Averting the next global credit crunch: water

30 August 2010 | Article

The sudden absence or overabundance of water makes the abstract and invisible forces of climate change painfully clear, writes Dr Mark Smith, Head of IUCN’s Water Programme: torrential rains wash away fertile soils and dried up rivers no longer water lush gardens and wetland beauty.

Water scarcity has long been somebody else’s problem. Yet we all depend on water to grow our food, produce our goods, and generate our energy. The reality is that we have outsourced our security until we feel utterly insulated from the risks of water scarcity, depending on political leaders who must surely have everything under control. Continuing to do so could be a painful mistake.

The fact is that our failure to curb climate change is destabilising our water resources and could push nations to the verge of aquatic bankruptcy

Facing the problems of tomorrow

Little has prepared us for tomorrow’s extremes. In hindsight, should we have entrusted our wealth to omniscient financiers who promised to save us from meltdown? Of course not, we should have trusted more in our own instincts about what constitutes sustainable finance. And now, amid the economic hardship that resulted from financial mismanagement, a new challenge looms large even as, once again, many leaders around the world appear to be ignoring the obvious danger signs.

The fact is that our failure to curb climate change is destabilising our water resources and could push nations to the verge of aquatic bankruptcy. We do not only suffer from shrinking federal reserves but dwindling federal reservoirs. We also see uncomfortable parallels between toxic debt and polluted aquifers, as well as dried up bank accounts and desiccated farmlands. In fact, some parts of the world are literally insolvent.

Saving earth’s rivers

From the Yellow and Colorado to the Ebro and Murray Darling, failures in water management mean major rivers are drying up and losing their connection to the sea; even Amazonian tributaries are running dry. Lake Chad and the Aral Sea have withered into little more than giant shallow puddles. Water tables beneath Beijing, Bangalore and Barcelona are lower each year.

We are already borrowing water from banks deep in debt. Yet, by 2050 we will have added another 2.5 billion thirsty shareholders. An unstable water supply will not correct itself, nor can anyone afford to ignore it. Nearly one billion humans lack access to clean water and a child dies every 20 seconds as a result. Yet scarcity affects more than the poor.

According to a recent study by the Marsh Center for Global Risk, two in five global industries say water shortage would prove “severe” or “catastrophic” for their business; fewer than 17 per cent are prepared for that calamity. In October 2007, Atlanta, the fastest growing US city and home to multinational firms, was left with 87 days of drinking water. Never mind capital chasing cheap labor, finding secure water may drive companies to relocate.

Government responses

Government responses to the financial crisis follow a pattern: print more money, pump it into banks, and jumpstart the economy on government credit. We hope the plan works

But what can governments do to avert the water crunch? Just open the gates and pump ever more water? With rainfall drying up and evaporation soaring, more reservoirs are unlikely to meet growing demand. Drilling deeper to tap new sources will need to be matched by deeper pockets to pay the bill, bring up the water and deliver it.

Shielding a nation from global water woes will not work either. To be sure, climate change is global while water stress is local. Yet we live in an increasingly water-interdependent world, in which more than 260 rivers are shared by two or more countries. Droughts in Australia and farm policy in North America, combined with hunger in Asia, create spikes in food prices and in energy cost everywhere.

Shifting to another source? Food can be grown without soil or even sunlight, but not without water. And while there are a dozen energy alternatives to fossil fuel, there is no water substitute. Everything of value, living or mechanical, depends on water.

What we can do

Becoming resilient to climate change requires us to adapt and water is a frontline issue for us all. We have to adjust the way we use, distribute, allocate and make decisions on water. Rather than continue to deplete our water resources, we must adapt our demands to a finite, shrinking and unstable water supply.

Governments must align their climate policies with these new and intensifying water realities. A strategic decision is required to move away from ever expanding supplies to curbing demand. Commitments need to be made to finance ‘soft-infrastructure’ governance approaches that empower local decision-making so people can negotiate water saving and water sharing. The route-map is not a mystery: agreement should be reached on wisely managed forested watersheds and floodplains that are the underlying infrastructure of the way nature delivers water.

Perhaps we could have avoided the global economic crisis if we better understood our real exposure to risk. That wealth was largely on paper and we may yet regain it. But to prevent a deadlier and far less reversible form of damage, let us now take measures to secure our water – the liquid asset on which all life depends.

This article appears in Climate Action which was produced for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). www.climateactionprogramme.org