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Water: the big issue for the 21st Century

A talk to the Oxford International Biomedical Centre, Magdalen College School, Oxford. 2003-03-31


Water is the life blood of our planet. It covers more than two thirds of the earth's surface and comprises more than two thirds of the composition of every human being. Life on earth started in water and without water life as we know it cannot continue.

For most humans beyond historical reckoning water is a gift from God. In Africa water is associated with dances, while in India the arrival of the monsoon is celebrated. I remember that in rural Mexico my purified water containers were once smashed: they represented an offence to God for pricing what should be free. But now almost everywhere there is the realization that water is a most precious resource. For many peoples such realization is scarcely new. Civilizations have lived and died by water: witness its control and use in the great river valleys of the Nile, Indus, Yangtze and Euphrates. Yet nowhere is it valued according to its true economic cost.

Environmental problems

Water is linked to everything else. There are five main related environmental problems:

First we have been multiplying our numbers at a giddy rate. At the time of Thomas Malthus the population was one billion. Now there are six billion, while according to the UN Environment Programme, despite all our efforts, our population is set to top 9.3 billion by the year 2050. Indeed since the Rio Conference of 1992, more than 500 million new people have joined the population. The scale of the problem goes well beyond these staggering figures. Half of humanity now lives in cities, many of which are unsustainable by any standards. Increasing flows of environmental and political refuges, disease, drug trafficking and terrorism are all growing indicators of how the mounting global population will affect us all.

Next is deterioration of land quality and accumulation of wastes. We have been damaging the soils which sustain all terrestrial creatures. Soil degradation is estimated to affect over two billion hectares worldwide. According to the UN Environment Programme, 65% of all arable land my have already lost some biological and physical functions. Disposal of the mounting volumes of waste we produce could become an even bigger problem.

Next we have been changing the chemistry of the atmosphere, and of course patterns of rainfall worldwide. Acid precipitation can be dealt with when there is sufficient political will. There is an array of international agreements to manage and eventually reverse depletion of the ozone layer. Climate change is more difficult. It relates directly to the ways in which we produce and use energy. Since the industrial revolution we have been using the sky as a waste unit. As a result carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now reached its highest level in more than 400,000 years, and is a third higher than in pre-industrial times. The science of the carbon cycle is imperfectly understood, but there is a clear relationship between atmospheric carbon and global surface temperature.

The only real controversy is about the degree of change we are bringing about. The Third Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published last year suggests rises in average global surface temperature of between 1.4% and 5.8% C by the end of this century, an increase on its previous Assessment of 1996. Sea level is predicted to rise between 9 and 88 cm between 1990 and 2100.

Next is our continuing destruction of other living species at rates comparable to those caused by extraterrestrial impacts in the long past. Current rates of extinction could be many times what they would be under natural conditions. The number of endangered or threatened species listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has dramatically increased. One in four mammal species, which are key indicators of eco-system health, are facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.

On a global scale, damage to ecosystems is already extensive and the future course of evolution will be substantially changed by current human activity. Nowhere is this more true than in the micro-world of bacteria and viruses, which learn how to react to almost any drug we may throw at them. Humans take twenty years to reproduce. Bacteria do the job in twenty minutes. Nor can we yet assess the effects of introduction of genetically modified organisms.


The final environmental problem relates to water, which is fundamental to life on the water planet. Some of the issues concern salt water. Oceanic pollution is worst offshore with spillages from ships posing a major danger to marine life. But even on Spitzbergen in the high Arctic, glaucous gulls are dying with 100 times the background concentration of polychlorinated biphenyls in their brains. In the oceans as a whole, fish stocks are a useful test. In the North Sea, cod stocks have effectively collapsed leading to calls for an outright ban on fishing of this well known British staple. Recent estimates by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that at least 60% of world fisheries are fully exploited or over fished. Coral reefs in terms of productivity and species richness are equivalent to marine rainforests. An estimated 27% are thought already to have been lost. A further 32% may be destroyed during the next 30 years.

Just as salt water is becoming polluted, so even more is fresh water. 97% of the water on the earth is sea water, and of the other 3%, 2% is locked up in ice at the poles. There is rising competition for the remaining 1% which is needed not only for agriculture and human consumption, but also for industry. However demand for fresh water has doubled every 21 years. The number of people who will face severe water problems could be almost three billion by 2050. Yet the amount of fresh water available remains the same as it was at the time of the Roman Empire when the human population was something over 400 million. For the most part, areas least well supplied with water by nature are also those whose poverty makes them least able to afford compensating measures or are least skilled in maximising efficient use.

It has been estimated that the world's population currently uses 54% of all accessible fresh water flowing in rivers and streams. At projected rates of population growth humanity could use more than 70% of all accessible fresh water by 2025. Already over a quarter of the world's people do not have safe water to drink or proper sanitation. According to UNEP, at any given time an estimated half of people in poor countries are suffering from diseases caused either directly by infection through consumption of contaminated water or food, or indirectly by such disease-carrying organisms as mosquitoes that breed in water. These diseases include diarrhoea, schistosomiasis, dengue fever, malaria, river blindness and trachoma. 80% of diseases in poorer countries are caused by contaminated water.

Agriculture is by far the largest user of water. 70% of all water withdrawn is used for irrigation and one half of that is lost to seepage and evaporation. Agriculture accounts for 87% of China's water consumption.

All the factors can combine to produce further damaging effects on ecosystems: through pollution of lakes and rivers (from agriculture and industry), damages to, and exhaustion of aquifers (the Sahara, Saudi Arabia, China and Baja California), deforestation and depletion of top soils lead to faster run off, and disruption of the hydrological cycle with incalculable consequences for life generally. According to UNEP, 20% of freshwater fish species have been pushed to the edge of extinction by contaminated water.

As well set out in a recent article in Nature, Bangladesh is a good illustration of the complexity and linkages between water issues. The threat of climate change and sea-level rise to low-lying Bangladesh is well- recognized though it has not been a spur for action at a global level. As well as flooding there is the danger of salt water intrusion into freshwater sources. At the same time 30 million Bangladeshis are affected by arsenic contamination in freshwater tube wells. These wells had been built as a response to sanitation problems caused by overcrowding and flooding on the Bengal Delta. Added to this are water shortages during the dry season. In 1974 these were compounded by India's upstream diversion of part of the Ganges to provide water for the city of Calcutta. The scheme has soured Indian-Bangladeshi relations ever since.

Elsewhere conflicts may arise in the future as in the past over the quality and quantity of water. There are a number of examples. The Nile flows through nine countries which are planning to extract more water with little regard to supply or each other's needs; Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates via 33 dams, while downstream countries like Syria, Israel and Iraq depend completely on outside supplies; 300 million Indian farmers depend on the Ganges, but deforestation in Himalayan foothills is disrupting the flow and India blames Nepal; and the United States and Mexico still have great difficulties over the Colorado (at one point the Mexicans threatened to retaliate by putting raw sewage into San Diego bay until the Americans agreed to allow more water to reach Mexico and its once flourishing horticultural industry). Problems of supply are matched by problems of quality. In most agricultural and all urban areas there is serious deterioration of rivers and aquifers. Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of UNEP, is "convinced that there will be a conflict over natural resources, particularly water".

The Response

Looking ahead what should we expect? Obviously the key factor is supply, and supply is dependent on climate. Changes in global temperature are bound to affect the hydrological cycle. Although confidence in modelling has increased there remain many uncertainties which make it difficult to quantify the risks involved or the regions most likely to be affected. Wet areas may become dry, and dry areas wet. It has happened many times before in history.

The responses to the rise in sea level will be compounded movements in the human population. Over a third of the world's population now lives within 100 kilometres of a shoreline. This percentage is set to grow. With confidence in the prediction of an increase in extreme and usually destructive events also having improved, the implications for coastal populations are clear.

The severity of the impacts will depend upon the how swiftly we decide to respond. The United Nations Environment Programme has produced two scenarios for the next thirty years as part of its GEO 3 future assessment. One envisions a future driven by market forces and is called Markets First. The other Sustainability First foresees far reaching changes in values and lifestyles, firm policies and co-operation between all sectors of society.

Under the Markets First scenario the number of people living in areas with severe water stress both in absolute and relative terms increases in virtually all parts of the globe. An estimated 55 per cent of the global population would be affected, up from over 40 per cent in 2002. The highest proportions of people living with severe water stress are in West Asia, with over 95 per cent, and Asia and the Pacific, with over 65 per cent.

Under a Sustainability First future, most regions see the area under water stress remaining more or less constant or even falling as more efficient management of water reduces water withdrawals, especially for irrigation. In West Asia, the number living in areas of severe water stress would be kept at around 90 per cent of the population; in the United States, the figure would halve to around a fifth of the population, and in Europe it would drop from around a third now to just over 10 per cent by 2032.

What of oceanic pollution?- Here the picture is similar. Under the Markets First scenario the picture is bleak for many areas, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific and West Asia. With Sustainability First, better management of sewage and run off leads to only small increases in coastal pollution except for in West Asia.

The Background

The sum of the GEO 3 reports show changes which amount to an acceleration of environmental change unprecedented since humans became an identifiable animal species. As hunters and gatherers, our effect on the earth was confined to relatively small areas. Only recently has the scale of human expansion reached the point where it affects the planet as a whole. We are now in a unique situation, well brought out in a recent book on the 20th century entitled Something New Under the Sun, and made specific in the Declaration made by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that:

"Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth's System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life… the Earth's System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least…The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state".

"The accelerating human transformation of the Earth's environment is not sustainable. Therefore the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth's System is not an option. It has to be replaced - as soon as possible - by deliberate strategies of management that sustain the Earth's environment while meeting social and economic development objectives".

Global governmental Action

Two major conferences should have given real momentum to coping with the water issue. The first was the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last year. Water was one of the five main points for the agenda put forward by the UN Secretary General. Targets were agreed on over-fishing and marine reserves, where the goal was to restore depleted fish stocks by 2015. On sanitation the goal agreed was to halve the numbers of those without access to proper sanitation by 2015. This sits well with, but rather repeated, an existing goal set in the UN Millennium Declaration to halve the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by the same date.

But what of the wider context in which water problems will be solved? Some specific targets were reached but basically the political Declaration was a triumph of repackaging. Only time will tell the value of the fifty-four page Plan of Implementation, but it has already been described as, "Many trees, but little wood". The hundred or so partnership agreements and the wide scope of NGO activities offer some hope for the future. Yet Johannesburg was in most respects a failure. It did not recognize the character of the threats facing the Earth as a whole, nor suggest ways of coping with them.

Iraq has dominated the international agenda since the Johannesburg Summit. Not only did it divert attention from sustainable development, but also - and worse - it began in circumstances which abandoned the multilateral approach to international problems, and undermined the authority of the United Nations. At Johannesburg the European Union played a lead role, but the Iraq crisis has damaged European cohesion and, at least in the short term, may have reduced the scope for Europe to take a lead where global action is blocked.

One clear casualty of the Iraq war was the Third World Water Forum which took place in Kyoto earlier this month. It has received virtually no coverage and was described in Nature magazine as being in danger of becoming:

"the biggest and most expensive non-event in history".

There were good proposals on the table. Echoing an earlier call by the British Government Commission on Sustainable Development for a water equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the French delegation suggested the creation of a global water authority to co-ordinate water issues. But this proposal lost momentum once President Chirac decided not to attend because of the Iraq war.

One hundred minor and rather vague commitments were made. But the main objective for the Forum was to put the detail and identify the finance for water related targets set in Johannesburg. No real financial pledges were made and the calls for much of the funding to be met by private investment were greeted with howls of protest. There was ….deep division between those who want to build major dams, and those who want a more local approach, indeed what has been called rainwater harvesting.


This brings me to the question of values. Sustainable development may mean different things to different people, but the idea itself is simple. We must work out models for a relatively steady state society, with population in broad balance with resources.

Top of my list is to rethink a lot of economics. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the statement by a well-known economist that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". In short without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy. But there is a real difficulty on how to assess health. The ideologues of free trade like to suggest the price mechanism. But as another distinguished American once remarked: "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognizing costs".

Prices are indicators. But we have to make sure that they tell the truth about costs. A pricing system should include not only the traditional costs, but also those involved in replacing the resource, and those of the damage that use of the resource may do. In short current market economics will not do. We need new systems of measurement and new definitions of wealth as well as of that phrase beloved of politicians "economic growth". We should heed the words of Oystein Dahle, former Vice President of Esso for Norway and the North Sea who once said:

" Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."

How does this relate to water? There seem to me some obvious points. Water should be treated as it is: a most precious resource, and priced accordingly. It may not suit politicians, consumers or even OFWAT (the regulatory body to protect consumers) but that is the reality. There should be an end to subsidies whether open or covert. At present water prices are absurdly cheap world wide as a proportion of economic cost: 60% in Israel, 22% in Britain, and still lower elsewhere. In South Africa there is a current attempt to bring them up to 100%. There should also be much wider differential prices within countries.

We must make better use of water. It is cheaper to stop leaks than to increase capacity. According to UNEP 40-60% of water used by utilities is lost to leakage, theft and poor accounting.

Much water used is of drinking water standard but need not be. In industrial countries, flush lavatories are the largest single drain on domestic water supplies. There is scope for two grades of water. In Australia, in areas of scarce water, rain water tanks are used for drinking and the water from the taps is for other uses only. There are a number of water saving devices which should be more widely used, such as short flush lavatories with smaller cisterns, low water use washing machines, smaller baths and tendency for showers.

We can reconstruct infrastructures for collection, distribution and sanitation: a national grid is a possibility but would entail huge capital cost. Interbasin transfers have been considered but the impact on ecology are unknown. Large scale water project such as that of the Aral Sea have an unhappy history. In Britain the areas with greatest projected increase in demand are those least able to increase capacity. Already the Welsh reservoirs supply most of the water for the Midlands. As family units get smaller and the number of households increases, demand increases disproportionally.

Water saving technologies must be introduced in agriculture. Irrigation for agriculture accounts for two thirds of humanity's water use and thanks to seepage and evaporation up to 60% of the diverted water is lost. Making irrigation more efficient should be a top priority: drip systems are up to 90% efficient and could replace many of the traditional canal systems. Awareness of climate change might encourage appropriate use of crops rather than increasing irrigation use. Water saving technologies such as abstraction charging, increased charging, and greater re-use of effluent, could be used in industry.

Bringing about change

With the current situation in Iraq, thing seem bleak. You may wonder how changes in direction ever take place. The power of inertia is immensely strong, especially in the functioning engine-room of society - the middle ranks - whether in government, business or elsewhere. It is all too easy to get lost in the sheer mechanics of making things work. Such changes usually occur at a low and stately pace as new generations come of age. But this time the combination of the environmental and political agendas has urgency.

Change usually takes place for three main reasons. First we need leadership from above by institutions or individuals. Secondly we need public pressure from below. The voice of civil society must be heard and listened to. Lastly we often need some useful catastrophes to jerk us out of our normal inertia; big but not too big; small enough but not too small; quick but not too quick; slow but not too slow. In each case big enough to demonstrate the point. Such catastrophes could include drought or flood, sea level rise, refugees on the march, some new genetically modified organism getting out of control, and most likely creeping social and economic breakdown.

Above all we must bring water - supply and demand - with other environmental considerations into the centres of decision making. In devising prices we should work for the greatest possible flexibility, and expect the unexpected. Management of water supplied is peculiarly subject to both natural and manmade hazard. That means enlarging our options now. We do not have to be educated by disaster. But unfortunately a disaster or the prospect of one, is sometimes necessary to push governments under pressure from pubic opinion into action. As Sam Johnson said:

"Depend on it Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully".


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