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Viktor Dukhovny

Director of Research and Information Centre, Intergovernmental Water Management Coordination Commission for Central Asia, Member of the World Water Council

The words of Ismail Serageldin, founder of the Global Water Partnership, who once said that “if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water”, found resonance in the media, and have only served to reinforce the world’s fears about potential wars over water. The fourth edition of the World Water Development Report by the World Water Assessment Programme, as presented at the 6th World Water Forum, also emphasized the growing risks associated with the environment, climate, economic factors and political constraints.

The words of Ismail Serageldin, founder of the Global Water Partnership, who once said that “if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water”, found resonance in the media, and have only served to reinforce the world’s fears about potential wars over water. The fourth edition of the World Water Development Report by the World Water Assessment Programme, as presented at the 6th World Water Forum, also emphasized the growing risks associated with the environment, climate, economic factors and political constraints. However, the example set by the more technologically advanced countries that are managing to survive despite water shortages, makes one hopeful that, given rational management of water resources, as well as the strict adherence to and global promotion of international water law, mankind will have sufficient water.

Emerging threats

Change in disposable water resources. The current trends in the generation of surface water resources suggest neither a decrease nor an increase in the volume of natural water resources in the immediate run-off. The depletion of resources is mostly due to humans. Deforestation and desertification, and more importantly, pollution of water by untreated discharges are limiting the available water for usage. There are other ailing reservoirs apart from the degrading Aral Sea: the Mono and Salton Sea lakes (USA); Chad and Victoria lakes (Africa); the Dead Sea (Israel); and Lake Sevan (Armenia). This is by no means the full list of environmental disasters that are related to water. Many rivers in the world, once full and clean, have turned into sewers downstream.

Uneven distribution of exploitable water resources. The average worldwide per capita amount of exploitable water is less than 700 m³. Israel, Lebanon, Qatar and almost 30 other countries with arid climates, with all their available and extracted resources, use less than 300 m³ per capita, whereas Brazil, Canada and Russia have ten thousand and more cubic meters of water per capita. The assumption is that in the future, this uneven distribution of water will only get worse. Take the example of Russia: 60 per cent of its water resources are concentrated in Siberia, with its few local industries, whereas the southern regions, in particular Krasnodar, Stavropol, the North Caucasus, and Rostov, as well as the middle and lower streams of the Volga River, suffer from regular droughts. Northbound rivers (in Russia, these include the Siberian Yenisei or Ob rivers) may, to a degree, increase their run-off and even more strongly affect the melting ice caps at the North Pole. This phenomenon has been fairly intense lately, causing concern for European countries because of its possible implications for the Gulf Stream and ultimately the meso-climate along the European coast. However, in contrast, the southern regions of Russia and Ukraine, together all of entire Central Asia, are expected to become more arid with growing temperatures.

Photo: RIA Novosti
Water shortages resulting from food production

An increase in water consumption, which in the longer term may become a key threat, will come as a result of changing climate patterns, including higher temperatures, as well as demographic pressures. To meet the demand for food and utility services, mankind will need more water resources, which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), by the middle of this century will amount to 70 per cent of the current consumption level. Over 1 billion people today have no access to clean potable water; 2 billion have no access to sewage, and 920 million are starving. To meet their needs and those of yet another 2–2.5 billion newly born residents of this planet, we will have to add to the current 4,200 km³ of water taken from water sources, another almost 3,000 km³. This means that man will lay claim to those 9,000 km³, which today serve to preserve the natural value of water in the environment. Thus, irrespective of any increase or decrease in surface waters, areas lacking water are doomed to see more water shortages due to unrelenting growth in water consumption.

Poor water management as the key human failure. Until recently not, enough attention was paid to water management in any countries around the world, including the US, where many river systems (Colorado, Sacramento, and San Joaquin) have reached their absolute limit in water consumption, while about 42 per cent of the length of other rivers are in bad condition due to pollution. As a result, 70 per cent of US territory is in the high-risk water supply zone.

Russia has yet to come up with efficient measures to help manage water resources. We have no clear action plans to put our river basins in order. Russia’s Water Code is expected to open way to the privatization of water reservoirs. The funding made available today to the country’s water sector is a meager one hundredth of what Russia had prior to 1990.

However, there are also some positive examples of rational attitudes to water. In 1970, the European Union launched a major effort to streamline its water management which, in 2001, led to the development and introduction of the Water Framework Directive in all EU member countries. Although its implementation may be very slow, and the initial deadline in 2015 will definitely be missed, EU member countries are focused on improving water manageability and introducing tougher controls over water resources.

Widespread hydro-egotism. This is a dangerous development, which is not related to resources but with principles of management. Until recently, for instance, no one thought that hydropower was of precedence in water management. Only 20–30 years back, priority was given to integrated, multi-sectoral use of resources and the regulation of run-off from water reservoirs in the interests of all users. This is the way to ensure efficient use of each and every cubic meter of water. Unfortunately, energy bias, as in giving hydropower preference in the use of natural water, is becoming more and more prevalent. One can understand the desire to maximize hydropower resources, sometimes ignoring the needs of countries downstream. However, such behaviour and deliberate neglect of the interests of other uses are totally unacceptable in the 21st century. One of the key priorities for ensuring that utilities and arable lands get their water is to create international water law, elaborate a code of ethics in the water consumption and management, and rule out hydro-egotism.

The need thus is to look for additional sources of water and improve the efficiency of available water resources. It is still too difficult to predict by how much the demand will grow under higher temperatures, changes in air humidity and demographic shifts. But it is quite obvious that with the current unpredictability of all these changes, it is important to spearhead tools and mechanisms of water management towards the more economical use of those resources that people still have at their disposal.

Photo: RIA Novosti
Water shortages (Infographics, in Russian)

With the current trends prevailing, and the lack of will to “resist evil” through concerted and global measures, we are bound to face serious conflicts, the seeds of which are already visible in the relations between upstream and water–rich countries and downstream and water-poor ones along the rivers of Nile, Mekong, Amu-Darya, Irtysh and others. These do not have to grow into full-scale wars, but they might still remain a source of tension between countries. Such confrontations, more often than not, lead to demonstrations by the countries of their will to rule over river resources, particularly during a time of instability or unsustainability of water supply, and this is already happening locally today. With water security being the corner stone of food, social and environmental security, crises and conflict-prone zones in the world (where transboundary waters take up 40 per cent of the global land) will continue to threaten international security as the whole. This is why control over the safeguards to the right to water worldwide should be entrusted to the United Nations and its Security Council.

Water survival mechanisms

Transition to integrated water resources management. Integrated management can help to drastically reduce water shortages by engaging the public, integrating science and business, combining interests of various industries (horizontal integration), matching levels of water hierarchy and eliminating logistical losses at linkage points (vertical integration), and mobilizing other water sources. For centuries this method has been and is still being used in Spain, Italy and France.

Integrated water resources management rests on several basic principles:

  • basin-wide hydrographic management, which is about top-to-bottom structuring of the institutions responsible for water supply, minimizing losses at linkage points in the water hierarchy and avoiding administrative interference;
  • wide engagement of all uses, which means the active involvement of water users and consumers in the bottom-up management, subject to parity, the right to cast the decisive vote, and contribution to funding;
  • accounting for and mobilizing all types of water;
  • combining water use interests of all industries and firms;
  • water savings;
  • priority given to environmental demands; and
  • financial sustainability.

Comprehensive promotion of water savings and a more productive land management. Water saving should constantly be the focus of attention; national water management plans must be elaborated and approved by the country’s leadership that are aimed at developing the “green economy” and at the same time ensuring employment in rural communities and improved yields not only from each hectare of land, but from each drop of water used. The priority here is to set up a network of agrarian and reclamation knowledge to help conduct constant monitoring of land and water use, and to be prepared to assist any farmer or other water user at any time. This could enable a drastic leap in the productivity of land and water. During the transition to a market economy, land and water are managed not by those who are knowledgeable about irrigated farming, but by those who have money. We should help them become true masters of the land. Quite important to water supplies is greenhouse farming, where water productivity is several times higher that of open ground.

Establishing a clear and well-controlled system for water resources management. Israel serves a good example for future water management systems (for arid zones), or the Netherlands (for coastal areas and other over-wet zones), as well as Switzerland (for moderate-climate landscapes with high levels of urbanization). These countries share a deep respect for water as a basis of the natural environment that has a huge ethical, cultural and moral potential. Natural and anthropogenic systems in these countries are closely intertwined: they have a centralized, top-to-bottom water governance system regulating the distribution, limitation and monitoring of water resources and their use, combined with direct, bottom-up management based on the extensive involvement of all stakeholders. The government’s rules on financing, and the close involvement of water users and water utilities in water supply ensure sufficient funding for the maintenance, improvement and development of facilities, with certain contributions by the government, but based on the “user pays” and “polluter pays” principles (the more they use or pollute, the more they pay). All water management and irrigation systems are at the highest technical level, with automation and online monitoring, and complete with emergency forecasting and prevention. They are close to potential water productivity in their efficiency.

Phto: waterfootprint.org
The global water footprint

Mobilizing marginal waters. Inventory-taking and mobilizing such additional sources as collector and drainage waters and waste flows, which in Russia are largely treated only with rough cleaning and can have no further efficient use, could make a substantial addition to global water balances. Again, Israel serves a good example, where over 50 per cent of all disposable water resources are collected from water treatment plants with rough and fine cleaning, and then supplied by large water canals for irrigation or, to a lesser degree, for communal utilities.

Water management by the end of the 21st century

Future water management systems at the end of the 21st century are likely to have a higher technical level due to the following factors.

  1. 100 per cent integration of all types of water (from the main basin sources to the last water discharge outlet to the user, including all groundwater and intake from wells and lenses) and their round-the-clock online balancing based on SCADA systems (http://www.mka.ru/?p=41524). This kind of inventory will be accompanied by a dense network of weather stations that record data and disseminate it among end users and water utilities in order for them to adjust their water consumption, usage regimes and water allocation. SCADA systems have been in use for almost ten years now (e.g., in the Syr-Darya Basin-wide Water Utility in Central Asia), and they have a ± 2% precision in water measurement and supply at good cost efficiency. Climate services systems work perfectly in Canada, Israel and in some of the water-rich areas of the US West Coast.
  2. A well-operated service of hydrological, weather and irrigation forecasts, with particular emphasis on emergency forecasts based on satellite and ground tracking, data collection and prevention. There are similar services in operation today in Korea and in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, they manage high-tech emergency flood control facilities that close river channels to protect them from the onset of sea waves, and manage pumping stations and very sophisticated networks to collect and divert surplus water.

The increasingly uneven distribution of water supply in areas where seasons of excessive water alternate with water shortages can be leveled off by looping water sources and diverting some of the rivers to other river basins. China’s experience in that area will be widely disseminated both in individual countries and at the intergovernmental level. This is a way to avoid cutoffs in some regions by mobilizing more water-rich areas even in the most water-poor years. The United Nations will elaborate strict rules and regulations for such intergovernmental systems. The very first steps towards a global system of water resources regulation were made with the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses and Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes, and the UN – Water mechanism (http://www.unwater.org/). The next steps will see a strengthening of international water law, tougher inter-state compliance controls, to be followed through, possibly, with the establishment of the specialized Water Security Council.

Water supply and consumption in cities and in rural areas will be ensured on the basis of regional quantitative and qualitative regulations as a prerequisite for the functioning of residential areas. Other needs will be met (as in Israel) through technical water supplies from untreated but sanctioned flows or weakly mineralized water. All communal discharges will be collected, treated and fed into the network, depending on the degree of purification, either for industrial needs, watering of city vegetation, or for sanitary needs of residential areas. Similarly, melt and rain water from storm drainage will be collected and used. “Green roofs”, with greenery planted on top of the buildings, will become widespread.

Photo: jssozi.wordpress.com

Irrigated farming, as the key consumer of water, will be radically changed. The world will no longer have open canals to supply and distribute water. The irrigation waters will be transported (as in the majority of the Middle East countries) via enclosed pressure or free-flowing pipelines, to avoid losses due to evaporation and infiltration. Irrigated fields will be turned into automated space managed depending on its climatic parameters. Soil with developed capillary properties in relatively flat valleys and plateaus will benefit from controlled sub-irrigation. This is a system of wetting where all water, except precipitation, reaches plants from ground waters. The level of groundwater will be regulated, depending on the stage of growth of plants and the depth to their roots, through a system of underground pipelines spaced at 1.5–3.0 m, which will also be used for deep drainage and water collection outside the watering time. Such experimental systems, with automated regulation of watering, have been in operation for many years in Quebec (Canada), introduced by the McGill University. In slope and foothill valleys, irrigated farming, with water supplied together with nutrients, will be done with drip networks, which are already widespread. Such systems are particularly suitable for steep slopes where no pumping is needed.

Irrigation in hothouses and of enclosed ground with the help of sprays and drip systems has already been introduced everywhere in Qatar, and over major areas in Spain, France and some other countries. These methods of irrigation are certainly much more expensive than free-flowing furrow irrigation, but they improve the field’s efficiency by 30 per cent - from 0.6–0.65 to 0.85–0.92; and, secondly, drastically reduce evaporation from the surface, so all of the water can be used in plant transpiration.

Better water management systems will require improvements in drainage, including collectors, which will all become enclosed. A dense network equipped with meters recording the depth of groundwater and feeding data to satellites, and inspection wells at collectors and drains with the same kind of metering, will be constantly monitored by automated hydrogeological and ameliorative expeditions. It will make it possible to assess the quality of drainage or the risk of salinization, monitor disruptions in the water and salt balance, and offer water users advice on the use of mineralized water and maintenance of the drainage network. It should be remembered though that with such improvements drainage water outflows will shrink in volume and become more mineralized. It will therefore be important to control the amount of water discharged from the river into the drainage collectors, and the bulk of drainage flow for its re-use will have to be treated for partial demineralization.

Our predictions would be deficient if we ignored the need to improve the conditions of our watercourses: rivers, canals, water reservoirs and lakes. There are lots of countries in the world where people can appreciate the greatness of water in nature, its splendour, sanctity, pureness and beauty. Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada have returned rivers to their former productivity and glory, together with the magnificent, fresh and diverse surrounding areas. This is how our planet should look in one hundred years.

* * *

Mankind has at its disposal sufficient water, which, given rational use and streamlined management, allows it to face potential threats to water supplies from demographic pressure, climate change or environmental and economic inequality. What is needed is a change in our attitude to water at the global, national and local levels, down to each individual. Political, legal, economic, financial and ethical frameworks in water management and consumption should be radically overhauled to safeguard the right to water for each human being, each entity, area, and country and, importantly, to ensure that each new inhabitant of this planet appreciates, from birth, the sanctity of water.

Continuing with today’s patterns in water use and management is disastrous and inacceptable as it leads down the road of conflicts, crises, starvation and droughts.

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