World: Thirst for water

from International Relations and Security Network
Published on 09 Sep 2009 View Original
Experts predict that by 2025, two-thirds of the world's population will face water shortages, and Europe will be no exception, Diana Ionescu writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Diana Ionescu for ISN Security Watch

Worldwide, more than 1 billion people live without access to safe water and up to 4 million people (mostly children) die every year from water-related diseases.

Dry and densely populated regions often lack the necessary water resources as well as the infrastructure to ensure the vital amount of freshwater needed. As a result, one-third of the world's population has to get by on just 10 percent of total freshwater reserves.

Growing population and environmental trends such as desertification, pollution and climate change increasingly suggest that unless water management is improved the future will bring significant challenges. Indeed, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population will live in water distress, which is associated with famine, disease and water conflicts.

Tensions have mostly arisen from competing interstate water needs in transboundary lakes and river basins. One of the most prominent cases is the conflict between the water-scarce riparian countries of Israel, Syria and Palestine over the Jordan River.

In South Asia, India and Pakistan have been at odds over the Indus, and in Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been considered to be at high risk of war over shared water resources in the Nile River basin. Water shortages in those countries necessitate the import of food, since domestic production is not sufficient.

Although no actual water war has occurred since 2500 BC, as observed by Aaron Wolf from Oregon State University, violence has certainly been involved in a number of cross-border tensions. One such case in point is the communal conflict at the border between Mauritania and Mali along the Senegal watershed, in which 13 people died in 1999.

Water disputes have not only cast a shadow on interstate relationships, major conflicts have also occurred at a local level. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, privatizing the water systems in 1999 sparked fierce riots prompting the declaration of a state of emergency.

Europe has largely been insulated from such effects of water scarcity. The only noteworthy conflict in the region has emerged from the so-called Great Anatolian Project (GAP) started by Turkey in the 1980s, involving 22 dams, 19 hydropower stations and irrigation plants in the Euphrates-Tigris basin. The undertaking has triggered frictions with downstream riparian neighbors Iraq and Syria, which fear being deprived of water. Turkey - as an upstream country - enjoys a strong geo-economic position and is suspected to capitalize on that.

Europe: South runs dry

Nevertheless, water scarcity is becoming an increasingly critical issue in Europe as well. A communication from the European Commission released in 2007 estimated that 11 percent of Europe's population and 17 percent of the territory has been affected by water scarcity. Over-abstraction, droughts and lowered lake and groundwater levels have upset the equilibrium between demand and supply, particularly in the south of Europe.

Turkey is a primary environmental concern. Lake Tuz, once the country's largest, situated in the Konya basin, has dried up completely and is steadily transforming into a salt desert. Several other smaller bodies of water have also been affected, and groundwater reservoirs have dropped significantly, leading to water shortages in Ankara last year.

Robert Collins, an agri-environmental expert from the European Environment Agency told ISN Security Watch, "the two main factors leading to the dry-out were periods of drought combined with excessive abstraction of water for agricultural use.

"It is not the only region in Europe which is affected by water scarcity and drought," he added, "irrigated agriculture just inland and heavy tourist water demand in coastal areas make other southern European regions particularly susceptible."

Indeed, Cyprus has experienced severe water distress in recent years. On average, it exploits 45 percent of its annual renewable resources, which is well above the 20 percent threshold indicating shortage. In spite of steady water supply growth during the last 20 years, droughts and increasing demand have challenged the country's capability to manage water systems.

The year 2008, an extremely dry year, required a water supply cut of 30 percent. Additionally, water needed to be shipped from Greece, since demand could only partly be satisfied by accessing domestic water reservoirs. Shortly afterwards, the Water Office on Crete made an alarming discovery: Underground reserves had declined by 15 meters since 2005.

Greece, for its part, is not much better off. The Vocha plain in the south of the country has experienced a 65-percent increase in population since the 1970s. As a result of excessive abstraction and over-exploitation of the aquifer, the groundwater level has declined.

Not so far away, water demand in the Greater Athens region has been growing at an unsustainable rate of 6 percent annually - which means that in a few years the water supply system will be overstressed.

Similar problems have occurred in Spain, when the reservoirs supplying Barcelona declined to such an extent that water was planned to be sourced from southern Catalonia, Marseille and Almeria in April 2008. Rains in May finally averted the €22 million water shipments. On average, the country exploits 34 percent of its annual renewable freshwater resources; the regions Andalusia and Segura break ranks by reaching 164 percent and 127 percent, respectively.

Climatologists expect a decline of precipitation in southern Europe. This could lower river flows and damage water quality, thereby aggravating the existing problems. According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), average temperatures have climbed by 1.48°C during the last century. Considering the fact that 40 percent of Europe's freshwater is provided by the Alps, melting glaciers pose a serious risk to European water supply.

Northern Europe is also increasingly becoming concerned about water supply, as Thames Water has demonstrated by building a desalination plant in Newham, East London, in order to reduce the risk of local water shortages. It is scheduled to open in early 2010.

Major investments and cooperation needed

Water scarcity is not only a question of natural resource availability, but often results from a lack of investment in infrastructure and institutions which constitute the necessary water network. The World Water Council calculated that investment in water systems needs to double to reach $180 billion per year in order to address the problem.

The OECD, the European Commission and the EEA advocate demand-led water resource management, focusing on conserving water and using it more efficiently instead of continuously increasing supply. Also, the EU Water Framework Directive aims at promoting "sustainable water use based on a long-term protection of available water resources."

In many cases, water seems to be a victim of the 'tragedy of the commons,' resulting from the attitude that water is a free good, for which no individual is responsible. However, quite the contrary is true.

According to Collins "the implementation of a more sustainable management of water is crucial across all sectors, including agriculture, industry and household use, and can help to cope with periods of drought."

To that end, national and international cooperation is indispensable.

Although water has caused several conflicts, approximately 295 international and even more bilateral water agreements have been signed since 1948, which shows that water is such an essential resource that parties would rather create win-win situations by cooperation than gain by antagonizing their neighbors.

Anton Earle, project director of capacity building and transboundary water management specialist at the Stockholm International Water Institute, told ISN Security Watch, "Countries cannot manage water as a stock, but have to treat it as a flux. The behavior of up and downstream neighbors can have great impact on their own water quality and availability, so they have a vested interest in cooperation.

"The International Commission for the Protection of the Danube is one such example," he added, "there is the possibility of conflict between countries along the Danube, but cooperation is far more efficient."

Diana Ionescu is a postgraduate student at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and a graduate student at the Vienna Law Faculty.