Stark risks of looming global water crisis


WORLD VIEW:IF WE live in a risk society, as the German sociologist Ulrich Beck argues persuasively that we do, it is important to understand what the risks are, writes Paul Gillespie.

A conference convened in London by the Global Markets Institute, a research wing of Goldman Sachs, put "resource scarcity - competition for water, food and energy in an era of climate change" at the top of its list, ahead of income inequality, financial integration, demographic transition and rising protectionism.

That water, until recently taken so much for granted, should occupy such a prominent position is a fascinating development. There is a gathering scientific consensus, the conference concluded, that water is the key conduit through which climate change affects world energy and agricultural markets, reinforcing the structure of rising food prices.

The challenges are most acute in emerging economies where agriculture contributes a large share of national GDP, and average incomes are low.

The economist Nicholas Stern, author of the influential 2006 report to the British government on climate change and now head of the India Observatory in the London School of Economics, illustrated the scale of the problem by arguing that India, China and Bangladesh are put at risk by two parallel processes over the next generation.

The Himalayan glaciers, containing more stored water than the Arctic, are steadily melting and will have largely disappeared by 2050 if carbon emissions are not reversed.

"The glaciers on the Himalayas are retreating, and they are the sponge that holds the water back in the rainy season. We're facing the risk of extreme run-off, with water running straight into the Bay of Bengal and taking a lot of topsoil with it," he said. "A few hundred square miles of the Himalayas are the source for all the major rivers of Asia - the Ganges, the Yellow River, the Yangtze - where three billion people live. That's almost half the world's population."

And the aquifers, or water tables, on which these countries' farmers have increasingly relied through deeper and deeper welling, will become exhausted by overuse. In India the green revolution that multiplied agricultural productivity in the 1960s also quadrupled water use.

"Water is not a renewable resource. People have been mining it without restraint because it has not been priced properly," he said.

These issues are not being tackled with the urgency they deserve by any of the governments concerned, much less with the co-operative spirit that could make mitigating action more effective. Dr Tarik Karim, a former Bangladesh ambassador to the United States, argues that it would be far better if the three states were to work together on a dam system for the immense Brahmaputra river system originating in Tibet, which falls one mile as it flows.

Instead China, with 22 per cent of the world's population and only 8 per cent of its water, is going ahead with a dam system that could divert 50 per cent of the river's flow from Tibet into India.

Dr Karim told a conference in Mumbai last month that all three states would have to give up certain rights to make collective gains, but that political leaders are all too often hostage to their respective nationalisms. They need to realise that climate change is now the ultimate determinant of riparian rights, not the highest altitudes.

The potential for political and security conflict arising from water shortages is obvious from this example. One bibliography on the subject runs to 40 pages, ranging from Asia, the Middle East, Africa to Latin America and Europe. Climate change, including water shortages, has this year been inserted into the EU's security strategy as a potential source of conflict - and one best tackled by soft political power, not hard military power.

To understand why water now looms so large politically, we should be aware that the world's population quadrupled in the 20th century, while water usage increased ninefold.

Agriculture consumes some 70 per cent of water resources, especially through subsidised irrigation, followed by industry and then human domestic use. A cheap cotton T-shirt manufactured in Bangladesh consumes 2,700 litres of water, equivalent to three weeks' personal use of water in Ireland.

But just as the most developed parts of the world are responsible for most carbon emissions, the most profligate waste of water happens here too. Biofuels are among the most irrational culprits. Although they burn cleaner than fossil fuels, they use huge quantities of water.

On average, one calorie of food is equivalent to one litre of water; but it takes 15 cubic metres of water to produce 1kg of beef, compared to six for poultry, and 1.5 for corn. Thus changing diets in India and China reinforce pressures on water supply.

Goldman Sachs sees great opportunities as well as dangers in changing water supply and demand. Pension funds find refuge in the new "blue gold" international water companies. The bank says replacing wasteful water systems in developed economies, new technologies for filtration, desalination and water metering all offer scope for profitable investment. So do privatised supply systems in developing economies.

A conflict between private capital and public services therefore looms. Development activists like the Latin American Solidarity Centre here campaign against the inclusion of water in any new free trade agreement between the EU and Latin American states.

But many ecologists agree with Nicholas Stern that water, like carbon, must be priced properly if it is to be properly conserved and cherished.