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The silent crisis: Global water scarcity reshaping future foreign policy

Article by Dr David Tickner, Head of Freshwater Programmes, WWF-UK

July 15, 2010

Less than three per cent of the earth’s water is potable and 2.5 per cent of this freshwater is inaccessible, locked up in Antarctic and Arctic ice sheets and glaciers. In addition, fewer than 10 countries hold 60 per cent of the world’s available freshwater supplies: Brazil, Russia, China, Canada, Indonesia, U.S, India, Columbia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The uncertainties, insecurities and scarcity produced by insufficient access to water and its poor management extends beyond national borders, generations and population groups, albeit in different ways. Without decisive collective action, access to freshwater will become increasingly limited and the growing risk of water scarcity more widespread.

Water, which is such an integral part of the planet’s social, economic, political and environmental wellbeing, has for too long been overlooked as a major cause of global uncertainty and insecurity. This is despite the fact that its increasing scarcity has led to a silent crisis, which although many argue is preventable, continues to be ignored.

How can access to freshwater be secured when and where it is needed, and how can the competing demands for freshwater from the environment, agriculture, industry and households be more effectively managed? More importantly, in an increasingly interconnected world where co-operation is not just an option but an absolute imperative, how can future foreign policy tackle the challenges thrown up by the world water crisis?

In a collection of essays recently published by the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) in partnership with WWF-UK, a diverse range of authors endeavoured to explore the most significant foreign policy impacts created by water scarcity under the aegis of three overarching themes.


The potential disputes over shared water resources may not have produced outright conflict, but tension is often masked by cooperation between unequal powers which can fuel social and political instability and violence within and between states. All of this will be compounded by increasingly acute climate constraints. There are particular high risk regions such as Darfur, Yemen, Nepal and Bangladesh where the effects of too much (floods) or too little (droughts) water are testing peoples’ resilience and ability to adapt. In such cases good water management is an important part of peacebuilding and can only be delivered through insightful political leadership.

There is an inextricable link between energy and water. Water cannot be secured without employing energy and energy cannot be produced, transported or distributed without water. The interdependence of energy and water exists in a world confronted by an age where natural resources have become increasingly scarce due to pressures from the explosive growth in the earth’s population, as the world becomes rapidly industrialised and urbanised. The implications for securing affordable, reliable and sustainable access to water is momumental but not beyond reach with the help of new investment strategies to improve water use.

About 70-80 per cent of freshwater taken from rivers or aquifers in the developed world is used for irrigation. In other words, the amount of water required for one hectare of irrigation in hot climates is about one litre per second every second of the day. Farmers are the main managers of water world-wide, employing 80 per cent of the water used by society. How can irrigation knowledge and affordable investment strategies be developed to produce more food with much less water? In addition, in regions such as West Africa where nine countries depend on the Niger River, the availability of water is not necessarily scarce, but effective governance is. Therefore an urgent priority is to identify how the most optimal water management investment choices can be made.


In examining the economic imperative for managing water wisely there are a number of critical issues. Can international trade in food commodities deliver food and water security for the rural and urban poor in the developing world and does this process improve access to international markets and ultimately providing an exit out of poverty for poor people? Current evidence suggests this is not the case but the question is could it?

Water scarcity has particular relevance for big business. The uniqueness of water as a natural and irreplaceable resource that is impossible to substitute, underlines a shared risk to business and other water users and a collective business case for better water managementpPrivate sector investment in a new approach to water stewardship needs to look beyond volumes of water used to consider the impact of water use on natural and economic systems. Such an approach supports the development of an locally-appropriate, equitable and transparent regulatory framework to help allocate water to different users. Above all however, such a stewardship ethic demands strong and autonomous political water management institutions that not only have the technical capacity to secure greater outputs for every litre of water used, but can also rigorously enforce fair and sustainable water allocation for all.


Every US$1 spent on water and sanitation yields a return of US$8- US$10 in economic development in poor countries. The impact of improving the provision of safe drinking water and appropriate sanitation facilities in poor countries is a cornerstone for economic development transformation. Yet, while the controversy surrounding the public and private sector provision of water and sanitation is complex, such issues need not be allowed to hijack the debate when improving provision for those most in need is an urgent challenge.

The central role women play in tackling the crisis in global water management cannot be underestimated. Yet, women’s rights are often conspicuously absent from water management decision-making, be it on a local, national, regional or global level. The challenge is, how can women be supported to have a greater voice, commensurate with their knowledge and expertise as primary users of water resources in many communities around the world?

By 2030 water supplies will only satify 60 per cent of global demand. This will be compunded by the fact that by this year over 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The realities of water scarcity in the sprawling megacities that have sprung up across the developing world accelerate the need for better sustainable water management in emerging urban areas.

Nature is being squeezed by humankind’s increasing demand for freshwater. In essence, the impact of water scarcity on species and on natural river, lake and aquifer systems is a phenomenally neglected priority requiring urgent action. After all, these rivers, lakes and aquifers are the very sources of our water. If they dry up, we do too.

As Hilary Clinton has said, the challenge of tackling management of freshwater supplies in an age of growing scarcity will increasingly be a front-burner issue. The question is, can future foreign policy be reshaped and recasted to tackle this challenge?

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