Friday, November 6, 2009
Water Scarcity briefing
Collecting water in Chennai © Peter ArmstrongWater scarcity describes an environment in which demands for water for domestic, agriculture, and industry purposes exceed its availability. Even if the donor community met all the funding demands of international NGOs for access to safe drinking water, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) could still fail through inadequate integration with the bigger water picture. “Integrated water resources management” is not limited to understanding the needs of the three user categories; it must extend geographically across separate but inter-related watersheds and rivers, across national boundaries and oceans. Under pressure from rising populations, intensive agriculture and industrialisation, water presents a global challenge of unfathomable difficulty. To borrow popular business jargon, freshwater is a "zero sum game". It is a finite resource over which competing interests are condemned to squabble. And in an unfair world, its beneficence is distributed by nature unevenly. The significance of water scarcity for the MDGs is that poor people tend to lose out in competition for scarce resources, typically through the pricing mechanism. 1.4 billion people already live in regions classed as water scarce and all projections suggest that this figure will rise sharply. Those who applaud the world's achievement of expanding food production exponentially over the last generation tend to forget the parallel demands placed on water resources which themselves are finite. Meat consumption generates great demand for water as does the new enthusiasm for biofuels – one litre of ethanol is produced from an amount of corn which is variously estimated to consume 1500-4000 litres of water. The concept of “virtual water” has been developed to rationalise this hidden consumption within everyday products and crops such as cotton, rice, coffee and sugar. Globalisation is moving this embedded or virtual water around the world, often from countries which can ill afford its loss. The omission of the cost of virtual water bears witness to another failure of modern market economics and, like carbon dioxide, there are moves to quantify this water footprint for labelling purposes and input to sustainability targets. Water demand management is the opposite side of the water scarcity coin. Nowhere is the need for demand management more acute thanthe Middle East. In addition to educational programmes for raising awareness of water conservation, wise and efficient water use measures embrace water pricing, pollution prevention, and recycled wastewater. The ultimate irony of water management in the 21st century is the increasing interest in restoration of traditional storage technologies, many of them dating from antiquity. A number of Indian states now insist that new buildings be fitted with rainwater harvesting equipment.
more background and useful links: OneWorld Water and Sanitation Guide
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