Plenty of water, but is there enough to drink?

Drought_c. Stockholm International Water Institute.jpg

This article is part of our special report Water Policy.

England’s third dry winter in a row has led British authorities to call for conservation measures, while China’s government has warned that two-thirds of the country’s cities face severe water shortages because of drought and rampant consumption.

“We’ve got a drought here that is now embracing three winters, and that’s why it’s serious,” said Terry J. Marsh, head of the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology in Britain.

A year ago it was mainly farmers concerned about dry conditions, “but now concern extends to the environment and most particularly water resources.”

Prolonged dry spells have threatened parts of China, Russia, Australia, France, Spain, Portugal and the southern United States in recent years – affecting food output but also raising worries about the long-term stability of water supplies.

There is no universal ruling on whether these occurrences are cyclical nuisances or evidence of changing climate patterns that could grow more severe in the decades ahead. But there is general agreement that humans need to change their consumption habits and become more efficient water users.

“Climate variability is something humanity has faced throughout our history,” says Jan Lundqvist, senior scientific advisor at the Stockholm International Water Institute, “but the severity of the droughts is increasing.”

Last month, UN officials appealed to the European Union and other donors for food and water to prevent some 10 million people from starving in Africa’s parched Sahel region, just months after the worst drought in more than 50 years caused food crisis in East Africa.

The road to Marseille and Rio

Water regulation and future supply threats are among the topics being discussed 12-17 March during the World Water Forum in Marseille. EU leaders also pledge to bring put water conservation on the agenda at the June UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro.

The European Commission, which has declared 2012 the Year of Water, is also preparing to review some of Europe’s water legislation and policies over the next year.

Droughts can be relatively localised events, as is the case in the United Kingdom, where the dry spells have affected mainly central, southern and eastern England while precipitation has been normal in other areas.

Globally, water problems may have less to do with rainfall than how water is used – a challenge that will become more profound in the decades ahead. Earth’s population doubled from 1950 to 1990, and the UN says it is on course to nearly double again, to more than 9 billion, by 2050.

Pollution and consumption threaten freshwater globally, but even more so in areas are severely strained today – the urban Middle East along with South Asia and Africa.

“The constraints of our available water resources become more apparent day be day,” Hu siyi, a senior Chinese water official, told reporters last month in warning that two-thirds of the country’s cities were facing water shortages.

Europe is far from immune – something that may be hard to fathom on soggy March days. Researchers at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany warn that EU countries face challenges from both shortages and pollution, and urge better governance and direction from the EU.

Studies show that water withdrawals from rivers such as the Andalusia basin in Spain, Sado in Portugal and Rhine and Rhône in France are considered unsustainable, while the Elbe, Weser and Rhine in Germany and the Thames in Britain are considered stressed.

And that does not begin to account for pollution and ecological damage, a recent Helmholtz study says, calling for stronger protections against pollution and waste at the national and EU levels.

Leaky toilets and long baths are not necessarily to blame. In dry England, officials say that households and industries have become more efficient water users in recent years. Yet crop production – for food, livestock feed and biofuels – continues to grow and along with it water use. The UN estimates that agriculture accounts for 70% of freshwater consumption globally.

“In terms of household supply and industry, that’s not the big issue. The amount of water that is required to produce our daily bread, that is the big thing,” said Lundqvist.

Food waste means water waste, and the European Parliament recently called for “radical measures” to slash food discards to conserve resources.

“Many, many more are overeating as compared to the number of people who don’t get enough,” said Lundqvist, who worries that excess food consumption is destined to grow as middle classes expand in developing countries. “I think those aspects must be considered when talk about the problems of feeding the world or to supply water.”

Millions at risk

In the Sahel and East Africa, the problems are much different. Human conflict, lack of storage infrastructure and rudimentary irrigation compound the problems of cyclical drought.

The EU, collectively the world’s biggest aid donor, is promising more help for the world’s poorest countries and in the past has backed efforts to improve water management in developing countries. Such aid hit a record €1.6 billion for water and sanitation in 2009, the latest EU figures available, and the European Commission pledged an additional €700 million for water and other development targets to the poorest countries in December.

But too often aid money goes to deal with humanitarian crises like the East Africa drought that Unicef says has left 13 million people in need of food and water. What is needed is long-term investment – in wells, water storage, irrigation – says Aydrus Daar, who heads the WASDA charity group in Kenya and Somalia.

Serious droughts used to be separated by years or decades, but now they last years, he told EURACTIV during a visit to Brussels to seek more European engagement in the Horn of Africa. Pastoralists’ livestock decimated by three consecutive years of drought and water supplies are running dry – feeding desperation and tension.

“People are either in the midst of a drought or preparing for one,” he said. “That’s why it is so dangerous.”

Speaking at a water conference on 20 February, British Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: 

“Drought is already an issue this year with the South East, Anglia and other parts of the UK now officially in drought, and more areas are likely to be affected as we continue to experience a prolonged period of very low rainfall. 

“It is not just the responsibility of government, water companies and businesses to act against drought. We are asking for the help of everyone by urging them to use less water and to start now.”

The European Commission carried out an in-depth assessment of water scarcity and drought in the European Union in 2006 and 2007.

Water efficiency in the EU could be improved by nearly 40% with technological improvements alone, says a Commission-backed study. Changes in human behaviour or production patterns could further increase savings.

The EU executive also presented a set of policy options to increase water savings, highlighting the need to improve financing in existing policies, including better land-use planning to take account of water needs, introducing more widespread use of pricing and metering technologies – in households and agriculture – as well as promoting water-efficient devices.

  • 12-17 March: World Water Forum in Marseille
  • 22 March: World Water Day
  • 15-16 May: Water Innovation Europe Conference in Brussels
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • 26-31 August: World Water Week , organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute in the Swedish capital

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