As the global water crisis looms ever closer, we can already see its impacts: too much water or too little, or rains coming at the wrong time. This impending crisis overlaps with two other major global concerns: food security and energy security. The latest UN World Water Development Report forecasts a 70% increase in demand for food by 2050. Some of this increase can be met by cutting waste and making production chains more efficient, but that will still leave the planet needing around 20% more water to grow sufficient food. This figure is particularly alarming when climate change is expected to reduce availability in water-scarce regions which are already struggling to feed the hungry.
At the same time, demand for energy is likely to rise by about 50% by 2035, driven largely by population growth in developing countries and/or increased industrial activity. Some people argue that hydropower, biofuels and other renewable sources will be able to satisfy the world’s appetite for energy. Certainly, hydropower is under-utilized in terms of its potential, but there are real and perceived environmental impacts of increasing production willy-nilly. Unfettered biofuel production should also set alarm bells ringing since this would increase demand for water, intensify pollution from fertilizers and herbicides, and divert agricultural land to more lucrative biofuel crops.
How then do we square the need for clean drinking water against these competing and often compelling priorities? Potential technological solutions abound, along with innovative ideas for applying them and for financing new initiatives. But we still have to find ways to enable developing countries to deploy these solutions. This will require national policies that focus on protecting investments in water services for people at the “base of the pyramid” as well as funds earmarked for infrastructure development. Such policies will require a groundswell in public opinion to get off the ground, and must be based on sound science and credible evidence. That is where bodies such as UN-Water can play a significant role, both as “knowledge brokers” and by providing co-ordination mechanisms. They can create targeted advocacy campaigns, assist developing countries to deploy sufficient capacity and mobilise much-needed resources.
Zafar Adeel is Director of the UNU-INWEH Institute for Water, Environment & Health in Canada.