HDR 2006 Chapter 4: Water scarcity, risk and vulnerability

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Human Development Report 2006 - Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis
Report Overview | Chapter 1: Ending the Crisis in Water and Sanitation | Chapter 2: Water for human consumption | Chapter 3: The vast deficit in sanitation | Chapter 4: Water scarcity, risk and vulnerability | Chapter 5: Water competition in agriculture| | Chapter 6: Managing transboundary waters | Links to the Millennium Development Goals | Notes and Bibliography | UNDP Fast Facts
Background and issues papers:

(Link to full list of Papers for download)

Related WaterWiki articles:

Water Rights and Wrongs | Summary of Live Forum: HDR 2006 - From the Report to Action on the Ground

External Links:

HDR 2006 Homepage |

Key Downloadables:

 HDR2006 English Summary.pdf
 Hdr2006 - errata 27nov06.doc
 Hdr 2006 presskit en.pdf

Managing water scarcity, risk and vulnerability
Figure 12 - Water availability in decline.(Source:Pitman 2002)
Figure 12 - Water availability in decline.(Source:Pitman 2002)

In the early 21st century debates on water increasingly reflect a Malthusian diagnosis of the problem. Dire warnings have been posted pointing to the “gloomy arithmetic” of rising population and declining water availability. Is the world running out of water?

Not in any meaningful sense. But water insecurity does pose a threat to human development for a large—and growing—section of humanity. Competition, environmental stress and unpredictability of access to water as a productive resource are powerful drivers of water insecurity for a large proportion of the global population.

Viewed at a global level, there is more than enough water to go around and meet all of humanity’s needs. So why is water scarcity a problem? Partly because water, like wealth, is unequally distributed between and within countries. It does not help water-stressed countries in the Middle East that Brazil and Canada have more water than they could ever use. Nor does it help people in drought-prone areas of northeast Brazil that average water availability in the country is among the highest in the world. Another problem is that access to water as a productive resource requires access to infrastructure, and access to infrastructure is also skewed between and within countries.

Figure 14 - How the world uses its water.(Source:FAO 2006)
Figure 14 - How the world uses its water.(Source:FAO 2006)

Measured on conventional indicators, water stress is increasing. Today, about 700 million people in 43 countries live below the water-stress threshold of 1,700 cubic metres per person—an admittedly arbitrary dividing line. By 2025 that figure will reach 3 billion, as water stress intensifies in China, India and Sub-Saharan Africa. Based on national averages, the projection understates the current problem. The 538 million people in northern China already live in an intensely water-stressed region. Globally, some 1.4 billion people live in river basin areas where water use exceeds sustainable levels.

Water stress is reflected in ecological stress. River systems that no longer reach the sea, shrinking lakes and sinking groundwater tables are among the most noticeable symptoms of water overuse. The decline of river systems— from the Colorado River in the United States to the Yellow River in China—is a highly visible product of overuse. Less visible, but no less detrimental to human development, is rapid depletion of groundwater in South Asia. In parts of India groundwater tables are falling by more than 1 metre a year, jeopardizing future agricultural production.

These are real symptoms of scarcity, but the scarcity has been induced by policy failures. When it comes to water management, the world has been indulging in an activity analogous to a reckless and unsustainable credit-financed spending spree. Put simply, countries have been using far more water than they have, as defined by the rate of replenishment. The result: a large water-based ecological debt that will be transferred to future generations. This debt raises important questions about national accounting systems that fail to measure the depletion of scarce and precious natural capital—and it raises important questions about cross-generational equity. Underpricing (or zero pricing in some cases) has sustained overuse: if markets delivered Porsche cars at give-away prices, they too would be in short supply.

Future water-use scenarios raise cause for serious concern. For almost a century water use has been growing almost twice as fast as population. That trend will continue. Irrigated agriculture will remain the largest user of water—it currently accounts for more than 80% of use in developing countries. But the demands of industry and urban users are growing rapidly. Over the period to 2050 the world’s water will have to support the agricultural systems that will feed and create livelihoods for an additional 2.7 billion people. Meanwhile, industry, rather than agriculture, will account for most of the projected increase in water use to 2025.


Augmenting supply

In the past governments responded to water stress by seeking to augment supply. Largescale river diversion programmes in China and India underline the continuing appeal of this approach. Other supply- side options have also grown in importance. Desalination of sea water is gaining ground, though high energy costs make this an option principally for wealthier countries and cities by the sea. “Virtual water” imports—the water used in the production of imported food—are another option. Here too, however, there are limited options for low-income countries with large food deficits—and there are food security threats from a potential loss of self-reliance.

Damping demand

Demand-side policies are likely to be more effective. Increasing the “crop per drop” ratio through new productivity-enhancing technology has the potential to reduce pressure on water systems. More broadly, water pricing policies need to better reflect the scarcity value of water. The early withdrawal of perverse subsidies that encourage overuse would mark an important step in the right direction for countries such as India and Mexico, which have inadvertently created incentives for the depletion of groundwater through electricity subsidies for large farms. In effect, governments have been subsidizing the depletion of a precious natural resource, transferring the costs to the environment— and to future generations.

Managing uncertainty

Many governments across the developing world are now faced with the need for managing acute adjustments in water. Realigning supply and demand within the frontiers of ecological sustainability and water availability—a central objective in new strategies for integrated water resources management—has the potential to create both winners and losers. And there are win-win scenarios. But the danger is that the interests of the poor will be pushed aside as large agricultural producers and industry—two constituencies with a strong political voice—assert their claims. Water is power in many societies— and inequalities in power can induce deep inequalities in access to water.

Water infrastructure is critical in reducing unpredictability and mitigating risk. Globally, the inequalities in access to infrastructure are very large. They are reflected in simple indicators for water storage capacity: the United States stores about 6,000 cubic metres of water per person; Ethiopia, 43. Even rich countries are exposed to water-related disruption, however, as evidenced by the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. But the risks weigh most heavily on poor countries.

Droughts and floods, extreme forms of water insecurity, have devastating consequences for human development. In 2005 more than 20 million people in the Horn of Africa were affected by drought. Meanwhile, the floods that struck Mozambique reduced its GNI by an estimated 20%. Rainfall variability and extreme changes in water flow can destroy assets, undermine livelihoods and reduce the growth potential of whole economies: variability reduces Ethiopia’s growth potential by about a third, according to the World Bank. Whole societies are affected. But it is the poor who bear the brunt of water-related shocks.

Dealing with climate change

Climate change is transforming the nature of global water insecurity. While the threat posed by rising temperatures is now firmly established on the international agenda, insufficient attention has been paid to the implications for vulnerable agricultural producers in developing countries. The Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted in 1992 warned governments that “where there are risks of serious and irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing action”. Few warnings have been more perilously ignored.

Global warming will transform the hydrological patterns that determine the availability of water. Modelling exercises point to complex outcomes that will be shaped by micro-climates. But the overwhelming weight of evidence can be summarized in a simple formulation: many of the world’s most water-stressed areas will get less water, and water flows will become less predictable and more subject to extreme events. Among the projected outcomes:

  • Marked reductions in water availability in East Africa, the Sahel and Southern Africa as rainfall declines and temperature rises, with large productivity losses in basic food staples. Projections for rainfed areas in East Africa point to potential productivity losses of up to 33% in maize and more than 20% for sorghum and 18% for millet.
  • The disruption of food production systems exposing an additional 75–125 million people to the threat of hunger.
  • Accelerated glacial melt, leading to mediumterm reductions in water availability across a large group of countries in East Asia, Latin America and South Asia.
  • Disruptions to monsoon patterns in South Asia, with the potential for more rain but also fewer rainy days and more people affected by drought.
  • Rising sea levels resulting in freshwater losses in river delta systems in countries such as Bangladesh, Egypt and Thailand.

The international response to the water security threat posed by climate change has been inadequate. Multilateral efforts have focussed on mitigating future climate change. These efforts are critical—and the negotiation of deeper carbon emission cuts after the expiration of the current Kyoto Protocol in 2012 is a priority. Restricting future global warming to an increase of no more than 2º Celsius over pre-industrial levels should be a priority. Attaining that target will require major adjustments in the energy policies of both industrial and developing countries, supported by financing for the transfer of clean technologies.

More adaptation- not just mitigation

The international response to the water security threat posed by climate change has been inadequate. Multilateral efforts have focussed on mitigating future climate change. These efforts are critical—and the negotiation of deeper carbon emission cuts after the expiration of the current Kyoto Protocol in 2012 is a priority. Restricting future global warming to an increase of no more than 2º Celsius over pre-industrial levels should be a priority. Attaining that target will require major adjustments in the energy policies of both industrial and developing countries, supported by financing for the transfer of clean technologies.

See also Mitigation measures (short- and long-term)

International aid for adaptation ought to be a cornerstone of the multilateral framework for dealing with climate change. However, aid transfers have been woefully inadequate. The Adaptation Fund attached to the Kyoto Protocol will mobilize only about $20 million by 2012 on current projections, while the Global Environmental Facility (GEF)—the principal multilateral mechanism for adaptation—has allocated $50 million to support adaptation activities between 2005 and 2007.

Beyond the multilateral framework, a decline in development assistance to agriculture has limited the financing available for adaptation. Aid has fallen rapidly in both absolute and relative terms over the past decade. For developing countries as a group aid to agriculture has fallen in real terms from $4.9 billion a year to $3.2 billion, or from 12% to 3.5% of total aid since the early 1990s. All regions have been affected. Aid to agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is now just under $1 billion, less than half the level in 1990. Reversing these trends will be critical to successful adaptation.

See also Climate Change and Adaptation

The way ahead

Countries face very different challenges in water management. But some broad themes emerge— along with some broad requirements for successful strategies. Among the most important:

  • Developing integrated water resources management strategies that set national water use levels within the limits of ecological sustainability and provide a coherent planning framework for all water resources.
  • Making water management an integral part of national poverty reduction strategies.
  • Recognizing the real value of water through appropriate pricing policies, revised national accounting procedures and the withdrawal of perverse subsidies encouraging overuse.
  • Increasing pro-poor water supply through the provision of safe wastewater for productive use by separating industrial and domestic waste and working with farmers to reduce health risks.
  • Increasing national investment and international aid for investment in water infrastructure, including storage and flood control.
  • Recalibrating the response to global warming by placing greater emphasis on strategies for adaptation in national water management policies and aid efforts.
  • Tripling aid to agriculture by 2010, with annual flows rising from $3 billion to $10 billion. Within this broad provision aid to Africa will need to increase from about $0.9 billion to about $2.1 billion a year, as envisaged for agricultural activities under the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.


See also

Read the Full Chapter

Conflict and Water

Climate change

Climate Change and Adaptation

Fast Facts: Clean Water and Sanitation for the Poor


Water Scarcity

External Resources

This article is based on the HDR 2006 Summary Report.


 Hdr 2006 chapter 4.pdf  HDR2006 English Summary.pdf

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