The Star (Nairobi)

9 October 2012

Kenya: Water Is the Next Global Problem

The world is on the verge of the greatest crisis it has ever faced. Worsening water security will have irreversible consequences on ecosystems, livelihoods and the global economic system.

The ever-expanding water demand by the world's growing population and economy has made water scarcity a reality in many parts of the world. We are witnessing severe damage to livelihoods, human health, and ecosystems.

It is predicted by most accounts that by 2013, global water requirements would increase by 40% above current accessible and reliable supply.

In the next two decades, global demand for fresh water will vastly outstrip reliable supply in many parts of the world, especially in the developing world.

We are exerting heavy pressure on river basins and underground aquifers. Moreover, climate change is predicted to escalate scarcity in water-stressed regions.

Global warming is expected to accelerate melting of glaciers and snow cover upon which over a billion people depend on for their water.

The world is increasingly turning its attention to the issue of water scarcity. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) of the USA recently released a report entitled Global Water Security, which posits that water supply issues around the globe will lead to economic instability, civil and international wars, and even the use of water as a weapon in the next several decades.

Predictions by the US government and the United Nations show that by 2030 over 30% of the world population will be living in river basins that will have to cope with significant water stress, including many of the countries and regions that drive global economic growth.

For instance, water tables in many countries, including the USA, India and China have dropped significantly in the last 20 years, indicating that we have exceeded our renewable water budget and are unsustainably mining the resource.

Because of increasing water scarcity, India's "green revolution" is being reversed; crop yields in northern India have fallen in some areas by 15-20%. Desertification and drought are hurting farmers in northern China, and both India and China are now significant importers of grain.

Many regions already experiencing water stress will become more stressed. Water stress may contribute to the risk of instability and state failure, particularly when combined with poverty, environmental degradation and governance incapability.More importantly, regional tensions over shared river basins are likely to rise. The Nile Basin is a case in point.

Under British colonial rule, a 1929 treaty reserved 80% of the Nile's entire flow for Egypt and Sudan. 75 percent of Egypt's water is used for agriculture, most of it wasted by inefficient, old-fashioned irrigation practices.

Investors from China, India and the Persian Gulf region have expressed interest in underwriting enormous agriculture projects in Uganda and Ethiopia. Increased upstream water use in the Nile Basin is a potential tinderbox for regional conflict.

According to the Global Water Security report, transnational water basin agreements often do not exist or are inadequate. For example, the report concludes that mechanism to the govern the Brahmaputra basin and Amu Darya basin (shared by is "inadequate," and those governing the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, and the Mekong is "limited, while the governance of the Indus and the Jordan rivers is moderate.

While climate change will undoubtedly have an increasing impact on water availability and food production over the coming decades, there are many other factors including urbanization, changing diets that will increasingly impact water availability.

The growing water gap between supply and demand is likely to have major ramifications for our planet. Urgent national and global action is needed to avert what is evidently an imminent crisis. What we need is a Blue Revolution. Actions needed to underpin a Blue Revolution must include:

Access to high quality data and monitoring networks for water planning and management. Data is critical for water allocations and also a dynamic picture of the impact of climate change and additional water use on the water resources and the environment.

If you can't measure it you cant manage it; Reform of water governance by improving determination of water rights and allocation systems, including innovative systems for valuation, pricing and trade to water productivity;

Managing agricultural water demand by increasing in irrigation efficiency, growing drought-resistant crops and improving soil water holding capacity in rainfed systems;

Managing urban water demand by increasing recycling and reuse, renovating infrastructure to reduce urban water losses, which averages 40-60% in many cities and demand management strategies including technology and pricing;

Promoting participatory watershed management and market efficiency for environmental stewardship through coupling water resource management with payments for ecosystem services.

We must act to solve the complex and related problems of water security, food security and global sustainability. And time is of essence!

Dr. Awiti is an Ecosystems Ecologist based at the Aga Khan University, Nairobi.

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