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Water Might Be the Biggest Challenge of This Century
Source: GFHS | Author: David Anderson | Publish time: 2020-05-20 | 53 Views | Share:

Abstract: It is one percent of the total water of the earth that humankind depends on for survival.  And it is this one percent that is under dramatic stress in many parts of the world. The majority of countries of the world face very different and very serious water challenges.

The way these countries have attempted to deal with the meager endowment of water is basically three fold.  First is the effort to recycle water to lesser purposes once first used, second is the effort to transport water from elsewhere or find new sources of water, and third is conservation of water. It seems highly unlikely diversion from rivers and lakes, or exploiting ground water from aquifers, will be long term solutions to water shortages. We can turn seawater into fresh water by desalination. However desalination still produces only a fraction of one percent of global water requirements.

A more promising solution to water shortage lies in world trade. A major opportunity area in this regard is in agricultural products, because seventy percent of the fresh water used by mankind is used to grow food. I believe that adapting water systems and water usage to the changes brought about by a warmer world created by climate change will be the single most important core problem facing all nations in the century ahead.

Keywords: water challenges, water shortages, solution, world trade


Mr. David Anderson delivered a speech at the GFHS 2009

Photo credit by @ GFHS

      Three weeks ago, Guy Laliberte, a Canadian billionaire whose fortune over the past twenty five years was made in part by bringing Chinese acrobats and circus performers to Western audiences, traveled to the International Space Station as a paying passenger, a tourist. The ticket to space cost Mr. Laliberte twenty five million US dollars. In addition, on a single night during his time in space another ten million US dollars was spent on celebrity parties in ten cities around the world, at which he appeared on screen from the space station.

What was the purpose of Mr. Laliberte’s 35 million dollar spending spree, and what was the message of his video link up to the celebrity party goes below? Well, Mr. Laliberte said that he wanted to attract attention for the world’s water crisis.

Mr. Laliberte knows that there is a water crisis. He knows how to get publicity. He knows also that space is a highly appropriate place to comment on the problems of water on Earth. 

The most published photograph in human history is the photograph of the Earth taken on the Apollo 17 mission in December of 1972. As the Sun was directly behind the spacecraft, it shows the entire earth’s surface in sunlight, with no part in shade. The African continent and the Middle East is shown, and shown, as well are enormous blue areas of parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. From space, the seventy percent of the Earth’s surface that is water dominates the much smaller areas of land. Looking at the photograph, it is hard to believe that we have a water crisis.

The appearance is deceptive.  The water shown in the space photograph is saltwater, which constitutes 97 percent of all water on earth. Of the remaining 3 percent that is fresh water, most is frozen in Antarctica, the Greenland Icecap, in mountain and Arctic glaciers, and in the snowy northern regions. There remains less than one percent of the total water of the earth as fresh, surface water, in lakes, rivers and streams, or in subsurface aquifers.  It is this one percent that humankind must manage for our uses on earth. And it is this one percent that is under dramatic stress in many parts of the world.

I say this water is for our uses. The words are inadequate to convey the importance of water in human life. Each human being needs a near constant trickle of water to his or her body simply to survive.  If we are only one percent below our body’s normal water level we are thirsty.If we are five percent below, we are sick, at ten percent below, we become immobile, and at twelve to fifteen percent below the normal, we die. Simply put, depending on where we live and the exertion of our work, we consume two to four liters of water every day, or we don’t survive.  Former President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, now President of the environmental organization Green Cross International, uses a Uzbeki saying to illustrate this:

If you run out of water, you run out of life. A folk saying, and a true statement.

We manage water, but not well. Severe pollution of water from industry, from agricultural sources and from human waste is widespread in many lands. This has some deadly consequences. Somewhere between fifteen and twenty million people each and every year die of waterborne diseases. Diarrhea alone kills approximately 4 million people annually.  For children in the developing world, the risk is high. Every eight seconds, somewhere on earth, a child dies of a waterborne disease. Contaminated water is a serious global concern.

Water quantity is another major difficulty. Here again, problems are different in different parts of the globe. In my country of Canada, for example, we have what appears to others to be an abundant supply of fresh water. Figures vary—there are many ways of calculating what fresh water is available—but in general we Canadians think that about nine or ten percent of the world’s fresh water is in Canada. But much of this water is in the form of ice in arctic or mountainous glaciers and snow fields. Some is “fossil” water in lakes, such as that in the Great Lakes, which receives only one percent of its volume in new flow every year. Looked at another way, if one percent of the water of the Great Lakes was diverted elsewhere, the outward flow down the St. Lawrence River, the greatest river on the eastern coast of North America, would dry up. If more than one percent was taken from the system, the lakes themselves would eventually dry up. Obviously this Great Lakes water is not exploitable water, at least not on a sustainable basis. Of Canada’s remaining water, the topography of the country means that much of the running water flows northwards, and is unusable in the population centers in the southern parts of the country. 

I have generalized the Canadian situation in the paragraph above. Even in Canada there are areas of low rainfall and areas dependent on irrigation for agricultural production. Alberta, for example, has large areas where the low amount of rainfall makes agriculture without irrigation impossible, or at best a marginal proposition.

Canada is not unique in the international community in its abundance of fresh water; however those countries with substantial supplies of water are few, and because of increasing population pressures, they are becoming fewer. In addition each one of us is using more water. Water use per capita between 1900 and 2000 doubled. The majority of countries of the world face very different and very serious water challenges.

An important event of the GFHS 2009Opening ceremony of Wuxi Water Saving and Water Treatment Technology Exhibition    
Photo credit by @ GFHS

Probably the nation with the most clearly opposite water endowment to Canada is Namibia in South West Africa.  Here the average rainfall is less than ten inches a year. So little rainfall falls that its capital, Windhoek, is one of the few cities in the world—perhaps the only city--that recycles treated sewage water back into the regular city water system. This is done on a substantial scale; treated sewage water constitutes a third or more of the water used in the city. 

In another imaginative effort to supplement its meager supplies of fresh water, Namibia also uses a system of plastic mesh screens to trap water droplets from fog and mist from the sea. This technology, incidentally, is in use in about twenty other countries around the world.

While Namibia perhaps faces the most difficult water situation, there are a substantial number of other countries that have very limited water supplies. Most countries of the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa face similar problems. In addition, there are many other countries, including Chile, Australia, India, the United States and China, which have substantial desert areas, or areas of very low rainfall.

The way these countries have attempted to deal with the meager endowment of water is basically three fold. First is the effort to recycle water to lesser purposes once first used, much as Windhoek in Namibia is doing with its recycling of sewage water, or which Mexico and many other countries are doing by using waste water directly to irrigate crops. Second is the effort to transport water from elsewhere or find new sources of water, and third is conservation of water.

The most famous of the recent efforts to transport water from elsewhere is taking place in China at the present time, with the development of the Three Gorges Dam and the canals and pipelines that are being built to move the waters behind the dam to population centers of northern China. China in fact has a history of water diversion and irrigation that goes back thousands of years; the Three Gorges project is the most recent, the largest, and the most controversial by reason of the million people who were dispossessed by the dam and the reservoir created behind it, and by reason of the ecological impact that it will have on the ecology of the river basin.

More will be said later in this conference by speakers more expert in the Three Gorges Dam and also what is happening in water developments elsewhere in China. I would simply stress that it is notable not only for its gigantic size, but that it is also the last opportunity for such a major project in China in the future. Future diversion of waters to satisfy the demands of China’s population, industry and agriculture will lack water source for such a scheme.

I have mentioned the Three Gorges Dam and Diversion Project because, although the largest of such projects, in principle it is not unlike many other such projects that have taken place over the millennium in China and elsewhere. Not only in China, but in Mesopotamia, the Roman Empire, in Mexico, in Cambodia, in the Maya regions of Central America, there is an historical and archaeological record of extensive water diversion schemes.  In fact, water diversions have been the earliest and greatest of the engineering and construction feats of mankind.

Some of the most extensive water diversion schemes of the past century have been built in the United States South West. Diversion of water for San Francisco began even more than a century ago, in the late 19th century. Phoenix and Las Vegas are virtually entirely dependent on water brought from the Colorado River, many hundreds of kilometers away. Los Angels relies on local sources for only fifteen percent of its water.

Major diversions of water are also taking place elsewhere. Turkey, for example, is constructing the Great Anatolia Project, damming the rivers of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers for power and to irrigate almost 2 million hectares of land. Half of Turkey’ electrical power comes from dams on these two rivers.

This program, upstream of Syria, is a major threat to the effectiveness of existing Syrian dam and irrigation projects and future planned water developments. Syria depends on the Euphrates for 85% of its water requirements.  Existing and proposed Turkish dams are expected to reduce the flow of the Euphrates River by almost half.

To complicate matters further, Iraq is downstream from both Turkey and from Syria, and the supply and quality of water of the two rivers will be adversely affected by both the Syrian and the Turkish developments. It is reported that Iraqi planners expect to lose three quarters of the otherwise available water from these two rivers by reason of the upstream developments.

Opening ceremony of the GFHS 2009   Photo credit by @ GFHS

Perhaps the most dangerous of the international complications over water development are in the Middle East between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Syria, Iraq and Turkey share the same Muslim faith, but in the case of Israel and her neighbors there is the added complication of religious fanaticism and a sixty year history of war, conquest, oppression and settlement. Here the situation is far more difficult.

Briefly, the water aspects of the situation are as follows.

Israel began constructed a system of canals, pipelines and tunnels, called, appropriately, the National Water Carrier Project, only a few years after the country came into existence. The purpose was to move water from the Jordan River, the Yarmuk River, whose headwaters are in Syria, and waters of the Sea of Galilee to the Negev Desert and the Israeli coastal areas to the west. While logical enough to the Israelis, the project was a clear threat to the existing water supplies of the Arab neighboring states, in particular Jordan, which has few other water sources than the Sea of Galilee.  Israel, determined to create an agricultural oasis in the hot, dry climate of the new land, pushed ahead.

To thwart this Israeli threat, and to provide water for its own purposes, Syria, in 1964, began construction of the Headwaters Diversion Plan, to intercept and control the waters of the Jordan River before it reached Israel. In response, Israel in 1965 used its air force and artillery to bomb and shell the construction site and destroy the equipment and machinery being used to build the dam.

Following the six days war of 1967, Israel seized the Golan Heights and with it much of the headwaters area of the Jordan River. Also seized was the West Bank of the Jordan River, and with it access to the Yarkon-Taninim Aquifer (the West Bank Mountain Aquifer), a water source that now supplies one third of Israel’s fresh water.

The result is that Israelis now have from six to eight times the water available to the Palestinians on the West Bank, who frequently are unable to water their crops, and thus are often without any alternative but to leave their land.

In the Gaza Strip, also captured in the 1967 war, the situation was similar. Water was available through the National Water Carrier Project to the 3 to 4 thousand Israeli settlers, who used three quarters of the water coming into the Strip,with the one million Palestinians having the remaining 25%. To handle the shortfall, Palestinian residents turned to ground water in the aquifer below, which is being drawn down at the unsustainable rate of twenty to thirty centimeters a year. Salt water from the Mediterranean Sea has now entered and partially contaminated the aquifer.  

The rights and wrongs of the Arab-Israeli dispute and possible solutions to that problem are well beyond the subject of this conference. I have briefly described the water situation in the area as it is a clear example of the potential for conflict that access to water, or lack of access to water, may create. The Middle East has only one percent of the world’s fresh water supply, and contains five percent of the world’s population. There are many other sources of tension, but few are as important as this shortage of water. 

The Middle East is not the only part of the world where such international tensions over water exist. Even the Southern African country of Namibia that I mentioned a few minutes ago, has a one thousand kilometer long pipeline diversion proposal for the Okavango River, which from its head waters in Angola runs through a remote part of the country and then into Botswana. Water from the river is essential for the survival of the Okavango Delta, a wetland region surrounded by the Kalahari Desert which is one of the world’s largest remaining wetlands. The Okavango Delta is the home of many tens of thousands of people, and the site of perhaps the greatest concentration of African wildlife to be found anywhere on the continent. It forms the basis of a tourism industry worth many hundreds of millions of dollars annually to Botswana. 

The issue is complicated further by the impact of climate change and the consequent drought that has persisted in southern Africa for much of the past decade. Will this drought end, as others have in the past, or will it continue and permanently change the ecology of the region? If it continues, will it be possible to save the wetlands, or, conversely, will it make it even more important for Namibia to build the pipeline? Certainly, the impact of the diversions of water through the pipeline will be substantially greater if drought continues and the flow of the Okavango River is reduced. 

Despite the existence of a three nation water management commission to deal with the various use proposals, continued conflict over the issue appears inevitable. 

This discussion of efforts to increase a nation’s water supply through diversion demonstrates the two great problems with this approach to deal with water scarcity.

The first is the uncertainty of the size of the environmental impact.  With every major water diversion project there have been unanticipated or underestimated environmental impacts.  Sometimes these costs have been of greater than the value of the water diversion itself, making the considerable expenditure of the dam construction essentially of no value, or even damaging to the welfare of the people who were expected to benefit from the project. Dams and diversions do not just alter water flows; they alter salinity, temperatures, vegetation, and a host of other factors, generally in delicate balance in nature. The altered environment extracts a cost, and that cost can, as in the diversions of water in the former Soviet Union that led to the loss of the Aral Sea demonstrates, be extremely high.

The second factor is that water in areas of shortage is very rarely unused. Downstream or elsewhere, it is often fully utilized, and efforts to divert it generally have the effect of displacing other users. This creates problems of winners and losers within a particular country—take for example the Three Gorges Dam in China—but becomes a major source of international friction with the potential for conflict when the waterway in question crosses international boundaries. 

 Nigara Falls in Canada, 2017  Photography by Lu Haifeng

Canada and the United States recognized this problem a century ago, and established a boundary waters commission, known as the International Joint Commission, in 1909. Generally speaking, our trans-boundary water issues have been satisfactorily handled since that date by that body. Despite that, for much of my time as Minster of Environment for Canada I was active protesting a proposed water diversion in North Dakota which would have had a detrimental environmental effect on the downstream Red River Valley in the province of Manitoba in Canada.  

Trans-boundary water issues between the United States and Mexico have been more difficult. The heavily managed and diverted Colorado River is the source of water for some twenty five million Americans. The volume of its waters diverted to the Sunbelt States of the United States South West, has reduced the Colorado River’s flow to a trickle, less that one eighth of the flow that would otherwise reach the mouth of the river in Mexico. At times, as with the Yellow River in China, water withdrawals upstream results in the river actually ceasing to flow at all.   Obviously downstream users in Mexico, (or, in the Chinese example the lower reaches of the Yellow River) pay the price for the upstream diversion. 

This price is even more difficult to accept when the water, previously used for agriculture by peasant farmers, is used in an extravagant manner and in wasteful ways. For example in Phoenix, Arizona, the average family uses a million liters of water per year. Lawns are maintained, fountains flow—the city’s water delivery system, the Central Arizona Project, relying on the Colorado River many hundreds of kilometers away, allows the citizens of Phoenix to ignore the fact they live in an area of the world with an average of only eighteen centimeters of rain a year. 

Half of the water used in Phoenix is for gardens and landscapes, a great deal of which simply evaporates from inefficient sprinkler systems by reason of the high temperatures of the area. However Phoenix and the rest of the United States Sunbelt are facing a problem; there is no other easily exploitable source of water to tap into. If the region is to continue to grow, greater conservation of water is now required. The same basic dilemma will face China a few years hence, when the water supply increases of the Three Gorges Dam are fully taken up by northern Chinese users.

The second major opportunity to supplement existing supplies of surface fresh water is from underground aquifers.  The practice is worldwide. I earlier mentioned the West Bank Mountain Aquifer in the Israeli occupied territories in Palestine, and the fact that it now provides Israel with approximately one third of its fresh water requirements, and the use by Palestinians of the aquifer under the Gaza Strip.

Unfortunately exploitation beyond the replenishment rate of the underlying aquifer is now common practice, and aquifers world wide are being exploited beyond their capacity to replenish the supply through rainwater and seepage. In fact, world wide, it is estimated that the water taken for irrigation by farm operations annually exceeds by 160 billion cubic meters the water recharged by rainfall.

The Ogallala Aquifer, largely discovered during the drought period of the 1930s, underlies an area of approximately half a million square kilometers of North America, and has become of enormous importance in irrigating the major grain production area of the United States. Unfortunately, as with so many other aquifers, its level has been steadily dropping as farmers mine its water beyond the rate of replenishment.

Given recent global experience, it seems highly unlikely diversion from rivers and lakes, or exploiting ground water from aquifers, will be long term solutions to water shortages.  Water is recycled by nature and can be re-used by mankind. However its overall supply is limited. We can’t make water.

We can, however, and in some parts of the world we are, turning sea water into fresh water by desalination.  Although costs have fallen over the past thirty years, the process is still expensive both in the amount of energy required and in monetary terms, and the opportunity to do so is therefore limited. Energy rich countries with particularly severe water problems, such as Saudi Arabia, are putting desalination plants into production, with Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Araabia, receiving desalinated water through a five hundred kilometer pipeline.  Desalinated water reportedly constitutes two thirds of Saudi Arabia’s drinking water. More than half the world’s desalination plants world wide are in the Middle East, which has abundant hydrocarbon and solar energy sources; however desalination still produces only a fraction of one percent of global water requirements.

A more promising solution to water shortage lies in world trade. Except in unusual circumstances direct trade in water is unlikely; it is a heavy item relative to value, and moving it long distances is not practical. However trade in products that require large amounts of water to produce has the effect of concentrating the water value into the smaller volume and weight of the product, which can then be easily and cheaply transported.

A major opportunity area in this regard is in agricultural products. Next to water (and air), people need food.  And food production uses water, lots of water. Of course, research efforts are underway to reduce the water requirements of agriculture, and there are many water saving approaches to report on, but nevertheless seventy percent of the fresh water used by mankind is used to grow food, and this seems unlikely to change to any substantial degree.

 The largest waterfall in AsiaHuangguoshu Waterfall in Guizhou, 2015  Photography by Lu Haifeng

In Asia, the figure is eighty percent, and by far the largest portion of this agricultural water is used for growing rice, the staple grain of half the world’s population. To grow a kilo of rice requires approximately 5 thousand liters of water.  A kilo of potatoes, by contrast, requires only two hundred and fifty liters of water. For wheat, a thousand tons of water is required to grow a ton of the grain.

The figures become even more striking when the water required to raise a kilo of beef is calculated. Livestock consumes most of the United States corn crop. It takes roughly 15,000 liters of water to grow the feed corn and provide drinking water for the cattle herds to produce a kilo of beef. For a country concerned about water consumption, importing foods with high water requirements, such as wheat, rice or beef, from water rich areas, and concentrating on low water crops and agricultural technologies, can substantially reduce the water requirements of the domestic agricultural sector.

For nations such as China, this means a policy of modifying concepts favoring national agricultural self-sufficiency.  Trade can be used to extend and supplement China’s water supplies.

Overshadowing any discussion of water today is the issue of climate change. It is extremely difficult to predict the impact of climate change on the water problems that humanity is currently facing—however enough is known to predict that the current problems that will be discussed at this conference will be made more difficult. 

Rainfall distribution, water temperatures, the seasonal flows, evaporation rates and a host of other water related issues will be affected, and this in turn will affect agriculture and urban areas. 

Existing urban systems of water capture and distribution, and of disposal of waste water, developed over centuries, will require major rebuilding, which in some cases, by reason of shortage of free flowing water, will not prove effective or indeed, even possible.

In a cold country such as Canada, optimists in the agricultural sector point to the longer growing season that a warming of the planet will bring, and they point to higher expected rainfall levels. However annual amounts of rainfall and length of growing season do not tell the whole story. The expected loss of Western Canadian glaciers, that currently provide river water at the hottest parts of the year, means that at the time of the year when rainfall is least, river flows will be far less than they are today. Some major areas of today’s agriculture will revert to grazing land or even be abandoned altogether.

In fact, it the impact of climate change on water and consequently on crops in a world where more than two thirds of water use is for agriculture, and where agricultural production, particularly grain production, is hard pressed to keep up with a growing world population, means that this issue will be the central issue of adjustment to the new reality of a warmer world.

Much of the discussion of water is of short term problems, measured in years or decades. These are vitally important. However I believe that adapting water systems and water usage to the changes brought about by a warmer world created by climate change will be the single most important core problem facing all nations in the century ahead.

(This article is an opening address delivered by David Anderson, Former Minister of Environment of Canada and Former President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), at the 2009 Annual Session of Global Forum on Human Settlements.)

David Anderson entered political life in 1968. In 1993, Mr. Anderson was elected Liberal MP for Victoria in the federal election. He was appointed Minister of National Revenue and Minister responsible for British Columbia. In 1996, he was appointed Minister of Transport where he developed links between transportation and tourism and assisted in the restructuring of Canadian Airlines. Mr. Anderson was re-elected as MP for Victoria in June 1997 and was immediately appointed Minister of Fisheries and Oceans. On August 3rd, 1999, Mr. Anderson was appointed Minister of the Environment. On February 5, 2001, Mr. Anderson became the first Canadian ever elected as President of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Mr. Anderson received his law degree from the University of British Columbia (UBC).