The Great Divider
The struggle for water in Jaisalmer or Chennai is but a drop in the ocean of a World Water Crisis. If things continue this way, water will soon become the next `commodity' that defines and entrenches inequalities between those who have it and those who don't. SOWMYA KERBART SIVAKUMAR explores the larger picture of a world water scarcity.
UBIQUITOUS lines of flourescent-coloured kodams. Earthern matkas precariously balanced on young heads and tired hips. Sure, they make a pretty picture for glossy environment magazines, but the facts and figures that go along with them are far from romantic.
Whether a resident in the metropolis of Chennai or the arid countryside of Rajasthan, the kodam, or the matka represents a silent, yet extremely grave, struggle for that life-sustaining element water.
The search for water has always existed but the bad news is, it's becoming more frentic. And it is when the kodam metamorphises into white jerry cans hawked in the name of mineral water, and the urban elite in/of the water-starved metros find their taps spouting a yellow liquid that there is an overriding sense of despair and an indiscriminate scuttle for that precious drop, at whatever cost.
The key phrase is: "At Whatever Cost". So if Chennai thinks it can solve its problem by "bringing" water from unsuspecting villages and less important towns, the Centre thinks linking rivers may be a better idea. Some say, "why not dams?" And then there are the big corporations that are working overtime filling up transparent plastic bottles, draining and polluting aquifers. Who knows which poor farming communities they belong too?
This recurrent frog-in-the-well approach to solving local water problems, with turning an almost blind eye to what is happening outside a certain geographical radius, on the contrary, magnifies this great "Tragedy of the Commons". Today we have a World Water Crisis and there is no escaping the fact that, by the middle of this century, "at worst seven billion people in 60 countries and at best two billion people in 48 countries will be water-scarce". Thus, an awareness of the world water situation could indeed help giving us a larger perspective to our day-to-day preoccupations with water.
HOW much water do all of us really have? It is said that if a large bucket of water were to represent the sea on the planet, an egg cup full would represent the amount of water locked in ice caps and glaciers. Of that, a teaspoon would be drinking water.
Over 97 per cent of the earth's water is in the oceans. The remainder largely comprises freshwater sources in the form of ice-caps, glaciers, inland seas, rivers, lakes, groundwater, atmosphere and soil moisture. To quantify this "usable" part would imply a total world renewable water resource of 43,750 cubic kilometres per year. (See box for water supply and demand definitions). But even this is not uniformly distributed.
At the continental level, America has the largest share of the world's total freshwater resources (45 per cent) followed by Asia (28 per cent) Europe (15.5 per cent) and Africa (nine per cent). But if one looks at water resources per inhabitant in these continents, the distribution changes America still leads with 24,000 cubic metre/year/inhabitant but the second largest in terms of resource per inhabitant is Europe with 9,300 cubic metre/year followed by Africa with 5,000 cubic metre/year and Asia with 3,400.1 cubic metre/year. The variations swing further when one looks at country-level figures.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation's Review of World Water Resources by Country, 2003 (Water Reports 23), "nine countries are the world giants in terms of internal water resources, accounting for 60 per cent of the world's natural freshwater. At the other extreme, the water poor countries are usually the smallest (notably islands) and arid ones." Among the former are Brazil, the Russian Federation, Canada, Indonesia, the China Mainland, Columbia, U.S., Peru and India (which has about 1,897 cubic kilometre of resources per year). The water poor nations in terms of total renewable water resources are Israel, Jordan, Libyan Arab Jamahirya, Mauritania, Cape Verde, Djibouti, the United Arab Emirates, Malta, Qatar, the Gaza Strip (Palestinian Authority), Bahrain, and Kuwait.
The extreme disparity across countries comes through clearly if one looks at the range of water resource per inhabitant it varies from a minimum of 10 cubic metre/inhabitant in Kuwait to some 1,00,000 cubic meter/inhabitant in Canada, Iceland, Gabon and Suriname (According to the report, the thresholds of 1,000 and 500 cubic metre/inhabitant correspond respectively to the water stress and water scarcity levels. "In an average year, 1,000 cubic metres of water per inhabitant can be considered as a minimum to sustain life and ensure agricultural production in countries with climates that require irrigation for agriculture"). Finally, it must be noted that even in the supposedly water rich countries, especially the larger ones, these figures conceal local scarcity conditions and variability across regions. Still, this article attempts to present a macro picture and the unit of analysis will be confined to nations. Even here, there are lessons to learn.
A measure worth looking at in this context is the "dependency ratio", or, that part of the total renewable water resources originating outside the country (expressed in percentage). In theory, this indicator could vary between zero and 100 per cent. A country with a dependency ratio equal to zero does not receive any water from neighbouring countries. A country with a dependency ratio equal to 100 per cent receives all its water from outside without producing any.
If one were to make a grid of countries by total renewable water resources (TRWR) per inhabitant and dependency ratios, countries that fall in the category of high dependency and low TRWR/inhabitant would include Kuwait (100 per cent), Bahrain (97 per cent), Israel (55 per cent), Syrian Arabic Republic (80 per cent), Egypt (97 per cent), Eritrea (56 per cent), Pakistan (76 per cent) and Luxembourg (68 per cent).
On the other hand, Morocco (zero per cent), Algeria (three per cent), Tunisia (nine per cent), Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (zero per cent), Saudi Arabia (zero per cent), the UAE (zero per cent), Oman (zero per cent), Yemen (zero per cent), Qatar (four per cent), Cyprus (zero per cent) and Malta (zero per cent) are among those with a low dependency ratio and a low TRWR/inhabitant.
The dependency ratio is thus a good indicator of which direction different water scarce countries might want to take. A low dependency ratio for a water scarce nation means it has to take hard decisions on improving internal efficiencies in water usage in the future. The case of Saudi Arabia goes to show how even countries with low dependency can, at some point, start having serious bearings on water resources of neighboring countries if they do not put their own house in order (see Box 2). A high dependency ratio, on the other hand, is bound to have important implications for water sharing policies, co-operation and conflicts.
This brings us to the important question of water use. To complete the picture of water scarcity, one needs to have an idea of future demand. Strikingly, this is where significant, and disparate, scenarios emerge between the developed and developing worlds.
A common categorisation of water use globally is irrigation for agriculture and non-irrigation, where the latter comprises domestic, industrial, livestock and environmental uses. According to the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report "World Water and Food to 2025: Dealing with Scarcity" in 2002, "irrigated agriculture is the largest use of water, accounting for 80 per cent of global and 86 per cent of developing countries' water consumption in 1995". Yet, it is non-irrigation uses which are going to see rapid growth in the coming years.
According to the report, under conditions of "business as usual" (that is, assuming a continuation of current trends and existing plans in water and food policy, management, and investment and wasteful use of existing water supplies), global domestic demand is expected to increase by 71 per cent and double in developing countries in 1995-2025. Industrial water demand is projected to increase by 50 per cent but a majority of this increase is again, likely to occur in developing countries, where it is expected to almost double.
On the whole there is likely to be a global increase in water for all its non-irrigation uses of 62 per cent by 2025. On the other hand, the potential demand for irrigation water is expected to rise by only 12 per cent in developing countries, and actually decline by 1.5 per cent in developed nations. If one goes further into a more realistic measure of "actual irrigation consumptive use" (this is the actual realised water demand, given the limitations of water supply for irrigation), the growth in developing countries is likely to be much lower at four per cent.
In contrast, the irrigation water supply of developed countries is projected to grow faster than potential demand (although even here certain basins will face increasing water scarcity). So here is a frightening scenario where the gap between the developed and developing worlds is bound to get amplified. Developing countries will be able to meet a declining fraction of the potential irrigation demand over time, whereas the developed world would experience improved basin efficiency, only small increases in irrigated area, slowing domestic and industrial demand growth in later years and improved efficiency in irrigation water use.
This divergence in trends between the developed and developing regions has serious implications for the future of water transfers through agricultural trade increasingly being talked of as a probable solution to smoothing water deficiencies across the world.
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Water supply definitions
Renewable water: Water that can be renewed by natural cycling through the atmosphere and the earth. For each region, total renewable water includes internal renewable water (the flow of rivers and recharges of groundwater generated from endogenous precipitation) and the inflow of surface and groundwater from other regions.
Total water availability: For each region, total water availability is the sum of renewable water, artificial basin/regional water transfer, desalinated water, non-renewable groundwater (available only for a limited period), and salt water (available only for limited uses).
Water demand definitions
Water withdrawal: Water removed from a source and used for human needs, some of which may be returned to the original source and reused downstream with changes in water quantity and quality.
Water consumption: Water withdrawn from a source and made unusable for reuse in the same basin through irrecoverable losses including evapotranspiration, seepage to a saline sink, or contamination.
Sources: Review of World Water resources by Country, FAO 2003
World Water and Food to 2025: Dealing with Scarcity, IFPRI, 2002
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How water stressed are we?
THE "criticality ratio," or the ratio of water withdrawal to total renewable water, is an indicator of water scarcity stress at the basin level. There is no objective basis for selecting a threshold between low and high water stress, but the literature indicates that criticality ratios equal to or greater than 0.4 are considered "high water stress," and 0.8 "very high water stress." At a global level, under business as usual, the criticality ratio increases globally from 0.08 in 1995 to 0.10 in 2025. Although the criticality ratio is relatively low globally and for large aggregated regions because of the abundance of water in some of the component countries and basins that make up these aggregates, it is far higher for dry regions. In China, the criticality ratio increases from 0.26 in 1995 to 0.33 in 2025 ( 27 per cent increase), and in India, the criticality ratio increases from 0.30 to 0.36 ( 20 percent increase).
Water-scarce basins in northern China and northern and northwestern India have criticality ratios several times higher than these values. In West Asia and North Africa, the ratio increases by 32 percent, from 0.69 to 0.90.
While water stress is not particularly excessive at the global level under the business as usual scenario, many regions and people face high and significantly worsening water stress over the projection period.
Source: World Water and Food to 2025: Dealing with Scarcity, IFPRI, 2002
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Middle East blues
SAUDI ARABIA is another country rapidly approaching a dramatic crisis over water. In Saudi Arabia's case, however, the crisis stems from the country's lack of rivers and permanent bodies of water, as a result of which it relies heavily upon underground water sources for its agricultural and potable water supply.
At present, 90 per cent of Saudi Arabia's non-renewable deep-well water is utilised for agricultural purposes. These resources, already precariously low, have been significantly eroded in recent years as a consequence of the conflict in the Persian Gulf.
Iraq's burning of oil wells during the Gulf War further contaminated ground water resources already degraded by pollution seepage from agricultural activity, creating a deficit that has failed to be resolved to date, despite significant Saudi desalinisation attempts.
The state of water resources has significantly affected the nature and stability of the current Saudi regime. Though buoyed by oil revenues, which have facilitated massive desalinisation efforts, Saudi Arabia has failed to adequately address its growing water concerns. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has begun to seek other water sources, a focus that has had pronounced effects on the region. Saudi Arabia's extensive exploration into the underground aquifers in its Eastern Province has reduced the agriculture and water availability of Qatar and Bahrain. The resulting political tension points to an emerging conflict over water resources in the Persian Gulf Peninsula, one that may engulf both Saudi Arabia and its her neighbours.
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