Water: A Global Crisis


With the approach of World Environment Day, on June 5, it is worthwhile to reflect on a major crisis that is now confronting the world but receiving inadequate attention. If current trends continue, the world will face a water crisis that will be unprecedented in human history.

During the past decade, there has been extensive discussion on the adequacy of physical availability of water to meet escalating needs for various uses for an expanding global population and accelerating economic activities. However, inadequate attention has been paid to the rapid deterioration of water quality, which is further reducing a significant stock of water that can no longer be used without expensive and sophisticated treatment.

Water, unlike oil or minerals, is a renewable resource. This means it can be used, treated properly, and then reused. This cycle with good management can continue indefinitely. It has been estimated that each drop of the Colorado River water is used seven times. With good management, there is no reason why this could not be increased to 20 or 30 times. The current overwhelming concern is that the world is going to run out of physical availability of water in the foreseeable future. We differ.

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The world has enough water for all uses not only for now but also for 2050 when the global population is expected to be 9.3 billon. There is no reason as to why the global water needs cannot be met provided current water and other associated resources are managed efficiently and equitably. Adequate knowledge, technology, and management practices to manage these resources are already available. However, for a variety of reasons, including lack of political will, emotional attachment to water which has contributed to many unsustainable policies in most countries, absence of proper pricing structure, and institutional weaknesses have ensured water is being incorrectly managed.

We strongly believe that the world is not facing a crisis because of availability of enough water but it is facing a crisis because of improper water management.

Signs of water mismanagement are everywhere. Agriculture is the largest user of water, accounting to 70 percent of global water use. Yet, there is not a single country in the world where agricultural water is priced to cover even the operation and maintenance costs, let alone investments costs. Thus, farmers everywhere use water profligately.

Poor agricultural water management practices with short-sighted unsustainable policies have created many serious and many times irreversible problems by promoting inefficient water uses. Consequently flows of some of the world’s mightiest rivers like the Colorado, Indus, Murray, Nile and Yellow are now a trickle by the time they reach the sea. The World Commission on Water pointed out flows in nearly half of the world’s rivers are now seriously depleted.

The Aral Sea is another sad example. Bad planning diverted the waters of Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which used to provide it with freshwater, for cotton production. Once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, it has now shrunk by 90 percent, wreaking economic and environmental havoc across the region.

China had in the 1950s an estimated 50,000 rivers of catchment area of more than 100 square kilometers. By 2013, this number has been reduced to 27,000 because of indiscriminate water use by agriculture, industry, and cities.

Even though water quantity problems have received the lion’s share of attention, the situation is even worse for quality because of continued poor management. All over the developing world, water bodies near or within urban centers are now heavily contaminated with known and unknown pollutants.

Take Brazil, the site for the next Summer Olympic Games. There are very few sites in the world that are as spectacular as the mouth of the Guanabara Bay, at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain, where the Olympic sailing finals are to be held. Crowds should be able to watch the event from the nearby Flamingo Beach.

The Guanabara is now one of the world’s dirtiest bays. This 380 square-kilometer bay is now an open sewer, receiving 8,200 liters of untreated sewage every second and 100 tons of garbage each day. In 2009, when Rio was a candidate for the Olympics, it committed to cleaning up 80 percent of its pollution and garbage. The situation is now so bad that nearby Botafogo beach has not been considered safe for swimming even for a single day last year or this year. The International Sailing Federation has already said all races may have to be moved outside the bay if it is not adequately cleaned-up. This is now a distinct possibility.

The situation with water quality is very similar in nearly all parts of the developing world.

Consider China. By 2011, water from more than half of China’s largest lakes and rivers were declared unfit for human consumption. More than half of the groundwater sources in northern China are so contaminated that they are not even fit for bathing, let alone for drinking.

Similarly in India, the Supreme Court, in October 2014, slammed the failures of Central and State Pollution Control Boards at all levels for the continuing pollution of the Ganges, considered to be the holiest river of the country. Justice T.S. Thakur chastised the statutory authorities for doing “nothing” against the polluting industries. He told the India’s Solicitor General that “You should have stood up to these people who have both money power and resources.” He noted “your story is a complete story of failure, frustration and disaster. You need to stand up against the polluting units. It will take another 50 years if the task is left to you.”

The Indian government reported in 2013 that nearly half the country’s 445 rivers are too polluted for drinking in terms of biochemical oxygen demand and coliform alone. If other pollutants like toxic chemicals and heavy metals are considered, water from the vast majority of Indian rivers could no longer be used without expensive and sophisticated treatment.

The industrialized countries have made tremendous progress over the past 25 years in terms of treating domestic and industrial wastewater. Commensurate progress is missing in terms of treating non-point sources of pollution from agricultural activities. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes that 40 percent of surveyed rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not fit for swimming or fishing.

The Agency estimates that 850 billion gallons of untreated discharges flow into water bodies annually, contributing to over 7 million illnesses each year.

In London, England, whenever there is 2 mm or more of rain an hour, untreated raw sewage flows into the River Thames. This happens on average once a week. Each year some 30 million tons of raw sewage are discharged to the River Thames, contaminating its waters.

There is absolutely no reason why the quantity and quality of water in both industrialized and developing countries cannot be better managed to alleviate the problems. We already have the knowledge, technology, and management expertise to do so. However, to achieve this will require political will, public awareness of the fact that water is a critically important resource and users must pay for it through appropriate charges and taxes, and the development of appropriate long-term financial models for its proper management. These are now mostly missing.

To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the world has enough water for everyone’s needs, but not enough if it is not managed properly.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is Chairman of the Board of Nestlé, and chairs the 2030 Water Resources Group. Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore and Co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico. 

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