BANGKOK (AlertNet) - Population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation and climate change are putting pressure on the world’s river basins, and “hydro-diplomacy” is essential if water-related conflicts are to be avoided, experts said on Wednesday.
Cooperation between countries and between different groups within countries, as well as improved political will and the larger participation of societies could help defuse tensions over water and improve governance of water resources, the experts said at a conference in Chiang Rai in Thailand, a nation that shares the waters of the Mekong River with Myanmar and Laos.
“Water is, let us face it, going to be humanity’s crisis number one,” said Ambassador Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former governor of West Bengal in India, which shares borders and rivers with Bangladesh.
“With global warming, population spikes and water-extraction intensification, river water and ground water are going to come under unprecedented strain,” he added.
Rapid population growth and increased industrial demand mean water withdrawals have tripled over the last 50 years, according to figures from the United Nations.
U.N. studies project that at least 30 nations will be "water scarce" in 2025, up from 20 in 1990. Eighteen of them are in the Middle East and North Africa but parts of India, China and Pakistan are also expected to face water shortages.
A country is judged to be “water scarce” when each person has access to 1,000 or fewer cubic meters of water a year.
“Allocation and sharing of water resources crosses political, spatial, cultural and economic boundaries,” said Aban Marker Kabraji, Asia regional director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which organised the conference.
Diverse users, from farmers to industry and urban developers, are all competing for a limited resource, she said.
“Many technical water infrastructure solutions of the past are now seen to be unsustainable, and we need new ways to meet the demands of human growth while ensuring a sustainable future,” Kabraji said.
Because water, energy and food needs are increasingly inter-related, increasing transboundary cooperation on water – or the lack of it - will have wide ranging impacts, experts said.
For Torkil Jønch Clausen, the conference’s keynote speaker, it is increasingly clear that water issues must be tackled from a wider perspective and by a wide range of people, not just water experts.
"Water's a human right. We need 50 litres per day for our basic needs. That is not a political problem. No country does not have that,” said Clausen, a senior advisor to the Global Water Partnership and chair of the scientific programme of World Water Week in Stockholm.
“But every day the food we eat takes 50, 60 times that much water to produce,” he said, and “in many cases in the world, the environment has paid the price for our production of food and energy.”
Agriculture is responsible for two-thirds of global water withdrawals, he said. It takes 1,500 litres of water to produce one kilo of cereals and 10 times that to produce a kilo of meat, a significant problem as demand for meat continues to rise, particularly in developing nations such as China.
Forty percent of food, excluding food used for biofuel, is produced on irrigated land and irrigation needs also are expected to increase, he said.
In India, 20 percent of all electricity is used for irrigation, he said, with the government’s subsidised energy policy has resulted in declining groundwater levels in some regions.
He told AlertNet that said he and others were disappointed that the Rio+20 sustainable development summit, held in June in Brazil, had not done enough to emphasize the importance of water as a critical building block of any “green economy,” particularly as it is key to both food and energy issues.
“Unless you get the concerned societal sectors to actually take on water management, (changes are) not going to happen,” he said.
GLOBAL FRAMEWORK LACKING
Still, Clausen is optimistic.
If crop losses during production and in terms of food waste can be reduced and other smart measures taken, “we can certainly feed 9 billion people with both food and energy,” he said.
“But it does require that we improve our governance. In my view, the threat is not a water crisis but a crisis of good water governance,” he said.
Building an effective structure to manage water resources may require construction of a global water treaty, some experts said.
Worldwide there are more than 250 transboundary river and lake basins shared by over 145 countries, yet few of them are governed by basin agreements and treaties. The world lacks a legal framework that could manage transboundary waters “in an equitable manner,” said Khaled M. AbuZeid, director of technical programmes at the Arab Water Council.
Only 27 countries, including six in Asia - have ratified or joined the 1997 U.N. Watercourses Convention after 15 years. The convention would only come into force if 35 out of 194 U.N. countries ratify it.
“Nothing will be more effective for reaching a consensus on transboundary water management agreements than for the riparian states to sit together and exercise hydro-diplomacy” – essentially putting political differences behind themselves and putting mutual benefits ahead, AbuZeid said.
“Technically feasible, economically viable, environmentally sound, and socially acceptable solutions are possible,” he insisted.
But to make it happen, countries need the political will to balance national interests and benefits from shared water, he said.