Friday, October 31, 2008

The Global Freshwater Crisis

Seventy percent of the earth's surface is covered with water. Yet more than one out of six people (1.1 billion) lack access to safe drinking water. And more than two out of six (2.6 billion) lack adequate sanitation.[16] And those numbers grow every year.

Today over half the world's population live in heavily energy-dependent cities whose aging water infrastructure, even now before peak oil, is beginning to crumble. Even in wealthy North America, the cost of renewing and modernizing water and wastewater infrastructure is enormous. And there is an urgent need for rational assessment and informed decision making about the need for new or expanded infrastructure and about potential impacts on, for example, Great Lakes waters.[12]

The water crisis is largely due, at this point, to global warming, surface water and groundwater pollution, marine pollution, rainforest destruction, and soil loss. But where will peak oil leave us when added to this long list of exacerbating factors? What are our prospects for long-term sustainability and survivability?

Earth. The water planet. Waterworld. Or, as Carl Sagan called it, the pale blue dot, Sagan's apt description of what earth looks like from the outer fringes of the solar system. Water, water everywhere. The oceans and lakes are full of it. The poles are covered with it. Rivers move it from place to place. Blocks of it measuring thousands of cubic kilometres float about the oceans near the poles. The atmosphere is full of it. All the plants and animals on the planet are made up mostly of it. It's in the soil, even in the rocks. It exists as a liquid, a solid, a gas. On a planetary basis it is a perpetually-recycled finite resource. It has been estimated that, in total, the earth contains about 1400 million cubic kilometers of it, give or take a few million.[15] But it's not always conveniently in the place and in the form we humans want it to be.

It's plentiful, but can you drink it?

Water scarcity amid plenty
Of all of the water on the planet only a paltry 2.5% or about 35 million cubic kilometers is fresh water. The rest is salt water. The usable portion of those freshwater resources is less than 1% (about 350,000 cubic kilometers), only 0.0025% of all the water on earth. The total global freshwater breaks down as; 0.3% contained in lakes and rivers (90% of that in lakes); 29.9% fresh groundwater (aquifers); 0.9% other (swamp, soil moisture, tundra and permafrost); 68.9% ice caps, glaciers and snow cover.[15] The atmosphere itself contains only about 0.001% (0.4% of all global fresh water) of the total water available on our planet.[17]

But fresh water is not evenly distributed throughout the planet. North America's Great Lakes contain about 18 percent of the world’s surface freshwater supplies, shared by only two nations. The Great Lakes have a combined surface area of over 325,000 km2. Overall, however, jurisdiction for the Great Lakes is shared by two federal governments (Canada and the United States), two Canadian provinces (Ontario and Quebec), eight US states (New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Minnesota), and hundreds of municipal governments.[12] Only about 25 million people (about one third of 1% of the global population) currently rely on the Great Lakes for their drinking water.[12]

At the other extreme, the 29 countries in the near east region account for 14% of the world’s land area and are home to 10% of the world’s human population. Yet the whole region has only about 2% of the world’s renewable freshwater resources.[15] While the global average availability is 7000 cubic meters of water per person per year, in these countries the average is about 1580 cubic meters of water per person per year.[15] In Jordan and the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) only 170-200 cubic meters of renewable water resources are available per person per year, less than 3% of the global average.[15]

From this limited availability of fresh water, however, global withdrawals for irrigation represent an average of 66% of the total withdrawals (up to 90% in arid regions like the middle east). The other 34% is used by: domestic households (10%) (representing only 17-20 cubic meters per person per year in the above-mentioned countries), industry (20%), or evaporated from reservoirs (4%).[16]

Managing our water usage
Population growth, economic development, and changing national and regional values have intensified competition over increasingly scarce freshwater resources worldwide. There is increasingly widespread concern and predictions of rising future conflicts over shared water supplies.[8, 10, 11, 13, 14, 16] Of greatest concern is the potential for conflict within the world's 263 international freshwater basins (basins shared by two or more countries). However, since 1948, the historical record documents only 37 incidents of acute conflicts (i.e., those involving violence) over water. Over half of these have been between Israel and various of its neighbours. During that same period, approximately 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed.[10] It is unlikely that that low ratio will hold over this century as water shortages become increasingly common and critical.

Europe has the largest number of international freshwater basins with 69, followed by Africa with 59, Asia with 57, North America with 40, and South America with 38. The world's 263 international freshwater basins account for nearly one-half of the earth's land surface, generate roughly 60% of global freshwater flow and are home to approximately 40% of the world's population. A total of 145 countries contribute territory to international basins, some albeit reluctantly. Thirty-three nations, including such sizable countries as Bolivia, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Niger, and Zambia, have more than 95% of their territory within the hydrologic boundaries of one or more international freshwater basins. Needless to say such countries take their international water agreements very seriously.[10]

Many international freshwater basins involve a significant number of nation states. The Danube, for example, has seventeen riparian states. The Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine, and Zambezi are each shared by more than nine countries. The Amazon, Aral Sea, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Jordan, Kura-Araks, La Plata, Lake Chad, Mekong, Neman, Tarim, Tigris-Euphrates-Shatt al Arab, Vistula, and Volga basins each contain territory of at least five sovereign nations.

The potential for water wars
In all, and most worrisome from the perspective of potential future conflicts, 158 of the world's 263 international freshwater basins lack any type of multilateral cooperative management and conflict resolution framework. Of the 106 basins with water institutions, approximately two-thirds have three or more riparian states, yet less than 20 percent of the accompanying agreements are multilateral, most being bilateral between only two of those states. Many basins continue to experience significant disputes even after a treaty is negotiated and signed, often because of the exclusion from the treaties of one or more of the sharing states. Often, under such pressures, even the signed bilateral treaties begin to break down.[10]

An early and comparatively successful model of cooperative water management structures that can help avoid dispute and conflict was the establishment by the United States and Canada of the International Joint Committee (IJC) for the administration of the Great Lakes watershed and connecting and outflowing rivers.[12] Though somewhat unique because of its focus on shared lakes rather than the much more common shared rivers, it is, nonetheless, a model of the level of cooperation that is achievable. Certainly the relative lack of complexity in being only a bilateral agreement has helped considerably as well. It is fair to say, however, that a significant part of the strong and enduring relationship between the two countries is due, at least in part, to their mutual cooperation concerning, and national reliance on, the Great Lakes. Even so, at least one war (the war of 1812) has been fought between the two nations (Canada was a British colony at the time) partly, in fact, on the waters of these very shared lakes.

Water has always been an important component in the negotiations between states and nations. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has documented more than 3600 international water treaties - covering the surface water in lakes and rivers - dating from AD 805 to 1984.[10] Most of these have to do with rights of navigation, limits on diversion and pollution. The earliest recorded water treaty, however, dates back to 2500 BC, when the two Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma crafted an agreement ending a water dispute along the Tigris River.[10]

Since 1948 alone, 295 international water agreements were negotiated and signed dealing with surface freshwater.[10] Yet the surface water at issue represents only 0.3% of the total freshwater on the planet. As regards groundwater (the underground water in aquifers), which accounts for 29.9% of all the freshwater on the planet, "there are no known treaties dealing specifically with groundwater matters."[13] Some freshwater treaties dealing with surface water do casually mention groundwater - almost as an aside or a point for future consideration - but even these treaties do not pursue the issue with any detailed language, measures, agreements or definition.

Underground boundary disputes
Groundwater, of course, is considerably more difficult to map and define than is surface water. There are literally thousands of underground aquifers throughout the world. Most, fortunately, are contained within the boundaries of single sovereign nations. But hundreds of these aquifers run beneath and across the arbitrary human boundaries above them. And just as one state excessively drawing water from a shared lake or river affects the availability of that resource to other countries sharing it, the excessive drawing down of the water in an international aquifer by one state affects the availability of that water to the other states dependent on it

South Africa, for example, shares four rivers with its six neighbours – the Incomati, Orange, Limpopo and Maputo. The water in these rivers is, however, increasingly under pressure due to increased water demands in relatively affluent South Africa, the largest and most powerful of the seven nations sharing those resources.[11] This is not a trivial issue when it comes to groundwater resources. Groundwater systems are often the only source of fresh water in some regions of the world, particularly under arid and semi-arid climatic conditions - such as in the middle east and much of Africa - where freshwater demand is rapidly increasing.[13]

The structure and terminology of most international freshwater agreements tend to follow the pattern codified in the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. [10] Attempts have been underway, through the International Shared Aquifer Resource Management (ISARM) efforts[13], to arrive at a similar codification of rules for treaties involving the treatment of international groundwater aquifers. The most recent attempt, The Seoul Rules, demonstrates special concern with international groundwater through the provision of specific articles that relate to “hydraulic interdependence”, “protection of groundwater” and “groundwater management & surface waters” (the latter addresses the issue of conjunctive use).[14]

It is still too early to tell what success these efforts will have or whether anything equivalent to the UN convention will result. The slow progress to date suggests that there is only a slight likelihood of having a framework in place in time to ward off serious future water conflicts. Issues of increasing water scarcity, degrading water quality, rapid population growth, unilateral water development, economic upheaval like the 2008 global financial crisis, and uneven levels of economic development are commonly cited as potentially disruptive factors in co-riparian water relations. The combination of these factors has led academics and policy-makers alike to warn of impending conflict over shared water resources.[10]

Middle East water deficiency
Even when nations equitably share these resources, however, the pressure on groundwater resources, both shared and sovereign, can be immense. Groundwater reserves in the Middle East, for example, are becoming increasingly brackish. More than 50% of groundwater in the region, it is estimated, is already contaminated from salt water intrusion and the proportion is increasing as the rate of extraction of water from aquifers exceeds recharge, in much of the region by three to one.

In Saudi Arabia water levels declined by more than 70 meters in the Umm Er Radhuma aquifer from 1978 to 1984 and this decline was accompanied by a salinity increase of more than 1000 milligrams of salt per liter. The aquifers of Bahrain, the Batenah Plains of Oman, and the United Arab Emirates are suffering severely from seawater intrusion. Groundwater salinity in most areas of the Syrian and Jordanian steppe has increased to several thousand milligrams per liter and over-exploitation of coastal aquifers in Lebanon has caused seawater intrusion with a subsequent rise from 340 to 22000 milligrams per liter in some wells near Beirut. With the countries in the Arabian peninsula using up their water resources three times as fast as they are being renewed it is estimated that available water resources will be exhausted within 20 years (or made completely unusable because of dangerously high salt levels) unless consumption of freshwater is reduced.[15]

The always volatile countries of the Middle East have become critically dependent on the income from their oil resources and accompanying natural gas (the extraction and processing of which also uses large volumes of water), essentially their only tradeable commodities. As world consumption of oil has grown over this past half century, the populations of these countries have literally exploded. In many of them over half the population is under twenty years of age. When those oil resources go into serious decline, if they are not on the front edge of that predicament already, the means of support for that tremendous population will disappear. Most of these nations have a policy of being as self sufficient in food production as possible, but water limitations, despite their draw down of aquifers at three times the renewal rate and considerable investment in desalination facilities, have kept them from achieving self-sufficiency.[15] Saudi Arabia, in fact, is doing significant promotion of the use of saline water and salt-tolerant species to increase food and feed production.[15] To date the lack of food self-sufficiency has not been a problem for these countries because they have had the income to trade for what they can't produce. As the oil revenues begin to disappear, however, the potential for revitalizing age-old conflicts in the region are of serious concern.

The disputable commercialization of water
Complicating all of the real issues involving water sharing is the fact that water has become the most commercial product of the century. Water is to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th century.[8] Water has been put on the table as a tradeable commercial product in almost every bilateral and multilateral trade agreement negotiated during the rampant growth of commercial globalization. Many weaker countries are being pressured into putting their scarce water resources up for grabs in order to achieve other gains in these trade agreements, or as collateral for IMF and World bank loans. Even Canada is under considerable and constant pressure from the U.S. to put the country's "abundant" freshwater resources at the disposal of commercial interests. It was also, unfortunately, included in the proportionality section of the NAFTA agreement. Canadian water and the shared water resources of the Great Lakes basin are consistently viewed in Washington and many U.S. state capitals as the solution to growing water scarcity in that country's heartland. Once the tap is opened the proportionality clause in the NAFTA agreement will ensure that it stays open as long as NAFTA is in force.

The impact of climate change on the global redistribution of water resources further adds to the complications that threaten to contribute to future conflict. In some areas longstanding water resources, like many of the lakes in Africa, are drying up while other areas, such as much of Europe, are experiencing unprecedented flooding. Areas like the U.S. midwest, one of the world's foodbaskets, are drying up with perpetual crop losses driving more and more producers into bankruptcy. Australia, another global breadbasket, is in the midst of a serious national drought which may, in fact, not be temporary but signal a long-term climatic shift due to global warming. Extreme weather events are on the increase everywhere as the planet warms. All of these things affect the amount of water available to agriculture. The global emergency food grain reserves over this past decade have shrunk from a marginal 119 day supply to a very critical 53 day supply as of 2006, and continues to decline by 2-4 days supply per year.

There is little question that the growing global water crisis has the potential to be one of the key sources of conflict between nations, and even within nations, over the balance of this century and beyond. Considering the political difficulties that have accompanied the drafting, writing and signing of existing international freshwater agreements (most not during times of critical water scarcities), and the frequency with which those agreements are broken by one party or another, future agreements will become increasingly difficult to finalize and consistently open to abuse by the signatories.


The following were key sources of material for this article;

1) IJC Releases Statement on its Review of Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River Regulation
2) United States & Canada International Joint Commission Public Interest Advisory Group Public Meeting
3) Long Sault to Beauharnois: the St. Lawrence River restructured
4) Robert H Saunders Dam (before 9/11) and Dwight D Eisenhower Lock in Massena, N.Y.
5) The Lost Villages
6) Lake Ontario St. Lawrence River Regulation
7) Lake Ontario–St. Lawrence River Framework Data Project examines ups and downs of water levels
8) Water crisis looms in countrywide
9) Atlas of International Freshwater Agreements
10) The World.s International Freshwater Agreements: Historical Developments and Future Opportunities[PDF]
11) A Compilation of All The International Freshwater Agreements Entered Into by South Africa With Other States
12) The International Joint Commission and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
13) International Shared Aquifer Resource Management (ISARM)
14) Internationally Shared Aquifer Resource Management: ISARM AMERICAS
15) Role of Biosaline Agriculture in Managing Freshwater Shortages and Improving Water Security
16) World Water Council: Water Crisis
17) Water in the Earth's atmosphere
18) Why is the Ocean Salty?