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The Atlas of Water
Mapping the World's Most Critical Resource
By Maggie Black
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Myriad Editions Limited
All rights reserved.
Water means life – a truism so often repeated that its significance becomes lost. This vital natural resource – falling from the sky, bubbling up into springs and lakes, flowing in streams and rivers – is so fundamental to human activity that everyone must have access to it. Leaving aside questions of unequal power over resources, the very nature of water militates against this. Rain may fall equally "on the just and on the unjust fellow", but everything depends on where they are standing. There is nothing "just" about annual rainfall distribution, which varies from a few millimetres in some places to thousands in others. And as the climate comes under increasing pressure, the meteorological patterns that scientists have worked for generations to understand are becoming even less predictable. Rainfall, which regenerates all other surface and underground sources, may be about to become even more unjust than before.
Rain's erratic choice of landing place, from deserts to forests, tropical to temperate zones, mountains to valleys, is not the end of this complicated story. Unlike other elements on which life depends, it frequently changes its state – from liquid to vapour, from liquid to ice, and vice versa, depending on the season. Water in lakes and reservoirs is constantly evaporating. And water in the landscape never stands still – it is always on the move. It seeps into the soil for use by plants and creatures, or percolates into aquifers where it renews underground supplies. It travels downhill on even the slightest of gradients. Navigating around whatever impediments it finds in its way, surface water enters a complex system of streams and tributaries, joining an ever larger flow destined for the sea. Many of these linked river networks are occupied by different peoples, states and jurisdictions.
At any and every stage along its journey, water is used – and sometimes re-used several times – to support life and economic activity. Maximizing its potential for different uses and environments requires technology, investment, control of pollution, regulation, and efficient service delivery. Take just one example. Rain falling on the Tibetan Plateau finds its way into China's Lancang river. At many stages downstream, flow is diverted by hydraulic construction and human ingenuity into paddy fields to grow rice. Elsewhere, the speeding stream generates electricity when channelled through hydropower turbines. Towns and cities remove water for human consumption and industry, and discharge wastewater back into it. As the river slows and broadens in its lower reaches, becoming the Mekong, it supports a vast aquatic environment on which local fisherman and wildlife depend. Eventually, it enters the South China Sea, having passed through six countries and been endlessly manipulated and exploited along the way.
In an ever more crowded world, the processes involved in this manipulation and exploitation – repeated in countless river basins large and small – are becoming increasingly complex. Much more is being demanded of hard-pressed resources. Rivers are increasingly fragmented by dams. Upstream users reduce both the volume and the quality of water descending downstream. Non-renewable supplies, in the form of fossil-water aquifers formed millennia ago, are becoming rapidly exhausted. Every drop of available supply has to be harnessed to agricultural, industrial or domestic use – and sometimes all three in sequence. The volume of renewable supplies remains constant and is unlikely to falter, despite the many meteorological fluctuations associated with global warming. But the pressures exerted on this finite supply, both from increased population, and from the increasing number of people expecting to enjoy an industrialized lifestyle, are profound. Competition between different types of use, and between upstream and downstream users, is becoming more acute. The extraordinary nature of the substance compounds the many difficulties of managing water in such a way that all these conflicting interests are adjudicated fairly.
Awareness of the critical limits on freshwater supplies has been growing over the past 20 years, alongside more profound appreciation of environmental constraints. Indeed, the circulation of water in the environment – to preserve wetlands, conserve biodiversity, and protect climate stability – has itself become recognized as a category of "water use" necessary to nurture the planet and its other life-giving resources. One strategy for water conservation has been to attach an economic value to all its uses and apply market instruments, such as water-pricing, to prevent profligate extraction and consumption. But the treatment of water as a commodity like any other, to be traded and used for corporate profit-making, has caused huge resentment. In those societies where poverty is acute, and rural farmers and urban dwellers are surviving at levels close to subsistence, unsubsidized water services effectively mean no water services at all. However important it is to conserve supplies, the story of water will be even more unjust if the least well-off bear a disproportionate burden of the costs.
In fact, the problem of water as it relates to people in non-industrial environments is that most of them use too little water, rather than too much. Around 700 million people are still without a reliable source of drinking water, and 2.4 billion people are without basic sanitation. Having no tap at home constrains water use to the point where lack of personal hygiene is at least as much of a disease risk as lack of safe drinking water. Any attempt to improve water management in such a way as to make distribution more just should spread services to those with no protected water supply, many of whom currently spend much more on water purchased by the litre and carried home in a pot, than those living where pipes and taps are prolific.
With water, as with pressure on other natural resources, it is not the poor who are pumping up industrial-scale quantities to sell as a marketized commodity, or to irrigate sugar or cotton plantations in unsuitable dryland environments. Nor are they manufacturing or buying televisions, computers, cars or other sophisticated consumer products. It is not the disadvantaged and underfed who are polluting rivers with pesticide residues and chemical wastes, or eating farmed fish or hamburgers requiring large quantities of water for their production. The industrial lifestyle is propped up by water even more than it is propped up by oil.
Food is one of the most thirsty water consumers. Over 70 percent of water withdrawals are used for agriculture, to irrigate fields or spray crops. But much of this water fails to reach its target – the roots of the plants; it is lost to the atmosphere, or returned to the water system unused. If poorly managed, channel irrigation can actually damage the soil, leaving it saline and unproductive. For this and many other reasons, including the social disruption and environmental damage caused by large dams, it is generally acknowledged that the train of "progress", in which large-scale irrigation projects opened up new agricultural land for cultivation, has run into the buffers.
Despite the uneven distribution of land ownership and cheap food, since the expansion of food production that accompanied the Green Revolution it has been possible to envisage a time when no child would go to bed hungry. But over 780 million people are still without a sufficient or nutritious diet, and making a serious dent in the hunger figures is becoming increasingly difficult. If food production is to keep pace with increasing population, and prices are to be kept in check, water efficiency in agriculture will have to be given far more attention. Volumes available for agriculture are likely to decline or remain static as industry and expanding urban centres increase their share.
Technology will have to be harnessed to reducing water wastefulness. Up to now, hybrid seeds have mostly required extra water for cultivation; more attention will have to be focused on plant strains that require less water. Farmers will have to rediscover respect for environmental parameters, with drylands used for drought-resistant grains and tubers. Investment is needed in small-scale irrigation and water-harvesting techniques, which could improve the livelihoods of millions of farming families, especially in Africa but also in South Asia. Irrigation needs to be carefully managed, and combined with measures to improve the water-holding quality of the soil, nurture its fertility and increase yields from rain-fed crops. As pressures mount, food production will have to focus on items that use less water per unit of energy or nutrition than the red meat so highly prized in Western cultures.
Reduction of water profligacy and improved efficiency are also needed for water use in manufacturing. In many Western countries, water conservation has been enforced by regulation and pricing to the point that recent expansion in industrial water use has been relatively constrained. The challenge is to ensure that these kinds of measures are taken up by less developed and industrializing countries, where water governance and regulatory frameworks are weaker and more frequently flouted. On the domestic front, appliances such as toilets and washing-machines that use less water are now widely available, but even these, as they are taken up by the new middle-class in countries such as China and India, will have a major impact on the quantity of fresh water used in towns and cities, and on the quantity of wastewater discarded.
The amount of water used per household varies enormously around the world, and a large part of it is invisible. Consumption is not limited to drinking, bathing, flushing the toilet, using the dishwasher and watering the garden, adding up to well over 100 litres per capita a day. Everything that is manufactured – from electronic equipment to newspapers and kitchen gadgets – has involved water in its production. The total amount of water each person consumes if such products are factored into our "water footprint" is far higher than the figure for direct consumption. Nor is usage restricted to water from local sources: it also includes water embedded in food and goods imported from elsewhere. Thus water-stressed areas in Africa, America, Asia and Australia may be used to produce consumer items for export, while – with real injustice – local farmers and herders go short.
At the same time as demand on volumes increase, pressures mount on freshwater quality. No longer can natural water from springs, dug wells and running rivers automatically be assumed to be clean and safe to drink. The natural capacity of waterways to act as the world's inbuilt dish-washing apparatus is inadequate to cope with the overload of wastes from increased population density. Many towns and cities in the developing world suffer the indignity of London 150 years ago when, in a hot summer season, the Thames was reduced to a Great Stink by a combination of upstream take-off and raw sewage inflows. Around 90 percent of human waste in the developing world is still discharged untreated into rivers. Since the threat of a cholera epidemic by the intake of foul air no longer causes the alarm it once did, the public-health incentive for dealing with this nuisance is not what it used to be.
An overload of human waste in rivers, lakes and streams destroys plant and aquatic life and can carry with it bacteria and viruses that cause serious diseases. The pollution caused by chemical wastes and industrial spills may not be as visible, but may be even more damaging. Where pesticide residues and pharmaceutical ingredients are washed into rivers or leached into the soil and from there enter the food chain, their toxic effects may build up in human tissues and cause long-term ill-health. Some pollutants may be traced thousands of miles from where they were originally discharged. For too long, the world's freshwater and seawater network has been considered as having an unlimited capacity to function as humanity's sink. As a result, many parts of the network have become degraded.
Co-operation over water
The increasing pressure on water resources has led to intense competition. Within one community, it is often hard to agree who has the right to take freely from the source for irrigation purposes, or whether people with a tap in their yard should pay a higher rate than those still obliged to walk to the pump. Should fines be imposed on people whose tannery, or cloth-dying business, or latrine has fouled the local source? These are questions that have exercised communities for centuries. At the local level, water governance has always demanded co-operation, often reinforced by water's venerated place in human affairs. But as lifestyles become more water-intensive, and the supply is tampered with at ever greater distances, these problems become more acute, especially at the wider level of district or nation, up to multinational level.
Many fear that water is becoming a commercialized commodity, with market forces left to decide who gets to use it or abuse it. Fortunately, that prospect is retreating. Irresponsible profit-making and corruption over water services – the result of inflated expectations from the privatization of services and the efficacy of markets – and the difficulties entailed in persuading customers and authorities to accept much higher pricing regimes, has induced a major re-think about optimal systems of water distribution and its management between public and private sectors. Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, there is now a much wider appreciation that water is a common good, and that it ought to be managed in the common interest by authorities that are answerable in the public domain, even though the role of the private sector has become more ubiquitous. When the task of reconciling all the different user interests is understood in all its parameters, the likelihood is that the business of "water diplomacy" among public and private practitioners will continue to be a growth industry in the 21st century.
The idea of "integrated water resources management" sounds so reasonable and just – reconciling upstream and downstream users, allocating so much to agriculture and so much to industry, bringing in all parties across all political boundaries to the river basin forum – that it ought to be adopted universally and without delay. But its realization requires a complex process of reconciling competing claims, and a willingness to share a natural resource in an equitable way; therefore, such an achievement would be virtually unprecedented in human history. The omens, however, are more positive than might be thought. Despite all the talk about "water wars", experience shows that co-operation over water has occurred more often than conflict, and that antagonists with deeply held differences in almost every sphere can manage to find common cause over water. In the end, the unjust distribution of water in the landscape may provide the stimulus for humanity to find a way of sharing this life-giving resource, and thereby further the cause of bringing humanity together to seek ways of living in peace on our much-pressurized planet.
Excerpted from The Atlas of Water by Maggie Black. Copyright © 2016 Myriad Editions Limited. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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