|United Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 2, 1993 (UNU, 1993, 12 pages)|
By Asit K. Biswas
Water can be life's most precious commodity, and in many lands its availability has set the rhythms of daily life from time immemorial. It cannot be used, abused or squandered without major setbacks to the vision of sustainable development. Like oil some 15 years ago, as Asit Biswas points out in the following article, water can no longer be considered a cheap and plentiful resource.
He discusses in particular the need for improved monitoring and management of international waterways - like the Jordan, the Nile and the Mekong, which have been the site and the cause of so much human conflict. Dr. Biswas, a Senior Adviser to several UN agencies, is President of the International Society for International Modelling, Oxford University, the United Kingdom. - Editor
One of the saddest of modern ironies is that if present poverty alleviation programmes succeed, it will greatly exacerbate our global water problems - a fact not often considered by our policy planners, both nationally and internationally. For as the standard of living increases, so too inevitably will per capita water requirements. Sufficient water to slake daily thirst, nourish crops, and meet minimum hygiene needs is obviously a condition of sustainable development - one not being met now in many parts of the world.
The world's rapidly developing water crisis can be traced to four major interrelated phenomena, seen already in the severe problems faced by some arid and semi-arid countries and now beginning to impact many other countries.
First, the amount of fresh water available to any country on a long-term basis is limited. Since nearly all of the easily available sources of water have been or are being developed, the unit costs of future projects can only be higher.
Secondly, as world population increases, water requirements for energy generation and for domestic, agricultural and industrial purposes will also increase. In this century, total global water consumption will likely increase ten times, and total agricultural water requirements six and one-half times. Concurrently, we see changes in the pattern of water requirements - a decline in agricultural use, for example, against sharply increasing industrial water use.
Third, as human activities increase, more and more waste products contaminate available sources of water. Among the major contaminants are untreated or partially treated sewage, agricultural chemicals and industrial effluents. These seriously affect the quality of water, especially for domestic use. Already many sources of water near urban centres in developing countries have been severely contaminated.
Despite much recent rhetoric, no clear picture of water contamination is available even in advanced industrialized countries such as the United States and those in Europe (to say nothing of the developing nations). What monitoring and detection processes there are have mostly focused on selected chemicals which are toxic and mobile.
Based on our present state of knowledge, we cannot determine the extent of contamination that has already occurred - and some water sources may be unusable in the future, unless expensive treatment occurs. Present trends suggest that we will not be able to obtain a good picture of the global water quality situation until the start of the 21st century.
A fourth major factor is the likelihood of increasing delays in implementing new water projects in the coming decades due to higher project costs and lack of investment funds. Social and environmental reasons will also significantly delay the start of new projects, in contrast to earlier decades.
The traditional response, meeting higher demand by increased water availability, will no longer be adequate. Many countries simply do not have any major additional sources of water to develop economically. Even those that do will require a much longer time to implement those projects. As a result, water professionals will come under severe pressure to be more efficient.
But the time we have to significantly improve the management process will be short - certainly no more than one or two decades. While technological problems may be comparatively easy to solve, political, institutional and social constraints may well be the most difficult challenge facing water management in the 21st century.
Managing International Waters
The management of international bodies of water will become an increasingly critical issue in the 1990s and beyond. Transborder lakes, rivers and so on are the only major new sources of water for many arid and semi-arid countries. These water bodies have not been developed in the past because of the political complexities associated with their utilization. However, as water scarcities become more and more serious, some countries may have no other alternative.
Our information base is significantly worse for international aquifers than it is for others. But the scope of the problem we face is suggested by some preliminary work on rivers and lakes by the United Nation's now-defunct Centre for Natural Resources, Energy and Transport (CNRET). In its 1958 report on Integrated River Basin Development, it identified 166 international river basins. An update of this report in 1978, including information on lake basins, listed 214 international river and lake basins.
These estimates suffer from a number of inadequacies - including, for example, the state of the maps then available, the conceptual approaches used, and the fact that the work was limited to a desk study with no follow-up field investigations to check errors. Above all, the study is now 17 years old. The break-up of the Soviet Union, to cite only one massive cartographic change, has created new international river basins which were formerly purely national in character.
It is evident that the number of international river basins in the world is significantly higher than the 214 identified by the UN study. A good example would be the under-counting of international rivers between India and Bangladesh. The UN study identified only one mega-basin, the Ganges-Brahmaputra, which is shared not only by India and Bangladesh but also by China, Nepal and Bhutan. In fact, during one of the past meetings of the India-Bangladesh Joint Rivers Commission, Bangladesh identified more than 140 water systems common to both countries.
It is clear that the 1978 CNRET study is now grossly out of date. Unfortunately, like many other environment and water-related issues, it has been quoted so many times that it is now accepted as a definitive analysis. We urgently need a more authoritative and up-to-date study which would provide a reliable picture of the size of this problem globally.
Oil and Water
In recent years, the strategic importance of water has often been compared with another liquid - oil. It is true that the geopolitics of oil is a critical issue. For example, if Kuwait was a major source of cabbage rather than oil, it is likely that Iraq's invasion would have been a very minor footnote in history. However, there is very little similarity between oil and water.
Oil is only one major source of energy, but water cannot be replaced with any other alternative. Oil prices are very high when compared with water costs. Accordingly, it makes economic sense to transfer oil over very long distances - but not water. Also water consumption, especially for agricultural purposes, is significantly higher than oil.
From a point of view of possible environmental agreements, there are also fundamental differences. Water is more controllable than ozone or climate. Ozone depletion and climate change will affect all nations, but problems associated with individual international water bodies are very country specific. It is much easier for the countries concerned to get excited over the specific issues and some "saber rattling" by the politicians could fare well with the local populace.
Equally, many co-basin countries consider international water bodies as the ultimate zero-sum game, and often view each other as adversaries and not as partners. There are often historical grievances connected with such water bodies. Thus popular emotions can easily become inflamed within a very short period of time. Therefore, it is obvious that a convention on water is likely to have little similarity to the ones on ozone or climate change.
Politically Sensitive Issues
Perhaps because of the highly political nature of shared water questions, international organizations have, for the most part, tended to shy away from them. To the extent they have become involved in such activities, the emphasis has been on data collection, exchange of information, sending of expert missions and convening of seminars and conferences. The type of leadership shown by President Eugene Black of the World Bank in the 1950s and Mustafa Tolba of UNEP in the 1980s stands in stark contrast to the "softly, softly" approach of the international organizations. This attitude clearly must change.
The crisis is now and the world community must act. Efforts like the pioneering and the catalytic role played by the UNU in organizing the highly successful Middle East Water Forum in Cairo in February 1993 must be our goal. The Forum invited 29 leading technocrats in their personal capacities to discuss the complex Middle East water issues: 17 of the participants are directly involved in the current series of bilateral and multilateral peace talks. The resultant book will be distributed to some 1,000 key players in the Middle East water picture.
The root of the English word rival is from the Latin term rivalis, which originally meant using the same stream (rivus). But, as the world becomes more interconnected, countries sharing the same river should no longer consider each other as rivals. It is not difficult to show that properly conceived management plans for international water bodies could result in a win-win situation for all the parties concerned. Contrary to popular belief, these are not zero-sum games. For the future welfare of humankind, the waters of international watercourses should be used optimally for the benefit of the people of all the concerned countries.