat every day requires as much as 70 times more water than for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing. Water scarce countries such as Egypt do not have enough water to grow their own food, they do have enough for domestic use.

A very large part of the water crisis is a management issue; I have said as much as 98 per cent. Large and growing cities may need to get (clean) water from relatively large distances, and at considerable expense - but the resource is available. Governments need to prioritise the investment and make sure there is an efficient and effective service provider for domestic water use. As water gets scarce and competition among water users heats up, governments need to make sure there are mechanisms by which water can move from lower value uses (often agriculture) to higher value uses (i.e. cities and industry, or higher value uses within agriculture such as growing vegetables). The bottom line is to do more with less water. Grow more crop per drop, or more generally, increase the productivity of water at the scale of the river basin.

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How could global corporations leverage their abilities and assets most effectively in order to become part of a solution to global water shortages, instead of - as is currently frequently the case - part of the problem?
Thomas Krick, London

Barbara Frost: The debate on the role of global corporations has become very confused not least because of the inappropriate promotion of privatisation by donors. At the heart, there needs to be an undisputed acknowledgement that the water resource is a public good, and that government has a responsibility to ensure its citizens have access to basic water and sanitation services.

There is a role for private sector skills and experience but often it is small and medium scale enterprises and not global corporations that are best suited to support provision of services.

In addition, all water users, and global corporations are no exception, need to think about their water footprint - Unilever provides a good example of this.

Frank Rijsberman: Global corporations are water users too. Industrial water users can limit, reduce and sometimes even eliminate the pollution they cause through their wastewater and they can reduce the amounts of water they use. Industry, as opposed to many other water users, responds well to the price of water: as water becomes more expensive (and environmental regulations become more stringent) companies can and will clean up their act.

A much smaller number of companies directly provide drinking water to people (as they do in England) while by and large that job is still done by governments. Where well regulated and socially accepted, those companies may be able to help solve some of the problems of the people who now do not have access to safe and affordable water, but their role will be quite limited.

Finally there are quite a few companies that rely on access to clean water, particularly in the food and beverages sector. These companies have a stake in making sure that water is well managed and can be made an actor and stakeholder in that process.

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There are stories in the markets that some water projects in developing economies which are otherwise attractive are being delayed (or worse, not happening at all) because companies are concerned about the new accounting rules for what were once off-balance-sheet schemes, and the associated impact on credit ratings. Is there a risk of such a ‘project strike’? If so, what might be done about it?
Paul Lee, London

Barbara Frost: WaterAid’s experience is working with a diverse range of service providers including self-help schemes and community managed projects. Gravity schemes in Ethiopia can cover 75 thousand people so they are not necessarily small in scale, however they do not suffer the type of risk your question poses because they are locally designed, managed and implemented.

Barbara Frost: The large majority of investments will still have to be by governments, not companies, Paul. On top of that, when we say “private sector” we often mean large multinational corporations, but in developing economies a crucial part of the private sector are the small and medium companies or (for agriculture) the millions of farmers that invest in diesel pump sets. I bet they don’t worry about Sarbanes-Oxley!

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What are you predicting in terms of cost and availability of crops? Are there any estimates of the effect of near future water scarcity on crops, cost of food and even possible famines?
Julia Viegas, US

Barbara Frost: Whilst this is outside WaterAid’s area of expertise, we are concerned about the hidden water in produce we import to the North from the South.

For example all year round availability of salad vegetables and luxuries such as flowers - especially if these are grown using irrigated water - in effect importing water from developing countries.

Frank Rijsberman: Answering these questions is exactly the role and purpose of IWMI, Julia. For longer answers please see www.iwmi.org. In short: yes, water scarcity is a major threat for food production in coming decades. Food prices are now lower than ever before, but water scarcity will change that if nothing is done.

The good news is that many things can be done; we can grow more crops with less water, produce more fish, meat, and milk and still protect the environment. But doing that will require a radical re-think of water, agriculture and environment policies.

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Background

Climate scientists forecast in 2000 that a third of the world’s population would suffer from a shortage of water by 2025, but experts have been shocked to find that this threshold has already been crossed.

This year’s hot, dry summer will be repeated many times in the future and will become normal in the next 40 to 50 years if scientists are correct, while water companies will face serious difficulties in satisfying demand during the worsening summer droughts.

Radical reform of the way water supplies are managed could be the only way to solve the world’s water crisis. Frank Rijsberman, director-general of the International Water Management Institute, said: “The last 50 years of water management practices are no model for the future when it comes to dealing with water scarcity.”

Barbara Frost, chief executive of WaterAid, said: “The real crisis is one of access to water for some of the poorest people in the world. Six thousand lives are lost everyday because people are denied their human right to clean, safe water”

In depth - Global water shortage

Fiona Harvey - Why drought overshadows world growth

Interactive map - Water scarcity and world exports

WaterAid FAQ

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