Surviving Scarcity: Sustainable Management of Water Resources

By Serageldin, Ismail | Harvard International Review, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Surviving Scarcity: Sustainable Management of Water Resources


Serageldin, Ismail, Harvard International Review


THE WORLD'S POLICYMAKERS often take for granted the assumption that the earth's supplies of usable water are essentially unlimited. However, as we enter the new millennium, that assumption is appearing less and less tenable. Per capita water supplies worldwide are now a third lower than they were 25 years ago; this unsettling figure is largely attributable to the addition of 1.8 billion people to the earth's population since then. Over the next 30 years, the earth's population is expected to grow to at least 8 billion. This anticipated growth will cause global demand for water to increase significantly. Industrialization, urbanization, and the expansion of agriculture will also contribute to the depletion of water resources. By 2025, as many as 52 countries, with a combined population of some 3 billion people, will suffer from the strain of insufficient water resources. These impending shortages will be severely detrimental to global public health, worldwide environmental conditions, and international security. Current water management techniques have failed to lay the foundations that would allow nations to face these challenges successfully. Fortunately, however, governments can remedy these shortfalls by promoting cooperation among government sectors in the task of water management, by treating water as an economic good, and by promoting the participation of all water users in the formulation of policies relating to water.

The Consequences of Scarcity

The human and environmental costs of water shortages are devastating. When water is scarce, people are often forced to rely on unsafe water sources, and this phenomenon has an extremely negative impact on public health. One billion people, most of whom are among the world's poor, lack a guaranteed supply of high-quality water, and 1.7 billion have no adequate sanitation. In urban areas, the number of people without access to sanitation actually increased by about 70 million in the 1980s. The health consequences of such service shortfalls make the availability of water a life and death issue for millions of people. Waterborne diseases account for eight percent of all diseases in developing countries, affecting some two billion people annually, and for 90 percent of the 13 million child deaths each year.

The environment is also suffering as a result of the same factors that put pressure on water supplies. Half of the world's coastal wetlands have been drained for development of agriculture or infrastructure, and, in many places, groundwater supplies are at risk because of over-exploitation and contamination by urban and rural pollutants and salt water intrusion. Many countries either do not have legal standards to control water pollution or else lack the capacity to enforce existing legislation. Sewage and industrial waste pollute rivers on every continent, and industry is now discharging a plethora of colorless and odorless toxins. By some estimates, the amount of water made unusable by pollution is almost as great as the amount used.

Finally, increasing water scarcity will also lead to greater competition for water among nations and, perhaps inevitably, to greater tension between states that share water basins. Nearly half of the world's population lives in river basins that are shared by several nations. The failure of many such countries to cooperate in the task of water management results in economic losses in downstream countries. As pressure on water resources increases, this phenomenon, and the tension and resentment that are sure to ensue, will increase in turn, and the result may be armed conflict.

Indeed, just as many of the wars of this century have been fought over oil, those of the next century may well be fought over water. For example, the ability of countries of the Middle East to maintain peace among themselves will depend on their ability to manage potential conflicts over water. Per capita water supplies in that region are a third lower than they were in 1960 and are expected to decrease by 50 percent over the next 30 years. …

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