The Global Water Crisis

April 1, 2008
Miguel A. Medina Jr.

Miguel A. Medina Jr. Megan Morr 

This is a time of exceptional, and possibly historic, drought conditions in North Carolina and the rest of the Southeast. In the fall, North Carolina's governor asked citizens to reduce their water use by 30 percent through actions such as taking shorter showers and turning off lawn sprinkler systems until there's enough rainfall to refill depleted reservoirs.

This presumably temporary local "crisis" gives Americans a virtually painless taste of what billions of people around the globe endure every day. More than 2.4 billion people lack access to sanitation; more than 1.2 billion are without potable water. Under even the most optimistic scenario, the sanitation deficit could be reduced to 1.9 billion by the year 2015.

In January the UN Secretary General told delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that "time is running out, water is running out." As we become a thirsty world, he said, many more water-driven conflicts "lie just over the horizon."

This past year, I led a team of five regional water experts in a thorough evaluation of UNESCO's World Water Assessment Program (WWAP), which aims to improve the management of the world's water resources through an ongoing assessment process conducted by representatives from twenty-four UN agencies. We found that two relatively recent developments have begun to strain our global water resources: world population growth and the contamination of the water we use and then return to the hydrologic cycle, which includes the atmosphere, soil, groundwater, and the oceans.

The total amount of water within the world's hydrologic cycle is relatively constant, though its distribution varies markedly depending on time and place. Natural distribution via rivers, the atmosphere, subsurface reservoirs, lakes, and oceans does not respect political boundaries, and air and water pollution result in poorer water quality and concomitantly higher costs to treat it. Thus, transboundary waters, both surface and ground, involve technical, cultural, legal, economic, military, social, and political dimensions that are linked by the hydrologic cycle.

The La Plata River Basin (3.1 million square kilometers) in South America, for example, collects water from rivers in five different countries, flows past Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay, and then discharges into the Atlantic Ocean. Beneath this river basin is the Guaraní Aquifer. One of the world's largest subsurface freshwater reserves, it covers about 1.2 million square kilometers and is deep enough to supply 300 liters of water per day per capita to 360 million people. Yet, it is being threatened by man-made contaminants.

Many technological solutions are possible, such as affordable desalination, underground storage, and controlled irrigation. Finding solutions in governance, in managerial infrastructure, and in capacity-building (both physical and human) is more challenging.

Although most water-quantity indicators (among them, precipitation, total renewable water resources, and overlap in surface and ground water) are not controversial, indicators of water quality are highly politically sensitive. In addition, solutions to water-quality problems are not universally applicable owing to factors such as highly variable land use, vegetation and ground cover, hydrogeologic factors, and the nature of the domestic, industrial, and agricultural practices that generate waste products, region to region and country to country. Refining the water-quality indicators we have and developing new ones is, then, another major challenge.

WWAP case studies around the world have been successful in influencing government agencies responsible for water management to organize their data-collection and reporting efforts more efficiently. Achieving greater participation of developing countries in these activities is another matter. As part of last year's evaluation, we visited river-basin agencies in Argentina, Austria, China, France, Japan, Mongolia, Namibia, Sri Lanka, and Uganda. We reviewed scores of documents, interviewed seventy-three water professionals, and recommended that unesco strengthen the scientific underpinning of WWAP, increase its cost-effectiveness, implement a peer-review process, add climate-change indicators, and focus on the most relevant topics to be included in its World Water Development Reports, which are issued every three years.

Our dependence on foreign oil has helped shape our foreign policy, and our lifestyle. The price of a barrel of crude oil was $90 in early December 2007, translating into slightly more than $2 a gallon for crude and $3 a gallon for refined gasoline. By comparison, the average price of tap water in the U.S. is $ 0.01 a gallon, which does not encourage conservation, nor efficient management of a natural resource essential for life.

Like oil, water is beginning to have foreign-policy implications. Israel has negotiated water-sharing agreements with Jordan and the Palestinians, avoiding potential conflict by maximizing the potential for cooperation. But Turkey is building dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that will reduce flows downstream into Syria and Iraq. The population of the countries in the Arabian peninsula is expected to double in fifty years (to 600 million), and only through desalination will the fresh-water resource increase.

In 2002, the UN identified 263 transboundary river basins and approximately 200 treaties signed among the nations sharing the water resource. Seven disputes over water that crosses political boundaries have involved violence. Along with historical factors like ethnic tensions, economic rivalries, and imperial ambitions, there's a strong likelihood that the competition for water will exacerbate regional tensions and even contribute to future global conflict.