The looming global water crisis and the need for international education and cooperation

Richard D. Robarts and Robert G. Wetzel

The foremost critical natural resource issue facing humanity is fresh water. In the new millennium, the world’s population will continue to increase even though no more fresh water will exist on earth than there was 2,000 years ago when the population was <3% of its current size (Hinrichsen et al., 1998). It is not a cliché to say that water is the source of life on earth.

In many regions of the world people are removing water from rivers, lakes and aquifers faster than these systems can be recharged. It has been estimated that population growth alone will mean that the number of water-stressed, or water-scarce, countries will increase from 31 to 48 within the next 30 years (Hinrichsen et al., 1998). In addition to population growth, the demand for fresh water has been rising in response to industrial development, increasing reliance on irrigated agriculture, massive urbanization, and rising living standards. Annual global water withdrawals since 1940 have increased by an average of 2.5 to 3% per year compared with an annual population increase of 1.5 – 2%. In developing countries, water withdrawal rates have increased at a significantly higher rate of 4 – 8% per year.

Global freshwater resources are shrinking not only in quantitative terms, but also in qualitative terms because many freshwater systems have become increasingly polluted with a wide variety of human, agricultural and industrial wastes. Many developing countries are faced with difficult choices as they find themselves caught between finite and increasingly polluted water supplies on the one hand, and rapidly rising demand from population growth and development on the other. Water shortages and pollution are causing widespread public health problems, limiting economic and agricultural development, and harming a wide range of ecosystems. Such shortfalls and contamination will put global food supplies in jeopardy and lead to economic stagnation in many areas of the world. The result could be a series of local and regional water crises with global implications (CSD, 1997).

Although the situation with the world’s freshwater resources is bleak, a crisis is not inevitable (de Villiers, 1999). The occurrence and potential of freshwater crises are greatest in many water-short regions but in other regions the problems could be managed if appropriate policies and strategies are formulated, agreed to, and acted upon soon. As noted in CSD (1997) there are bright spots in the global freshwater picture. Some significant improvements in water quality have occurred, particularly when citizen pressures for clean-ups grew and governments and industry responded. Most developed countries have begun treating an increasing part of their municipal sewage and a number of industries are reducing discharges of many toxic substances. These actions have led to reduced risks to human health and biodiversity. Further, some countries have also made impressive reductions in the quantity of water needed for irrigation, industrial, and municipal purposes by using more effective water management systems and better technologies. These improvements have usually been driven by water shortages and by increases in the price of water. Improved irrigation water management results not only in marked reductions in costs but also in fewer losses from seepage and evapotranspiration, as well as in reduced pooling of water, which reduces transmission of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis.

Concern over the global implications of water problems was raised almost 30 years ago at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm (1972). Since then, a number of meetings have focused on this issue including: the United Nations Water Conference in Mar del Plata (1977, Argentina), the Global Consultation on Safe Water and Sanitation for the 1990s (1990, New Delhi), the International Conference on Water and the Environment: Development Issues for the 21st Century (1992, Dublin), the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992, Rio de Janeiro), and the Ministerial Conference on Drinking Water and Environmental Sanitation (1994, Noordwijk). These types of meetings continue to be held, most recently in France and Zimbabwe in 1998, and will continue in the future. However, the bottom line is that although countries have agreed to numerous recommendations at these international meetings, for the most part the international development community and national governments have yet to turn these words into actions (Hinrichsen et al., 1998). While we are all aware of the politics that prevent national governments from working together, the lack of cooperation between the large array of international agencies is equally a problem, but perhaps less well known. The quality of our fresh waters, and indeed of our marine waters, will continue to deteriorate if governments and these agencies cannot work cooperatively for the common good.

As the quality of surface and ground waters decreases, various strategies were employed historically to acquire more water from alternative sources (e.g., Francko and Wetzel, 1983). An initial response has been to apply a technological solution to obtain more water, such as to locate and exploit deeper aquifers. A poor but frequently used means is expansionism by military force to acquire water resources. Witness such flagrant water-rights martial conflicts in the development of the western United States and in the Middle East if one feels that we have matured beyond this primitive strategy (e.g., Walton, 1992; Reisner, 1993; Murakami, 1995; McCully, 1996).

As water pollution and water depletion confront peoples, a repetitive series of reactions and responses occur, as they have in the past (Wetzel, 1992). Environmental crises initially invite technical and managerial responses at each section and component of the society. Interest groups attack the problem, but their piecemeal therapeutic approaches do little to eliminate the root causes of the deficiency or pollution problems. Problems are accepted and treated, rather than prevented.

The managerial response with a solution, either locally or nationally, is almost always to an acute crisis situation (Wetzel, 1992). The crisis must be of sufficient magnitude to be perceived as a threat to the political security of those entrusted with the power to effect changes and corrective actions. Public outcries demand action from water managers if they are to avoid political suicide. Scientific and technological responses to water crises vary depending upon the perspectives of the group promulgating them. Water management decisions and responses are guided not necessarily by the best scientific analyses but rather those actions most harmonious with immediate aims and values of the existing power structure. These convoluted and delayed responses invariably result in temporary or partial solutions at much greater costs (10 to 100´) than if anticipatory preventative actions were taken.

The world needs sustainable water management but we are not headed in the right direction fast enough. Without a strong and committed move to a new direction, many more areas will face water shortages, many more people will suffer, more conflicts over water will occur, and more precious aquatic systems will be destroyed. Hinrichsen et al. (1998) have called for a ‘Blue Revolution’ in water management to conserve and manage freshwater supplies with the hope that it will transform world water management as the Green Revolution transformed agriculture in the 1960s. However, such a revolution will require (a) foremost an understanding by the public of what the problems are, what they mean to their well-being, and how they can be confronted economically and still maintain an improved standard of living, and (b) coordinated responses at local, national and international levels. Knowledge, recognition, and concern for the water problems facing the world can help to force the political will to avert crises and develop the commitments needed to assure that humanity’s apparently unquenchable thirst for water does not exhaust the world’s finite water supply.

SIL is an international organization of professional aquatic scientists. We as limnologists and water resource managers are being forced to face the realities of the rapidly changing quality and quantity of fresh water. SIL members need to be aware of water issues not only at the local and national levels, but also at the global level and to participate in educating the public to both the severities of the problems and reasonable prophylactic measures.

Through our profession and other associations, we have a responsibility to play a significant role in bringing to the understanding and action of all concerned that water problems focus on both quality as well as quantity of freshwater resources. Although traditionally professional associations work with government and international agency officials, the urgent need for concerted action now to solve the multitude of problems facing an increasingly water-short world must be carried to the public as well. The public must understand the magnitude of the problems in order to force their political representatives to take remedial and preventative actions. That public understanding must include the recognition that it is in both their short-term and long-term financial and health interests to treat water as a resource with true economic value. Water values must include total costs of acquisition, transport and distribution, and treatment after use. It is not idealistic to recognize that release of used water to the environment should be permitted only in purified form of a chemical and biological quality equal to or better than that received from sources – this condition is essential to survival of humankind at any reasonable living standards under present and impending human population increases and climatic changes. It is not idealistic to recognize that ground water is a collective resource of society. Individual landowners do not have a right to deplete or contaminate aquifers that extend beyond their properties for reasons of short-term exploitation. It is not idealistic the demand that most of the 85 per cent of global freshwater use for agriculture be applied to the plants, not to the air in spraying systems that lose half or more of it before it reaches the soil. It is not unreasonable to demand accelerated development of drought-resistant and salt-tolerant crops to accommodate the increased vagaries in climate induced by atmospheric pollution. It is not idealistic to demand that industry accept the massive economic savings that they can accrue by means of applications of intensive water recycling protocols that result in fewer demands for water and reduced releases of degraded water for treatment by society. And it is not idealistic to educate individuals in industrialized countries of their economic gains, without any loss of quality of life, accrued by reduction by >50 per cent of water consumption by simple improved efficiency of water use. These educational responsibilities are just as important as the professional research and application responsibilities of limnologists. Perhaps they are more important in the long-term until society achieves ecological maturity for wise water use.

References Cited

CSD (Commission for Sustainable Development). 1997. Comprehensive assessment of the freshwater resources of the world. Stockholm Environment Institute, World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, 35 + v pp. De Villiers, M. 1999. Water. Stoddart Publishing, Toronto. 413 pp.

Francko, D.A. and Wetzel, R.G. 1983. To Quench Our Thirst: The Present and Future Status of Freshwater Resources of the United States. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor. 148 pp. Hinrichsen, D., Robey, B. and Upadhyay, U.D. 1998. Solutions for a water-short world. Population Reports, Series M, No. 14, John Hopkins School of Public Health, Population Information Program, Baltimore. 31 pp.

McCully, P. 1996. Silenced Rivers: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Penguin Books, New York. 582 pp.

Murakami, M. 1995. Managing Water for Peace in the Middle East: Alternative Strategies. United Nations University Press, Tokyo. 309 pp.

Reisner, M. 1993. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Penguin Books, New York. 582 pp.

Walton, J. 1992. Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California. Univ. California Press, Berkeley. 378 pp.

Wetzel, R.G. 1992. Clean water: A fading resource. Hydrobiologia 243/244:21-30.