Water Vulnerability – A Topic for the Next G8?

The recent G8 meeting will be remembered, amongst the other items discussed, for the unfortunate London bombings and the somewhat lame climate change initiative that resulted after all the fanfare about this being the place to highlight the issue of the century — climate change.

But are we really correct in calling climate change the only critical issue we are dealing within the Earth system today? Clearly climate change is an issue that needs a framework and policy developed by the global community to help solve some fundamental issues such as reduction in GHG emissions, technology adaptation, and development of scientific concepts to sequester GHGs, etc.

It is important that the scientific community demonstrate its ability and propensity to adapt a broader perspective to encompass a more holistic perspective that considers the vulnerability of the Earth’s resources and possible adaptability and mitigative strategies. It is then feasible that the disconnect between science and the compromises that policymakers and the populace have to make in reaching the decisions between a myriad of choices in abating climate change possible.

The vulnerability of water resources as a global issue is indeed critically poised even as the world debates climate change. There is growing evidence (Douglas et al. 2005, Nat. Haz, in review) that between 1990 and 2025 the number of people living in countries without adequate water is projected to rise from 131 million to 817 million. India is supposed to fall into the water stress category long before 2025 (Shiva, 2002).

Let’s continue with the example of India to illustrate a few areas where the hydrological vulnerability problem lie. Climate change can contribute to the variations in the natural water cycle and cause stress on the water resources. Over and beyond that, there are significant societal issues which have more direct impacts on the water resources (and vice versa). For instance, the increasing trend in privatizing water sources has played a daunting role in the inequity of water access. Private ownership, rather than collective sharing, has left many villagers paying exorbitant rates for water (something that is nearly impossible to afford for sustenance farmers) or spending hours locating alternate water sources. As water availability decreases, malnutrition, disease, and infant mortality increase.

Another problem that plagues communities that are stressed with the difficult choice between water vulnerability and economic choices, is related to the commodity returns. For instance, rural India is shifting from farming food crops to cash crops. Sainath notes (1999) in many areas water intensive sugarcane is replacing traditional yield such as wheat. Sugarcane requires ten times as much water as wheat!

As water needs increase, more resources are utilized and consumption goes well beyond the recharge potential of water sources.
Urban areas are not immune to water vulnerability either. Manufacturing requires water while industrial waste pollutes rivers and water sheds. Villagers migrate to cities due to water shortages, land and water ownership issues and lack of economic opportunity, and increase the burden on the already overpopulated urban areas. Excess population leads to water scarcity since the resources remain near constant. Often improper sanitation facilities add to the contamination of water, leaving even less water for human consumption.
Note that the water vulnerability is not only a problem for the developing world. In the United States, wells have dried up from water depletion in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas (Brown, 2003).

So whether G8 faces up to the fact that water resource vulnerability is a severe environmental disaster the world is facing or not — the rural and urban communities across the world will live through a decade which will make or break the social infrastructure or what it can develop into or what it can provide to its population.

Brown, L. (2003) World Creating Food Bubble Economy Based on Unsustainable Use of Water, http://www.casavaria.com/eco/epi/030313food-bubble.htm
Douglas E., D. Niyogi, S. Frolking, J.B. Yeluripati, R. A. Pielke Sr., N. Niyogi, C. J. Vörösmarty, U.C. Mohanty (2005) Changes in moisture and energy fluxes due to agricultural land use and irrigation in the Indian Monsoon Belt, J. Natural Hazards (Monsoon Special Issue), in review.
Sainath, P. (1999) Everybody Loves a Good Drought, Headline Book Publishing, London, GB. pp. 255-292.
Shiva, V. (2002) Water Wars, South End Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 1, 20

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