“Water security is becoming a real issue”

Dr Ania Grobicki

With water scarcity now a serious global concern, agencies involved in water resources management internationally are seeking to work together to promote efficient and sustainable solutions. Recycling and reclaiming water should be a key objective for both agricultural and urban supply, says the Global Water Partnership’s Ania Grobicki, who stresses that large-scale engineering schemes should not be embarked upon without careful consideration of the wider consequences. Based in Stockholm, the GWP exists to foster integrated water resource management as a worldwide network of official institutions, development banks, water-related professional associations, research institutes, NGOs and the private sector.

Global: What are the most critical issues for effective water resource management posed by the threat of climate change?

Ania Grobicki: These issues fall into three areas. The first is the basic fact that water supplies per capita are declining worldwide, and in the areas hardest hit by climate change – namely Africa and South Asia – they are declining even faster. So water scarcity is becoming a real issue in many countries, and it is being exacerbated by climate change as well as population growth. The second set of issues related to the threat of climate change is the area of climatic extremes and the increasing climatic variability that leads to more frequent and more severe floods and droughts. At the Global Water Partnership we are trying to develop, with our partners, coherent programmes especially to focus on floods and droughts. Governments are tackling these problems in a reactive rather than a proactive way, but it is essential to start thinking ahead and to put flood and drought preparedness and risk reduction strategies in place. And the third area regarding climate change is that, as a result of climatic extremes, the impact is being felt in many different economic sectors. It’s not only agriculture – where crops are washed away by floods or desiccated by drought – but it is also the energy sector. Hydropower is affected if you have a drought and that may be associated with electricity blackouts, which can start to affect the whole economy.

Which regions of the world are most vulnerable?

In lands that are already arid or semi-arid obviously there is very little margin – for many vulnerable communities, particularly nomadic ones – so if there is an additional increase in temperature their lifestyles may become completely unsustainable. Especially in Africa, we are starting to see more rural-to-urban migration because of this. Not only the nomadic pastoralists but also subsistence crop farmers are finding that they simply cannot continue, that their farms are unsustainable. In South Asia, we have the issue that the population is already very high and densely settled and that area of the world is also being hard hit by climate change. Extreme climate events there affect very large numbers of people. Also, in North China we see rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, which calls for more water, but it is accompanied by the drying of the climate. Hence there are massive water shortages already being experienced and those are going to be exacerbated further.

Do you anticipate that competition for water between agricultural, industrial and household consumers will become more intense in some regions of the world? If so, what can be done to make distribution decisions more equitable?

The whole issue of the allocation of water among sectors is a very interesting one. Obviously in every situation and every context it has to be worked out at the local level – at the catchment or river basin scale. There are no generalised solutions. The stakeholders have to get together and discuss the issues and look at the options that are available to them. Basically we distinguish between what is called an open basin – which is a river basin where more water can be allocated – and a closed basin – one where there is no more water to be allocated so any additional demands have to be met by taking water away from one of the other users. In the situation of closed basins the only way to reach more equitable distribution decisions is to have multi-stakeholder platforms for dialogue. Often the finger is pointed at agriculture because agriculture is generally the largest consumer in any given region or basin and there is certainly a lot that can be done to make agricultural water management more efficient. But equally in industry, and also in the household, there is a lot that can be done for water demand management. Much better use can be made of the water that is available within a closed basin, and basically the only solution is to make the use of that water more and more productive.

Can you give specific examples of successful management?

The whole question of agricultural water management is often seen as the big target to aim at, and there are some good examples there where agriculture is able to grow more crops per drop through drip irrigation and also through reusing wastewater. However, some of the most hopeful examples are decisions made at the municipal level, and also in industry, to recycle and reuse water as much as possible, because every time you recycle you are not having to use freshwater – you’re maximising the use you get from the same amount of water. There are quite few places in the world where ‘zero discharge’ has been undertaken as an aim for industry and even for whole cities. The city of St Petersburg in Florida [USA] is not discharging any wastewater into the sea at all but recycling every single drop of water and reusing it. And there are industries all over the world now starting to implement zero discharge – in India and in many other places.

Do you think the world’s largest cities currently plan ahead sufficiently to be able to survive periods of water scarcity?

Well no. I’m very concerned especially by the mentality that looks at inter-basin water transfers as a solution. By which I mean if your city is located in a closed basin and you build a large pipeline and spend a lot of electricity pumping water from a different river basin over hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. These are usually enormous projects with very high visibility. The Rio Grande in California is one example. In China there are massive inter-basin transfers being planned from the Yangtze in the south, which still has a lot of water, up to the Yellow river in the north, which is a closed basin. This is an unsustainable way of going forward.

I come from South Africa where there are many examples of inter-basin water transfers. They can, certainly in the shorter term, alleviate water stresses in the receiving basin but they are environmentally damaging and can cause real issues for the basin which is giving the water. By contrast, zero discharge, water reuse and water demand management are positive and sustainable directions but these tend to happen on a smaller scale. They are not nearly as politically appealing as large-scale inter-basin transfers.

An interesting recent development is that London has decided to invest in a reverse osmosis plant to clean up brackish water from the Thames estuary and use that for drinking water for the city. Many of the largest cities are located on the coast and they are looking at desalination as an option. One concern about that is that it is very energy-intensive, so it may not be a sustainable solution.

I think the whole issue of recycling water is not being sufficiently taken into account and large cities are looking far too much at fresh supplies. But of course the largest city taking recycling very seriously is Singapore. They have a scheme called NEWater and that is basically recycled or reclaimed water. Another example of a capital city recycling water for drinking purposes is Windhoek in Namibia – they’ve been doing it for 40 years without any evidence of disease or health impacts. I believe that large cities really do need to look at this option more carefully.

For costly solutions like desalination, are there cost recovery systems worthy of note?

There are new technologies in addition to the traditional one for desalination – distillation. There is reverse osmosis, which is a membrane technology and there are other processes using membranes like ultra-filtration. There is also a technology called ion exchange, which promises to be equally effective but less expensive and perhaps less energy-intensive as well. In terms of cost recovery systems, you really have to look at the marginal costs of water in each case and you have to look extremely carefully at the energy costs as well. In a particular situation it might be possible to make desalination viable but in the longer term one has to question whether these kinds of systems can be sustainable given the carbon emissions.

Is there a prospect of productive collaboration between all the agencies involved in water management, at the global, regional and national levels, in working towards reducing the threats to human survival and health in the most water-stressed regions?

I really believe that this is the way to go. The only solution is to reduce the amount of fragmentation and get more coherence among all the agencies involved. In Africa there is real hope under the leadership of the African Ministerial Council on Water (AMCOW), which brings together all the African ministers. AMCOW makes decisions and has devised an operational work programme going forward, which the GWP is supporting. Once you’ve got something like that, then the financing can really be targeted. They are making a start at developing the kind of coherence that is needed, particularly in Africa where you can have 100 different initiatives funded by different donors going on in the same spot.

About the author:

Dr Ania Grobicki is Executive Secretary of the Global Water Partnership.


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February 5, 2011 9:06 am

Living in London I had no idea that the city was investing in a reverse osmosis plant. Not sure how it will work, but I.m glad something is being done to plan forward. Seems seriously planning is essential.

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