Governments Failing to Protect Societies from Spreading Water Scarcity

New PBS documentary based on Worldwatch book "Last Oasis" aims to spark dialogue on global water problems

Spreading water scarcity will make meeting the drinking water, food, and material needs of an expected world population of 8 billion one of our most difficult challenges over the next 30 years, reports the Worldwatch Institute.

"Water scarcity is the 'sleeping tiger' of our environmental problems, but the tiger is waking up, and we had better wake up, too," says Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts, and author of Last Oasis: Facing Water Scarcity. The book is being re-released by W.W. Norton & Co. and Worldwatch Institute with a new introduction by the author. The release is in conjunction with the upcoming PBS documentary "Last Oasis," which is based on the book, and concludes a four-part series on water called "Cadillac Desert."

"Additional water supplies equal to 20 Nile rivers could be needed over the next 30 years just to satisfy new food requirements for a still-growing global population," Postel said, "and it's not clear where that water will come from on a sustainable basis. Boosting water productivity by roughly half is essential to avoid costly water shortages, food shortfalls, and a severely degraded environment."

Key food-producing regions are now plagued by chronic groundwater overpumping, dried- up rivers, and salt buildup in soils. In addition, an imbalance between growing populations and finite water supplies may shut off the option of food self-sufficiency for a growing number of countries. Of the 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East that have crossed the "water stress" threshold, 19 already import at least 20 percent of their grain. In less than 30 years, Africa and the Middle East will have more than 1.3 billion people living in water-stressed countries, more than triple the number today.

"Given these facts, it's not easy to be optimistic about future food security," Postel said. "An all-out effort is needed to raise the water productivity of the global crop base, both irrigated and rainfed." She recommends pricing and other policies to improve irrigation efficiency, to better match crops to local climates and varying qualities of water, to promote the re-use of urban wastewater for crop irrigation, and to breed new crop varieties that are more salt-tolerant, drought-resistant, and water-efficient.

The report also calls for greater investments to repair and protect rivers, streams, wetlands, and deltas, which have been degraded by decades of large-scale water engineering, escalating water demands, and mounting pollution. These systems sustain fisheries, process society's waste, maintain soil fertility, and create habitat for a rich diversity of aquatic life. The total global value of these freshwater "ecosystem services" almost certainly amounts to several trillion dollars annually, according to the report.

Several large restoration attempts are planned or under way, including projects in the Everglades, the San Francisco Bay-Delta, and a portion of Central Asia's shrinking Aral Sea. But greater efforts are needed to slow the degradation of the planet's freshwater assets.

"Each time we build a dam, drain a wetland, siphon off too much river flow, or pave a critical watershed, we lose valuable ecological functions that we end up paying for later," Postel said. "Governments have the responsibility to protect public resources when the market fails to do so, and this is a clear case where government action is warranted."

The report sees hopeful signs in growing efforts to leave more water "instream" and to make habitat protection a more explicit goal of water management. The U.S. government -- in a shift that could be repeated elsewhere -- has reallocated 800,000 acre-feet of water annually from a large federal irrigation project in California to maintain fish and wildlife habitat and other ecosystem functions.

In several international river basins, there are promising steps to defuse tensions that have threatened regional "water wars." In December 1996, India and Bangladesh signed a treaty on sharing the dry-season flow of the Ganges River, which has begun to dissipate a generation-old dispute. Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians have begun to move toward water- sharing, but the challenging task remains of equitably allocating Jordan basin waters. And Nile basin countries have met annually since 1993 to foster cooperation, and have agreed to work toward "equitable allocation of the Nile waters."

In contrast, little concrete progress is evident in the Tigris-Euphrates basin, where Turkey is moving ahead with dam plans that will reduce the Euphrates' flow into Syria and Iraq.

"With supplies unlikely to get much bigger, and with demand continuing to rise, our challenge is to use the water we have more efficiently, and to divide it in ways that satisfy basic human needs, protect vital ecosystems, and avert conflict," Postel said.

Reaching these goals, Postel cautions, could be made more difficult by the growing trend toward governments turning over the construction, operation, and sometimes even the ownership of water systems to the private sector. Ensuring that the poor get water at affordable prices and that rivers, lakes, and watersheds are adequately protected takes strong regulation -- but it is often lacking in such privatization schemes. Yet in the last decade, such shifts valued at more than $400 billion have been proposed, started, or completed in the urban water sector alone. Buenos Aries, Casablanca, Dakar, and Mexico City are among the large cities in the developing world that have privatized all or part of their water systems.

Incentives to use water more efficiently, share it more equitably, and protect its ecological functions are urgently needed, yet this report finds that no national government has a comprehensive strategy firmly founded on these pillars of sustainability. Inappropriate pricing still makes it cheaper to waste water than to conserve it; inadequate regulations permit valuable ecosystem services to be lost, and gross inequalities persist between rich and poor. Postel concludes:

"Every day we delay, we consign ourselves to more difficult and expensive solutions, greater human insecurity, and a more degraded world. It is now time -- indeed past time -- for government leaders and citizens worldwide to face these problems head-on. I hope this new PBS documentary will motivate action."


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