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Energy»The water shortage debate in 2010

»Tuesday, March 23,2010

Incomprehensibly, Copenhagen failed to include problems of fresh water supply. The UN negotiations were focused on solving the critical problems of energy and finance.

However, water provides a thread which connects the different impacts of climate change. While the minutiae of climate science may be complex, it's easy to understand that increasing population, industry, economic growth and urbanisation put additional stress on the provision of clean water from dwindling reserves.



Looking to 2050

By 2050, according to IPCC reports, 60% of the world's population could experience severe water shortages. More than a 33% of the world is already under water stress, where poor water supplies affect food production, economic development and even human health. Lack of access to water is going to change the economic environment in ways that most of us can’t begin to imagine.

Water also has a critical role to play in energy supply. It is required for many existing energy systems (from boiling water to driving turbines, supplying coolant for nuclear power, even in oil production). According to the International Committee for World Water Contract, 44% of fresh water in France is used by its energy sector, while demand can reach 60% in some countries.

Containing fresh water supply problems?

While developing economies with large agricultural sectors in flood plains (such as Bangladesh) or drought- prone regions (such as Darfur) are likely to see direct impacts, water stress anywhere is going to have a knock-on effect on agriculture, power supply, health and potential conflict.

The interconnected nature of the global economy will ensure that water stress affects the world as a whole. People consume water through drinking, cooking and washing but far more is used in the production of food, clothes, and the trappings of modern living.

The trail your water footprint leaves

For the first time in 2008 the WWF’s Living Planet report highlighted the significance of water traded in the form of commodities – for example a cotton T-shirt, which consumes 2,900 litres of water in the growth of cotton and the shirt's production. According to the report, Japan has a water footprint of 1,150 cubic metres per year per capita, but has about 65% of its total water footprint outside Japan. By comparison China's water footprint is about 700 cubic metres per year per capita but only 7% of this falls outside China.

We're going to need to see wider implementation of a water footprint across all economic activities. We have to understand our consumption patterns, and how they need to change.

Consequences of peak water

One of the most important things that needs to happen in 2010 is that we begin to address the inequity of the global water balance, and develop a mainstream understanding of our responsibility for the wider environment. In the end, peak water could prove to have far more dramatic and immediate consequences than peak oil. It's harder to address, but that means we have to make it a priority.

We have to create a clear regulatory framework within which nations, business and consumers can operate, and it needs to be global. Existing models could be adapted. In Vermont, water is "owned" by the State, with the government responsible for distribution with priority given to people, nature and agriculture first. Industrial use comes behind these needs, and pollution can result in denial of supply.

Avoiding resources conflicts

There are aspects to water management which are clearly key to a successful adaptive response to climate change. We also know that it is critically important to address trans-boundary water management issues if we are to avoid conflict based on access to resources. We need to integrate water management with land and forest management, and focus on the overall protection and restoration of natural resources.

Prince Charles referred to the need to create a "collective and comprehensive deal" at Copenhagen. Supply of fresh water affects everyone, across every border - it is the one truly global resource and cannot belong to any one group. If we are to find a way to address the water issue, 2010 must see water enshrined at the heart of any international climate change treaty.
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