The world is facing a water crisis. In 2014, Nestle, a multinational company, warned that water scarcity was more of a concern than climate change. According to the UN, by 2030, the world demand for freshwater will outstrip supply by 40%. Were this to happen, the crisis would be characterised by severe health concerns, national and sub-national conflict and major migration from those areas worst affected. Little wonder, therefore, that water is a central feature of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 6 outlines the world’s focus on this issue over the next 15 years: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. This will not be easy.
Conflict at many levels
The water crisis is already revealing itself in international tensions, community disharmony and outright conflict. According to the Pacific Institute—a non-profit think tank that tracks water-related conflict—the number of water-related episodes of conflict is rising and shows no signs of slowing down. For example, in South Africa, protestors in Cape Town rioted over the inability of local authorities to deliver water and other services in 2012. In Mexico City, in 2014, local residents clashed with police over the apparent exploitation of a water spring for new developments, leaving a number of people injured.
Internationally, access to rivers is a growing contributor to water scarcity. The Mekong River—taking in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam on its journey—is a prime example of the difficulties of cross-country resource management and the tensions this brings. China, where the river begins, is furiously building dams along the Mekong in an effort to provide hydropower to its growing population. This, inevitably, reduces the water to those users downstream, while also adding times of unpredictable flows as China manages the water levels in these dams. Although there are reports of more communication from the Chinese regarding dam level management, the sheer number of current and proposed dams along the Mekong – China plans a further 14 dams while downriver countries have plans for 11 more – will greatly reduce the flow of fish and the sediment that is so vital to fish stocks and soil used in downstream agriculture.
Water-related tensions are also growing at the community level. In Australia, a historically dry country, the competing claims over water from the agricultural and industrial sectors is causing a lot of concern. A case in point is the Shenhua Watermark coal mine in New South Wales, a state in Australia. The Shenhua mine is yet to be built, but is the aim of the Chinese company to draw on the state’s natural resources. The problem, however, is that this may impact prime farming land, with concomitant concerns about the impact on the local water supply for town residents. At the time of writing, a solution seems a long way off, and the Shenhua mine is further delayed.
Technological and policy innovations
Cooperation, compromise and innovation will all play a role in addressing the water crisis. The Mekong River Commission has the potential to reduce tensions as more dams are built (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam are full members; China and Myanmar are ‘dialogue partners’). Firms such as Google are using seawater and sewer water to cool data facilities, rather than freshwater. When dealing with the Millennium Drought, Australian authorities used a range of demand and supply-side initiatives to manage freshwater resources. Although not used in Australia during that period, innovative water pricing mechanisms will likely play a bigger role in managing water in coming years. Policymakers will find reluctance from consumers to pay for what was a free resource, but charging heavy users and rewarding light users makes common sense in light of the looming water crisis.
Financial Times. Nestlé warns water scarcity ‘more urgent’ than climate change.
Gleick, P. H. & Heberger, M. (2012). Water and Conflict. Events, Trends and Analysis.
Turner, A., White, S., Chong, J., Dickinson, M.A., Cooley, H. and Donnelly, K., 2016. Managing drought: Learning from Australia, prepared by the Alliance for Water Efficiency, the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and the Pacific Institute for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Water Research Foundation.