Time, what a precious good. I didn’t find any of it yesterday to really sit down and put some words on the paper. I didn’t feel like it, either. Exhausted, stressed, out of ideas. Today, I’ll simply write twice as much. Can’t be that difficult, right? Because what do you do on a Saturday except writing?
Talking of precious goods, lets talk about water again. In my 12th grade finals, I made a presentation about globalisation and water shortage in Egypt. It was an interesting approach to see how certain aspects of economics and the environment are linked. In the end, globalisation puts pressure on people, governments and institutions.
Globalisation was the reason for the boom in the transport industry. Increasing greenhouse gases through longer transport ways are accelerating climate change. Precipitation gets stronger in less time, which leads to flooding. Or the seasonal rains get so unpredictable that it is impossible to conduct agriculture.
Furthermore, globalisation promotes already rich nations and does so to the disadvantage of poorer nations. We need infrastructure to acquire clean drinking water. If the global climate gets more extreme, the infrastructure and investment spending gets more expensive.
Globalisation also disenfranchises local governments and decreases their influence on social and environmental decisions. Big companies and global players are therefore able to exploit resources they know nothing about.
In our current market economy it is possible to speculate with water. Rather on the lack thereof. Certain people have an interest that countries face water scarcity. Because they can make money with it. Private investors are buying land to drill for water and they can name the price others have to pay for it. Monopoly on water. The horror of the twenty-first century.
I read an article about globalisation recently and there was an interesting point made: Experts say that globalisation is threatened. That there are too many critics and that it does not work anymore. That we have to save the globalisation for our own good. That all means that we derived a benefit from it in the first place. Which is not the case for most people. Those are said to be the losers of globalisation. They are vital parts of it, though. The big fish and the very small fish. All included in the system.
Those are the economical aspects of water scarcity. Lets deal with some of the environmental ones now. We have enough water on this planet. Our problem is, it is in the wrong place. Extreme climate events cause flooding, obviously too much water. The poles are melting and the freshwater is transported into the oceans – not usable anymore for our purpose. There is enough water, we just have to find a way that everyone has access to it.
Here are some problems: We regulate stream flows. We alter the environment around our rivers so much, that they cannot serve their purpose anymore. They cannot prevent flooding, because there are no floodplains. They do not serve as a habitat anymore because we cleared all the vegetation around them. Therefore we destroy the livelihoods of people who live from the animals and plants in these areas. Clearing erodes the landscape around, rivers get unstable and transport sediments to the next dam. And everything else that we throw into our streams.
For example, in the Save River in Zimbabwe, soil erosion and sedimentation has significantly reduced the storage capacity of reservoirs, thus intensifying competition over water supplies. (UNEP GIWA Freshwater Shortage)
Climate change has also another impact on our freshwater: Due to the sea level rise, salt water intrudes into freshwater reservoirs. That happens mostly in coastal areas where people will soon flee not only because of flooding but because their drinking water cannot be used anymore. Not for drinking, not for farming. Especially since we pollute our water so heavily that we have to dig for deeper ground water sources. When you extract too much, sea water will infiltrate and your water is lost.
In the Jordan region, the majority of aquifers are overexploited and often saline; water tables have fallen as rapidly as 0.6 m/year in the Azraq basin. (UNEP GIWA Freshwater Shortage)
Higher temperatures due to climate change will also increase evaporation. We will simply lose our water because it is too hot. Now consider the island states in this world where already many people left forever, because their islands will be underwater soon. What are we doing to our world?
Let’s dive into the causes of this problem:
Population growth. http://www.breathingearth.net/
Please have a look at this simulation. It is scary but effective. There are several problems linked to that. We need more electricity. We need more food. We need more infrastructure and therefore cities.
Urbanisation has had two critical impacts on transboundary freshwater use. Firstly, many cities divert enormous volumes of surface water or overexploit aquifers. Secondly, untreated or inadequately treated sewage from these cities is a major source of pollution. (UNEP GIWA Freshwater Shortage)
We need more land to produce more crops and animals. In our current agriculture, though, we puts chemicals into the ground we have known the hazardous effect of for decades. We over-fertilise our soil and the basis for our food dies. The European Union has sued Germany because we have too much nitrogen in our ground water. From agriculture.
On the fields, there are no trees anymore that could fix nutrients. Protect the soil from eroding. All the fertile ground can be washed away with just one storm. This is the reality we will be facing in the next few years. Irrigation systems are also extremely insufficient. Water management in general. There are not enough regulations for the use and distribution of water. How we treat it and what we put into it. It’s a public good, so we all should have access to it, right? However, we should also treat it as the most valuable resource.
In “Stress and Streams” a few days ago I talked about hydropower a lot and the environmental damage they cause. This is why I will not focus on that problem now.
The second point are market and policy failures. As water is a public good, we cannot stop people from using it.
Firstly, preventing users from accessing water resources through institutional and physical means is difficult, resulting in overuse and under-investment. Secondly, water consumption by upstream users reduces the quantity and sometimes the quality of water for downstream users. (UNEP GIWA Freshwater Shortage)
International organisations and governments of industrialised countries are subsidising a lot of agriculture worldwide. The difficulty is, that they do not promote sustainable use of water or any resources. Profit, that’s the importance.
Subsidies and trade distortions of the United States and EU severely impact agriculture and the water economy of developing countries. (UNEP GIWA Freshwater Shortage)
Those water subsidies have the effect that farmers grow crops that require a lot of water, even if the region is really not appropriate for them. The farmers get money for contradicting nature. When it doesn’t work, the subsidies are withdrawn and the farmer has to solve the problem by himself.
What do we do now, with all this information?
There are three pillars to sustainable development. Social, environmental and economic. To achieve long-term solutions we have to implement changes in all three of them. We have to develop laws to manage water resources and even more importantly, we have to find ways to implement these laws. The communities have to be included into the discussion and they need to be informed about possible infrastructure and adaptations they need to make. Planning needs to be in the hands of people who know their problem. It doesn’t help us if international cooperations provide flood control where there is severe drought. We need to listen to people telling us about the challenges they are facing. Believe them, they know best.
The environmental aspects of the discussion are to reclaim the ecosystem functions rivers once provided us with. We have to re-establish flood plains and vegetation. Put trees as windbreak in the fields, stop the monocultures and the fertiliser input. Develop efficient irrigation systems. Do research on which crops to plant in which region based on the available water resources. Improve water quality by strict regulations and providing information as well as alternatives to chemicals. Control the water flow and the consequences of dams. Use alternative energies.
Economically, we have to reward efficient water usage. Water subsidies could be changed to those which encourage sustainable water management. Crops, that don’t need that much water. Investing in infrastructure to clean water. Investing in technology and new irrigation systems.
Most importantly, these three categories have to be seen as a whole. We have to integrate social and economic instruments in our thinking about the environment. That’s the only way we are going to find an efficient and working solution.
Water concerns us all. We are only able to stay alive because of the freshwater we have access to. In the next years, there will not be that much water available anymore. That’s a fact. Maybe we will soon fight about water. To prevent those water wars, we have to find solutions when it is still possible. When climate change is not at it’s peak yet. When we are still on the cliff and not already over the edge. If we trip, we will fall deep and there will be no water anymore to catch our fall.
My source for this article was the information provided by the UN Environmental Program – Global International Waters Assessment. Here’s the brochure I used: http://www.unep.org/dewa/giwa/publications/finalreport/freshwater_shortage.pdf and here is their website: http://www.unep.org/dewa/giwa/
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