Framing the issue
In 20 years, forecasters warn that the demand for water will outstrip the supply by 40%. Nearly one billion already lack access to clean drinking water, over 3.5 million deaths occur from water-related diseases each year, and the list unfortunately goes on. There have already been some telling pieces on water issues here at Th!nk, particularly about the role politicians need to play in instigating action. And we know that water plays an integral role in just about everything to do with development.
Hence, for good reason, water was a hot topic at last weekend’s Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) conference. In a plenary session moderated by Andy Revkin (Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding at Pace University Academy for Applied Environmental Studies and Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times), a panel with diverse backgrounds discussed “The Future of Water” but not without suggestions as to how we can improve the statistics.
The problems are many
As Revkin said, there is “no such thing as just a water problem anymore.” Climate change is obviously putting greater pressure on water supplies but the “way we are abusing water is creating climate change” as well, pressed Maude Barlow, the National Chairperson of The Council of Canadians. Overlooking the reverse causality is unwise.
“It’s just not sexy,” added Kenna (an activist and musician), a reason why he tried to jazz up the issue by organizing Summit on the Summit to raise awareness. He emphasized that if politicians don’t understand the interconnectedness between water and other issues, particularly with regard to prevention, then we will continually face roadblocks.
However, it is not just politicians—their approaches can equally be a problem. In the race to fulfill the MDGs, Barlow criticized the method of connecting ground water through pipes as fast as possible while allowing surface water to become polluted. While it might be a good short-term solution, such a movement is unsustainable in the long-run since it’s impossible to replenish ground water as fast as it is being used.
It also comes as no surprise that water is costly. But just how costly? That’s a question that is difficult to answer. How we price water determines its availability but how should the cost be determined? Through its face value or including the costs of protection (or both)?
Therefore, with the cost and scarcity, will water be causing more conflict in the future? When fielding a question about water wars, EcoDecision’s Founding Director Marta Echavarria said she hated the term. In her opinion, water has the potential to be one of the most uniting elements in the world and could mobilize people to work together on other issues. It’s an interesting, albeit optimistic, take on the issue.
So what are some solutions?
Cost. Distribution. Conservation. Awareness. Conflict. Climate change.
As per most international development issues, Revkin reminded us that solutions consist of “finding the right tool for the right job in the right place at the right time.” No mean feat for the global community. How exactly are we supposed to do that?
Since 70% of water is used for agriculture but 60% of that is lost, drip and modernized irrigation along with rain-fed methods are some solutions to conserving water—the “more crop per drop” FAO manifesto. Patricia Compas, Co-Founder of Polytech Waterbag -- Water Treatment for Disaster Relief, advocated many “old techniques” with regard to water solutions such as simple rainwater catchment systems and slow sand filtration. She highlighted that knowing what type of water you were dealing with was crucial to finding an appropriate solution but that many of the smaller technologies worked effectively in developing regions.
More transparency on subsidies and the amount of water being shipped out of watersheds worldwide would help to determine the true cost of water. Citizen awareness could encourage more political action and changes in our food production system to focus on locally sustainable methods. Unchecked growth is like a cancer, Barlow warned, that will turn on its host in order to survive.
Well, those solutions are pretty high level. What’s something concrete that I can do?
The panelists proposed a pretty hefty laundry list. Aside from tackling these major solutions, they suggested that individuals can take action by finding out where their water comes from locally and joining the debate on bottled water. Citizens can also lobby local representatives to put water higher on the agenda.
Ok, I am by no means well-versed on water, but I can do that. I found out where water in my hometown comes from—in part from groundwater, surface water, and a rather beleaguered desalination plant. But now what? I think it’ll take a little more legwork and a little more action to actually do the trick.
That said, the message from the panel is clear. Solutions are readily available so, as has oft been the refrain already, we have to get politicians, officials, and firms moving on them. Maybe, as Marta said, it can be a unifying issue between the developed and developing world.
Maybe. But I’ll be happy if we can start by getting it higher on the agenda.
[Photo credit: Stephanie Moline]