The World is Dry


Sure enough, as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman proclaims in his most recent book, the world is “hot, flat and crowded.” In fact, it is difficult to avoid reaching such a conclusion. On all three counts, the evidence is robust and growing by the day. The drumbeat of scientific data on the expanding impact of global warming speaks for itself. All the volatility currently on display in the financial markets notwithstanding, the forces of economic and financial integration continue to erode the irregular topographies, however defined, of times past. And the latest U.N. projections suggest we are en route to a demographic future of 8 billion people by the year 2025 and 9.2 billion by the middle of the century.

Another adjective, however, is equally important to describing the future. Our world is “dry”—and rapidly getting even drier. Already, water is critical to human health, economic development, poverty reduction, environmental stewardship, social cohesion, and stability and security.

The data are compelling. We now live in a world in which an estimated 884 million people do not have access to clean drinking water, and 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation. A staggering 1.8 million people, 90 percent of them children, lose their lives each year as a result of diarrheal diseases resulting from unsafe drinking water and poor hygiene. More generally, the World Health Organization estimates that inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene are responsible for roughly half of the malnutrition in the world. In addition, unsustainable water use in regions across the planet is rapidly changing the prospects for future generations. Aquifers are being depleted. Great lakes are mere fractions of what they once were. Water pollution is affecting the lives of millions. Our understanding of the extent of pollution is incomplete, but according to a recent U.N. World Water Development Report, every day we are dumping some 2 million tons of industrial wastes and chemicals as well as human and agricultural wastes—fertilizers, pesticides and pesticide residues—into our water supply.

Shrinking Aral Sea
Aral Sea: going, going, gone ...

If oil is the key geopolitical resource of the year 2008, chances are that water will be as important—if not more important—in the not-so-distant future. Owing to a high correlation between rapid population growth and water scarcity in key parts of the world, this number could easily rise in the future. The United Nations has suggested the number of people in water-stressed countries could rise to some 3 billion by 2025, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development asserts that 3.9 billion could be living in areas of high water stress by the year 2030, and the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development has indicated that we may need to double the amount of freshwater available today to meet demand at the middle of the century.

For all these reasons, we need to look differently at the challenge of global water. Water stress and scarcity will become key features in societies across the world—constraining economic development opportunities, limiting demographic movements and affecting basic human health. Billions of lives, present and future, are in the balance when it comes to how well we can manage the global water challenge.

Our Water Predicament

The contours of our predicament are clear-cut: A finite amount of water is available to a rapidly increasing number of people whose activities require more water than ever before. Over the past century, global water consumption increased sixfold. Compare that with population growth of less than one-half the water rate over the same period. The bottom line is that we are racing to a future in which continued growth in water consumption will simply not be in the cards. The current trend—simply put—is unsustainable.

The challenge, moreover, is diversified geographically. Water tables are dropping—and dropping rapidly—on every continent across the planet. Although the Middle East and Africa are the driest of the “dry spots,” the epicenters of current and future water dislocation, the fact is that stresses from water span many geographical regions and involve a wide spectrum of countries.

" Billions of lives, present and future, are in the balance when it comes to how well we can manage the global water challenge. "

According to the World Bank, in 1995 there were 29 countries with a combined population of 436 million people subject to water stress or scarcity. There is a wide belt of intensified water withdrawal stretching from the United States through North Africa and the Middle East out to China. Furthermore, a growing number of countries are engaging in water practices they simply cannot sustain. Egypt, which is almost totally reliant for its agriculture, has a per capita level of water use that is five times greater than Switzerland’s. To meet its irrigation needs, Libya is drawing “fossil water from deep under the Sahara at a rate of seven times what it receives in rainfall,” according to the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment.

Another key reason for this rapid withdrawal is the profound mismatch between the distribution of the human population and the availability of freshwater. At the water-rich extreme of the spectrum is the Amazon, which has an estimated 15 percent of global run-off with a population of less than 1 percent of the world’s people. South America more generally has only 6 percent of the world’s population but more than a quarter of the world’s runoff. At the other end of the spectrum is Asia, home to 60 percent of the world’s people but with a freshwater endowment estimated at less than 36 percent of the world total.

Two regions in particular have become icons for this kind of unsustainably rapid water withdrawal and general mismanagement by governments. The first is the Aral Sea in Central Asia, divided between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which between 1973 and 1987 dropped from the world’s fourth-largest lake to the sixth-largest. The reason? The decision by the then-Soviet Union to divert the two rivers feeding the lake—the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya—to irrigation. The resulting ecological disaster is on an almost unimaginable scale. The time series photographs opposite show how from 1973 to 2000 the lake has shrunk by approximately half. It lost 75 percent of its water, and its salinity almost tripled. This loss has exposed large tracts of lakebed that have been the source of some 75,000 tons of salty dust that has spread across the region, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The damage runs the gamut from the highly visible physical deterioration of the lake to less than visible effects—including serious health problems, the devastation of the local economy and shifts in local weather patterns.

The other compelling example is Africa’s Lake Chad, which is now one-twentieth of its volume in the 1970s. The source of this remarkable collapse is more complicated. Like the Aral Sea, massive irrigation and the construction of dams have served to choke the historical flows into the lake. But there have been a number of other contributing factors, including global warming, desertification and the negative effects of failed water infrastructure projects. This disappearing lake—now estimated at 500 square miles compared with 15,000 square miles 40 years ago—is critical to the economies of the four countries that bound it: Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon. The satellite photographs of Lake Chad on page 13 only begin to tell the story.

" What is especially striking about water issues is the extent to which we are unprepared for the future."

The same phenomenon of overuse applies to rivers. The list of rivers that no longer consistently reach the sea includes the Colorado, the Rio Grande and five of the most important rivers in Asia—the Ganges of India and Bangladesh, the Indus of India and Pakistan, the Syr Darya and Amu Darya in Central Asia (as already mentioned), and the Yellow River in China.

As powerful as these images are, as compelling as the data and the projections may be, they only begin to describe the kind of systematic changes that are the inevitable result of greater population pressures, intensified industrial and manufacturing activity, and decisions by governments at various levels (local, provincial and national) that—more times than not—have added to rather than reduced the dimensions of the global water challenge.

More Distant Horizons

The inescapable conclusion is that water is already a major problem for a large chunk of humanity. More than 13 percent lack access to clean water and 37 percent do not have adequate sanitation. Hard to fathom, then, that the situation can be expected to deteriorate.

The stakes are clear. Our capacity to address the constellation of challenges relating to water access, sanitation, development and maintenance of infrastructure, adoption of technologies and mobilization of resources will mean the difference between continued poverty and more rapid economic development, continued high exposure to water-related diseases and healthier populations, and instable as opposed to stable social and political theaters. Expressed alternatively, an estimated 30 percent of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals are linked to progress in the area of water.

The United Nations is projecting that by 2025, about 48 countries will be in the same position, with the number of people adversely affected exceeding 1.8 billion—the majority in the least-developed countries—while two-thirds of the world’s population will be living under water stress conditions. An estimated 3 billion people will be living in water-stressed countries by 2035. In addition, many countries with limited water availability also depend on shared water, which increases the risk of friction and social tensions, as is already the case along the Euphrates, Jordan and Nile rivers, as reported by the World Bank.

Shrinking Lake Chad
Lake Chad: an anatomy of a disaster ...

What is already a serious challenge can be expected to become all the more daunting in the future. Population pressures, the stress of continued urbanization, growing demands for water by industry, declining infrastructure, lack of investment and the absence of effective governance have all contributed to the deteriorating outlook for water. And too little is being done to change the outlook. We need to begin by acknowledging that the absolute numbers of water-stressed populations will grow. A lot. The number of people without safe drinking water is expected to expand from the current level of 886 million to some 2.5 billion to 3 billion. One reason for this prediction is painfully obvious. It is precisely those areas of the world that are the most “dry”—or already water-stressed—that will experience the most rapid population increases in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, the rate of global water withdrawal is increasing rapidly. Think about it this way: By 2025, we can expect to see global shortfalls of water equal to 2,000 cubic kilometers, according to a U.N. report; that is roughly the equivalent to the annual flow of 24 Nile Rivers or 110 Colorado Rivers.

Anatomy of the Challenge

The symptoms of this growing water dislocation are already plain to see. Across the planet, great lakes are drying out, major rivers have been reduced to mere trickles, aquifers have been depleted and water tables are falling rapidly. Unfortunately, the corresponding movement in the ways that governments and nongovernmental groups are addressing these water challenges is a drop in the bucket. Despite the obvious signs of overuse, we continue to perpetuate gross inefficiencies, skew consumption on the basis of politically charged subsidies or other supports, and pursue patently unsustainable practices with even more onerous longer--range costs. And despite constant reminders of future challenges, we continue to be paralyzed by short-term thinking and practices.

What is especially striking about water issues is the extent to which we are unprepared for the future—and for the management of such a vital resource. Consider these six key challenges:

  • The world community needs to do more to address the lack of safe drinking water and sanitation. By targeting water, donor countries can address at once issues associated with human health, poverty reduction, environmental stewardship, status of women, and stability and security concerns. In this regard, it should be stressed that the returns on investment in water development—financial, political, geopolitical—are all positive. According to the World Health Organization, the global return on every dollar invested in water and sanitations programs is $4 and $9, respectively.
  • More rigorous analyses of sustainability could help relevant governments and authorities begin to address the conspicuous mismanagement of water resources in regions across the world.This includes review of public subsidy and other supports that tend to increase rather than remove existing inefficiencies.
  • Specialists, scholars, practitioners and policymakers need to make substantial progress in assigning a market value to water against which consumption decisions and policies can be made.Has it struck you that in vending machines these days, we can pay as much as a dollar for a half liter or so of bottled water? Each time you feed those quarters into the machine, you implicitly agree to pay the equivalent of a per-gallon price of some six and one-half dollars—a little less than double the price we are paying for gasoline at the pump (at least at the time of this writing). This implied revaluation of water, debatable as it may be, from the current, unsustainable structure of water use is the precursor for the kind of world toward which we are moving.
  • Rapid advances in technology can and should have a discernible effect on both the supply and demand sides of the global water equation.It remains to be seen, however, whether the broader water community can speed up acquisition and use of such technologies such that they can have an appreciable effect in offsetting the downside trends. The landscape is breathtaking—from desalination membrane and water reuse technologies to a range of cheaper and more efficient point-of-use applications such as drip irrigation.
  • We need to identify with much greater precision the complex linkages that exist among water, agriculture and energy.We know, for example, that at the global level, some 70 percent of freshwater use goes to agriculture. We know that energy production is contingent to some extent on water resources for cooling and other operations. We know that diversion of agricultural production for fuel production has contributed to agricultural price pressures—and to the unrest we have seen across the world over recent months. But an enormous amount of work remains to be done to appreciate these linkages in both the global and local and basin contexts.
  • The impact of global warming on water must be more fully understood.The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has just released a major report on the subject, and the overarching conclusion should resonate with all of us: “Observational records and climate projections provide abundant evidence that freshwater resources are vulnerable and have the potential to be strongly impacted by climate change, with wide-ranging consequences for human societies and ecosystems.” No doubt continuing evidence will shape our understanding of the -climate-change dimension of the water challenge, but it is difficult to reach any con-clusion but that global warming will accelerate the dislocations.

Looking Forward

In light of the foregoing, there seems to be a compelling case for Tom Friedman to revise the title of the next edition of his book to describe a world that is hot, flat, crowded and dry. He and the rest of us in the analytical and policy analysis community can anticipate that in the not-so-distant future, these water challenges will have effects that are progressively wider and more profound. What is less certain is whether the policy community can respond in a manner commensurate with the dimensions of the challenge.

This spring, leaders from across the world will assemble in Istanbul for the Fifth World Water Forum. The event will represent an important opportunity to explore and debate these complex strategies, options and trade-offs. For this reason, Dean Einhorn and SAIS have chosen a significant moment to focus on the global challenge that is water.


global water, global warming, climate change, sustainability, water consumption, water stress, water scarcity

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