Six Steps For Avoiding a Global Water Crisis

Colin Chartres, director of the 25-year-old International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and co-author of the new book Out of Water: From Abundance to Scarcity and How to Solve the World’s Water Problems talks to National Geographic News about how the planet can steer clear of budding water and food crises.

Out_of_water_Book_Thumnail.jpgIn your new book, you and co-author Samyuktha Varma outline six steps world, country, and local leaders need to take in order for the humanity to avoid a paralyzing water crisis. We hear about the impending water crisis in the news, but how close are we really? Are events like the Russian wildfires and Pakistani floods part of the crisis, or harbingers of what’s to come on a more regular basis?

Photograph courtesy IWMI

These events are, in my view, manifestations of what we can expect as climate change begins to bite. Potential scenarios will include greater climate variability with more droughts and more intense rainfall events. Given that food supply is so dependent on water and that often more than 70 percent of a country’s water resources go to agriculture, we will see increasingly frequent food crises usually of a supply and demand nature that increase prices and impact the poor most significantly. We had one in 2007-2008 and there are some signs that another food crisis is currently emerging.

Today a third of people face water scarcity, according to experts. What does that mean exactly?Thumbnail image for colin.jpg

These people are in countries that physically use nearly all their available water (physical water scarcity), or in countries where there is water, but there has not been enough investment to deliver it to where it is needed (economic water scarcity). In physically scarce countries, as demand grows, there will be increasing competition for water between cities and agriculture. There are tens of millions of people in developing countries worldwide whose health and livelihoods are suffering because of lack of access to enough water for their everyday needs, growing their food, and watering their animals. Whilst in some years they do have enough water, in others they struggle because of drought.

Photograph of Colin Chartres courtesy IWMI

What is the connection between the expected global water crisis and climate change?

Climate change impacts will exacerbate the water crisis, but they are just one of several factors affecting water supplies. Population growth, dietary change (to foods requiring more water to produce), competition for water from biofuel production and increased demand from urban areas are already creating problems exemplified by declining groundwater tables, closed river basins (which no longer flow into the sea because of increasing extraction).

Climate change will add to these over the next decade and we will struggle to maintain and increase food production in the face of more frequent floods and droughts. Additionally, the environment will suffer, as it usually gets forgotten when water is allocated. This will mean a decline in the important environmental services that help to keep our water clean, provide fish habitat and nurseries and maintain biodiversity.

(See flood and drought photos and read “Booming Middle-Class Diet May Stress Asia’s Water Needs.“)

Your six-step solution to avoiding the crisis is: 1) gather high-quality data about water resources; 2) take better care of the environment; 3) reform how water resources are governed; 4) revitalize how water is used for farming; 5) better manage urban and municipal demands for water; and 6) involve marginalized people in water management. Easier said than done? How much human and financial resource needs to go into implementing these solutions? How do we start? And what is the number one obstacle we face?

We have to recognize the value of water. Valuing water does not necessarily mean putting a price on it, but for those that can pay this needs to be done. It means, ensuring that water is recognized as fundamental not only to life and health, but to the economy in general. I don’t believe that lack of finance is the only obstacle to ensuring we can cope with the water crisis. Whilst increasing investment in developing countries in water supply and sanitation is vital…, what is equally critical is that we learn to increase the productivity of water via more efficient use in all sectors of the economy and, in many cases, increased recycling and reuse of the water that we have. In agriculture, the number one water user, there is a tremendous need in developing countries for knowledge, capacity building and technical and economic assistance that is required to deliver doubling or even trebling of crop yields from the same amount of rainfall or irrigation water.

Do you remain hopeful, or do you see a world in 10, 20, 30 years where more people are dying due to lack of water or wars over it?

I am optimistic that if we take the current warnings about water scarcity and its impacts seriously we can overcome it. Surprisingly, water has rarely, if ever, been fought over in wars. In many cases, transboundary water agreements have worked for decades. However, as water becomes scarcer and more precious, there will be increasing tension between sectors of the economy, communities, states and nations over access to water. As well as legal agreements we are going to need considerable scientific and general innovation. This is starting to happen, but needs to be accelerated.


Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E,The Environmental MagazineEnvironmental Science & Technology online newsGreenwireGreen Guide, and National Geographic News.

[This post has been reformatted for Water Currents.]

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.