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  • Paul Wagner et Romain Pastureau

The issue of water scarcity in the world

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

There are concerns whose urgency can only be captured in numbers, and the issue of water is at the forefront. At present, in the Middle East, 9 out of 10 children are affected by a lack of water according to UNICEF figures; in Africa, 400 million people do not have direct access to drinking water. Therefore, the issue of drinking water is becoming increasingly alarming, and situations of water stress are likely to become more acute in the following years. In this article, we will focus on the issue of water, but only on drinking water, and will leave aside subjects such as rising water levels and flooding.

After an overview of the water issue in the world, we will analyze the questions and difficulties raised by the lack of water on the planet before looking at the many consequences that water stress has led to or is likely to lead to in the following years. And if we believe in the saying: for every problem there is a solution, we will try to see if the responses, already put in place in certain Gulf countries, can be viable and will try to bring out some solutions.

A brief update on the distribution of this resource in the world

Freshwater makes up around 2.5% of the world’s water resources. This figure becomes less than 1% when the resources contained in the ice sheet and atop the mountains are not factored in. Remaining water resources are both on the surface with lakes, rivers and underground with aquifers and groundwater tables. The cycle of water renewal is the following: 500,000 km3 of water evaporates from the oceans, 10% of which rains down on the six continents. The dwindling water resources combined with the growing demography and the improvement of living standards will make access to water increasingly difficult.

This map shows the areas of the globe where water stress is forecasted in 2040.

A poor use of freshwater, water pollution and climate change are putting a strain on these resources. As regards climate change, the American scientist James S. Famiglietti is adamant. Climate change and more specifically droughts are threatening many water resources. Just this month, the water levels of the Mississippi River are nearing their lowest levels in 30 years. This is detrimental to the American economy insofar as 92% of the total US agricultural exports transit in this river.

Although the total resources are enough to cover people’s basic needs, freshwater is unequally distributed. Two billion people lack access to drinking water at home throughout the world, according to the World Health Organisation. There is a shortage when people have less than 1,000 km3 per year and per person. These people bear the brunt of poor water management, low resources and a lack of sanitation. However, it should be noted that some progress has been made, at least to some extent. According to UNICEF figures, in 2015, 6.5 billion people had access to drinking water, up from 5 billion in 2000. This represents an increase from 81% of the world's population to 88.5%. Incidentally, the World Health Organisation considers that one has access to water if one is less than 30 minutes round trip from a water point.

Another issue that overlaps water scarcity is water pollution. The French journalist Stéphane Foucart reminds us that water quality has drastically deteriorated in the past decades due to an intensive agricultural model. Metabolites are much more present in water than expected. This could lead to a health crisis. The journalist then calls for a radical change in the methods that are used nowadays in agriculture.

Finally, the issue of depleting freshwater resources is closely linked with other resources and activities – we talk about a nexus. This notion was popularized by a 2011 publication by the World Economic Forum entitled Water Security: The Water-Food-Energy-Climate nexus. This means that water is interconnected with agriculture, energy and climate. For instance, water is needed to cool electricity power plants and electricity is needed to pump water and distribute it to the population. The issue of water scarcity can hence be solved by improving techniques in the agricultural and energetic sectors and by seriously addressing climate change.

The control over water induces major consequences

The very status of water makes it a source of misunderstanding. Freshwater can be defined not only as a common good, but also as a merchandise. The United Nations Water Conference held in Mar del Plata in 1977 describes water as a natural and public good. However, due to its depletion, water can also be viewed as an economic good, as stated in the Dublin Principles of 1992. To this day, freshwater is in between these two statuses. Setting a price on an indispensable yet valuable resource is somewhat of a conundrum.

Water management is another issue that needs to be touched upon. As water is oftentimes a transnational resource, conflicts can arise over riparian rights. Such is the case with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. This dam brought about a stark response from Egypt and Sudan, the two nations downstream of Ethiopia. The Blue Nile begins in Lake Tana and accounts for 85% of the Nile’s total flow. This creates tensions as Egypt relies on the Nile for over 90% of its freshwater and most of its agricultural output. Because of the lack of agreement between all parties, Egypt threatened to bomb the dam back in 2012. Egypt and Sudan have then joined forces in military exercises. The situation is currently at a crossroads as Ethiopia grapples with a civil conflict.

Here is a map of the Nile and the location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam upstream.

Water is thus a factor that facilitates the rise of tensions and that is added to other sources of tensions – these are water-related conflicts. Though the importance of water in conflicts can generally be played down, it can be paramount, still, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict epitomises. This point of tension does not favour peace between the two countries. For example, an Israeli has on average 4 times more water than a Palestinian. It is quite remarkable that one can go from a house with a swimming pool and access to water without difficulty to a Palestinian house that has to fetch its water from a well. The question of resource sharing remains a key issue in any peace process. In the 1920s, before the creation of Israel, the Zionist movement had asked the UN for the entire Levantine basin. The Zionists understood that it was going to be very complicated to have two states for a single basin, as the question of water was going to be of prime importance. They were not mistaken. As early as 1964, the Israeli government oversaw the construction of an aqueduct that links the Jordan River to the Negev. At the same time, Israel militarily prevents neighbouring nations to build dams and aqueducts. The Six-Day War started in 1967 as a response, but then again, access to water was not the only reason that explained the occurrence of this armed conflict. There are also pressures within countries. For instance, a black market for water in Mexico has emerged. This begs the question: will there be a conflict sparked only by water in the future?

Water diplomacy allows nations to negotiate amicably to allocate transboundary resources. Numerous countries have agreements regarding transboundary water resources. For instance, Pakistan and India resorted to “hydro-diplomacy” in order to share control over the Indus River despite the existing tensions. This cooperation can also exist between nations and private actors. Water scarcity can thus become a factor that brings countries together to fight this plight.

Solutions exist to solve the water problem

Of necessity, it is within the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region that countries are most active in combating the lack of drinking water. Many countries in this area are under severe water stress. To give an idea of the situation, this area contains 7% of the world's population for 1% of its drinking water. What is more, of the 20 states with the greatest water stress, 16 are MENA countries. Consequently, to face this emergency, countries are working to find solutions.

One of the solutions is to regulate water in order to manage its arrival in the major cities. This idea has been in place for several decades. We can note the Aswan dam, which, since 1973, has regulated the water of the Nile in Egypt, but also the great GAP programme (Güneydogu Anadolu Projesi), led by Turkey, which aims to create dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, to increase agricultural production and to favour the development of Eastern Turkey. But these dams are not enough to solve the water problems, so some countries have had to look for new solutions.

The most fashionable solution today is seawater desalination. This technique makes it possible to recover fresh water from salt water; for every 2 litres of salt water, 1 litre of drinking water can be recovered. Saudi Arabia and Israel are very active in this practice. The Ashkelon plant, the largest reverse osmosis plant, one of the practices used for desalination, is located in Israel, for example. Although this solution now seems to offer certain guarantees in terms of results, it is only possible for certain states. For example, Chad, a country with a great shortage of water, cannot implement this practice because it requires a source of salt water nearby. Beyond that, this technique has an extremely high energy and environmental cost. Nearly 80% of treated water discharges are made within 10 kilometres of the coast, which leads to salinisation of coastal waters and makes life very difficult for the inhabitants of the fauna and flora of these countries.

Some other ideas are emerging, such as the recycling of wastewater, a practice that is mainly present in Western countries, but which remains very expensive. Countries are also trying to fight against the wastefulness of irrigation or drip irrigation, but this practice is not yet sufficiently supported today. It can be deduced that using water more efficiently, recycling wastewater and creating freshwater are the best solutions as of today. A lot of innovation would be required for the latter solution. Policymakers have yet to buck the trend in order to alleviate the damaging effects the growing lack of water could have on people and countries alike. In Africa, the NEPAD programme puts water at the heart of its policy and sets an example for others to follow.

Thus, it has been seen that access to drinking water is becoming a major concern for many people. Unequally distributed, water is even becoming a source of power strategy for certain states such as Egypt, Turkey or Israel, to the point of talking about hydro politics. Everyone understands it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the importance of easy access to water, as this resource will become increasingly scarce in the years to come. Solutions are being found, but they must mature.


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