Vidal – Climate change shifts our delicate water balance

John Vidal

Even in the most water-abundant regions, previously reliable supplies are threatened by big changes in weather patterns, writes John Vidal, and the outlook is complicated by the prospects of soaring demand in the largest countries and by their ambitious plans for expanded storage and irrigation schemes. Mounting tensions over water can be expected, both between countries and among different regional and consumer interests

The province of Espinar on the high plains of the Peruvian Andes, with its snow-capped peaks and hundreds of glaciers, should be the last place on earth to expect a water conflict. But in September 2010, following the latest in a spate of droughts, the bustling town of Yauri was receiving only two hours’ supply of water a day and people were angry.

After the federal government in Lima proposed to divert the Apurimac river to farmers 160 kilometres away on the coast, the town went into lockdown as strikers, including farmers from the surrounding hills, blocked the roads and confronted police, who fired warning shots. The next day, the water strikes escalated and spread throughout the region. One man was killed and 12 injured as the police fired on strikers who stopped the railway that provides tourists the only access to the famous Inca ruins of Machu Picchu.

“The river Apurimac depends on the Andean glaciers which are in rapid retreat,” said the strike leader in Yauri, Nestor Cuti. “This is a climate change strike. Climate change is already drying up our rivers. In the future we know we will have less water. We cannot trust the rainy season any more. Every year the water levels are diminishing. You don’t need to be clever to see climate change is affecting everything here. We are being condemned to a slow death.”

The local government in Espinar says that the changing climate has led to increased competition for less water. Over recent years, Peru’s environment agency has recorded nearly 5,000 water disputes, of which 50 have been serious enough to become violent. What is happening in Peru is echoed in nearly every Andean country. As the snowfall diminishes, the lower glaciers are retreating and no longer provide as much water for the cities. It is a situation reflected in other parts of the world. Burgeoning populations, a flight to cities, the need for more electricity, as well as increased standards of living and changes of diet in major new economies like China and India, are putting extra pressure on water sources.

As demand for water increases, climate change and the extra pollution from industrialisation is either reducing the amount of freshwater available or making it less reliable. More intense and frequent droughts and floods, combined with diminishing water tables, mean there is less to go round. The result is mounting water tensions between countries and regions, urban and rural governments, industrial sectors and individuals. By 2025, says the UN Development Programme, nearly one in three people in the world will live in countries that are affected by water shortages. These already affect 450 million people in 29 countries and, says the World Water Forum, tensions over water rights and allocations will inevitably mount.

Richer countries have been turning to energy-intensive technologies like desalination, but poorer ones have had to draw on ever-deeper ground water

In Asia, traditional sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan over who takes how much water from the Indus, is louder now than ever. Bangladesh worries that India will divert their many shared rivers to irrigate its own parched farmlands. China, Nepal, and India all spar over the rivers rising in the Himalayas and which flow through several countries, providing water for nearly 500 million people on the way. On the north and west sides of the Himalayas, tensions are running high between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over the Amu Daria and Syr Daria rivers, as well as the severely depleted Aral Sea. Elsewhere, Argentina and Uruguay have taken their dispute over the river Plate to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, while Mexico and the US argue over rights on the Rio Grande and Colorado.

According to the UN, 263 river basins, supplying nearly 60 percent of the world’s water, are shared between countries. Controversy is bubbling in Africa over ownership of rights to the waters of the Nile. Egypt has traditionally taken the lion’s share, but newly-assertive upstream nations like Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia know that their future prosperity depends largely on their gaining more access to the river. Shares of the Niger, Volta and Zambezi are also disputed between the countries these great rivers flow through.

Countries know they must adapt to having as much as 30 percent less water in future but find it hard politically and are relying on technologies or, like Saudi Arabia, even buying farmland abroad to grow food. Richer countries, including the UK, have been turning to energy-intensive technologies like desalination, but poorer ones have had to draw on ever-deeper ground water. In the Middle East, with water demand growing at an insatiable 6 percent a year, countries have already invested $10 billion in desalination plants in the last six decades, and are expected to have to spend a further $100 billion in the next ten years just to keep up with demand.

Industrialisation has brought other pressures too. It takes 40,000 gallons of water just to manufacture a car and 60,000 gallons to make 1 ton of steel. Coal and nuclear plants demand massive quantities of water. Meanwhile, the huge population shift from countryside to city – which has seen more than 200 million people in China alone migrate to urban areas – increases prosperity but at the expense of water. Half the water available in China’s Hai river basin is now not suitable for drinking or farming because of factory pollution, while 50 Filipino rivers are technically dead, and long stretches of the mighty Ganges in India and the Yellow river in China are so polluted as to be now unusable. Bangladesh, Cambodia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam are all experiencing water stress as they industrialise.

The combination of little new land left for cultivation, an increasingly unpredictable climate and water supplies already stretched to the limit means the only realistic option to feed people in the future will be better management of existing water supplies. China and India are forecast by the Asian Development Bank to have a combined supply shortfall of one trillion cubic metres in 2030. In India, where water tables are in places dropping alarmingly, water demand is expected to exceed all existing sources of supply within ten years.

The numbers are scary. In a report to the UN last year, the World Bank-funded International Water Management Institute (IWMI) calculated that if – as now – one litre of water is used to produce one calorie of food the world will need up to 6,000 cubic kilometres of additional water every year to feed the expected extra 2.5 billion people a Western diet of 2,500 calories per day by 2050. “This is almost twice what we use today and is not sustainable,” said IWMI’s director-general, John Chartres.

Unless immense changes are made to conserve water and build new supplies in developing countries, there will be a 40 percent gap between projected water demand from a bigger, richer global population, and ‘accessible, reliable’ supplies within 25 years, according to a recent McKinsey analysis ( Nearly half of that increased demand will come from China, India, Brazil and South Africa – four rapidly emerging countries that put water security near the top of their political agendas and are expecting to spend gargantuan sums on major dams, river diversions and water initiatives in the next decade alone. All have grasped that their industrial momentum will be held back more by lack of water than anything else, and that thirsty populations undermine political stability.

But the solution for each country is different. India will achieve the most by reducing the amount of water that its farmers use, whereas in China it is industrial and residential demand that is increasing rapidly, so building water infrastructure and pushing through water-saving reforms are the best solutions.

Smaller developing countries do not have the resources to engineer nature in the same way. “The answer [for us] is not to build giant reservoirs or divert rivers,” said Pablo Blanco, an official in the Peruvian environment ministry in Cusco. “That way is too expensive and only encourages people to use as much as possible. The solution must be in helping everyone to use less, to show them how to save it. Farmers, industries and individuals all need to know how to collect it, and use it more efficiently.”

About the author:

John Vidal is Environment Editor at The Guardian, London


Post a comment

February 2, 2011 1:30 pm

I can’t agree more with the sentiments expressed in this article. What is problematic though is that richer countries as always can focus on energy-intensive technologies like desalination, where we in Africa don’t have such luxuries. The disproportionate effects of living in a post-colonial world seem to be evident in even the most basic of commodities, namely water.

February 2, 2011 1:37 pm

Did you even read the article?

February 2, 2011 1:43 pm

If you have something to ask then ask it. Don’t be so criptic Mr Spencer. Have you got something of value to say? Have you read the article?

February 3, 2011 9:37 pm

Why in your patriarchal pseudo-engagement do you assume that I’m a man? I asked whether you read it because it seems clear to me that you are trying to once more live in the past, instead of engaging with the future. When do we stop worrying about a previous millennium and focus on the now. Did you even read that Africa was fighting the battle through attempting to draw on ever-deeper ground water. As the article says “ the solution for each country is different. India will achieve the most by reducing the amount of water that its farmers use, whereas in China it is industrial and residential demand that is increasing rapidly, so building water infrastructure and pushing through water-saving reforms are the best solutions.” It seems focusing more on what you can do with available resources and not feeling so sorry for yourself is perhaps a better way forward.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International