Is a Water War Looming?

Text by Magali Reghezza, Geographer and Member of the French High Council for Climate (HCC)

According to a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI), in 2020, one-fourth of the global population (about 1.7 billion people) was living in water-stressed countries (with less than 1,700 m3 per year per person). Despite the World Health Organization (WHO) advocating for 20 liters as the minimum quantity required for an individual to realize the minimum essential levels of their right to water and sanitation, in some parts of the world, people must rely on less than 3 liters of water per day.

According to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme report “Progress on household drinking water, sanitation and hygiene 2000 – 2020”, about one in four people do not have access to safe drinking water in their homes and nearly half the global population lacks access to sanitation services. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for proper hand washing and sanitation, yet, three out of ten people do not have the adequate facilities in their homes to do so.

Despite significant progress, by 2030, only 81% of the global population will have access to safe drinking water at home (leaving 1.6 billion people without) and only 67% will have access to reliable sanitation (leaving 2.8 billion people without). Nearly 2 billion people still will not have access to basic handwashing facilities.

Water: an unequally accessible resource

Globally, progress in terms of access to water and sanitation is slowest in sub-Saharan Africa, with rural areas having the lowest rates of equipment. The poorest populations are the most impacted, with women, children, and disabled individuals being particularly vulnerable.

The consequences are terrible: according to UNICEF and the WHO, 2.6 million people die each year from water-related diseases (cholera, dysentery, or typhoid fever) – that is five people per minute. More than 1.5 million children die for the same reason – or one child every 90 seconds. And 50% of undernutrition in children is due to the consumption of unsafe water, making it one of the leading causes of death in the world.

Map: Atlas mondial de l’eau, David Blanchon, Aurélie Boissière (Autrement Edition).

Scarcity: a relativity issue

In 2012, American scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) illustrated the scale of global water. The striking image showed that if all the Earth’s water was collected into a sphere, its diameter would be 1,385 km or 860 miles (the distance from Paris to Algiers). The volume is equivalent to 1.38 x 10 24 one-liter bottles of water, the vast majority (96.5%) of which is located in oceans. The issue is that this water is salty and therefore unfit for consumption.

Accounting for only 2.5% of the total, liquid freshwater constitutes 1/150 of all this water. Theoretically, the flow of renewable freshwater is 16.216 liters per person per day – nearly four times the daily consumption of a U.S. citizen.

Illustration of the Earth's water Perlman, USGS
Howard Perlman, USGS / Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution / Adam Nieman – Licence: DR

On a global scale, there is – and will be – more than enough water for humans and animals alike (let’s note that livestock farming is not only about meat but also milk, wool, animal traction, etc.). But the global availability of the resource hides critical local issues.

To understand water scarcity, we need to examine three dimensions: availability, the supply/demand ratio, and access.

1/ Quantity and/or quality: focus on supply

The distribution of freshwater on the surface of the Earth is highly uneven because rainfall patterns, soil type, surface runoff, etc., vary a lot from one region to the next. Nine countries (Canada, China, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Russia, the United States, Indonesia, and India) hold 60% of the global freshwater resources.

However, this distribution is misleading: Brazil’s Amazon region, for instance, contains most of the country’s total freshwater but the population there is very small. In contrast, Brazil’s Sertao in the northeast, a semi-arid area, is also known as the “drought polygon”.

Even in sufficient quantities, fresh water is not necessarily safe to drink. Fresh water may have been contaminated by extractive, agricultural, or industrial activities, or due to a lack of sanitation. According to the UN, most of the world’s wastewater (more than 95% in some of the least developed countries) is discharged into the environment without being treated first.

Sometimes the water may even be naturally contaminated. In Bangladesh, a fourth of the population (35 million people) is regularly exposed to concentrations of more than 50 micrograms of arsenic per liter of water. Arsenic is naturally present in water but deep drilling increases the concentration. Decontamination solutions exist but remain largely inaccessible.

2/ Pressure on resources: focus on demand

Shortages result from an imbalance between water availability and demand. In many parts of the world, pressure on water resources is too high, either because the population has increased (often brutally with urbanization), because its uses have diversified, or both. Indeed, contrary to the neo-Malthusian discourse, population growth is nowhere near the only cause for this increased demand.

For instance, the forced sedentarization of nomadic herders in sub-Saharan Africa around water points is a major factor in increased local destabilization and conflicts with farmers. Shortages also vary over time: in the Mediterranean, demand increases sharply in the summer with the arrival of tourists. Yet that period coincides with the driest season and often insufficiently calibrated sanitation infrastructures.

Eighty percent of the globally available freshwater reserves are withdrawn each year. Water demand is distributed among agricultural (69%, with ever-increasing needs), industrial (20%), and domestic consumption (12%).

Water usage by sector
Water usage by sector (source: FAO)

As with greenhouse gases (GHGs), consumption varies highly from country to country. The United States, with only 5% of the global population, is the third-largest consumer of freshwater, after China and India, which have far bigger populations. U.S. water consumption amounts to 2,842 m3 per capita per year (compared to 1,089 m3 for China, 1,071 m3 for India, and 1,385 m3 for the world average).

Finally, when talking about consumption, we must also think in terms of footprint and account for what J.A. Allan coined the “invisible” or “virtual” water in the early 1990s. For instance, a hamburger requires the equivalent of nearly 3,000 liters of water to be produced. A kilo of coffee requires 18,900 liters. In other words, beyond the water used for drinking and hygiene, the average French person uses 4,900 liters of water per day to feed and clothe themselves.

This point is all the more contentious as some plant-derived products that would technically reduce water pollution can increase the use of plastic bottles. What’s more, while replacing plastic fibers with vegetable fibers in clothing reduces microplastic pollution, manufacturing a cotton shirt requires 2,500 liters of water. Once again, there is no silver bullet.

International comparison of volumes of water consumed per person and water footprint, average 1995-2016.
International comparison of volumes of water consumed per person and water footprint, average 1995-2016.
According to the EXIOBASE3.7 database; MTES, 2020.

3/ Access to water is the name of the game

As we have seen before, there is sufficient water in terms of quality and quantity on Earth.This water may, however, be inaccessible for many reasons, including the undetected presence of water resources; insufficient technical or financial capacities to access (e.g., drilling, wells, etc.), transport, or clean it up; insufficient economic resources (water has a price); access restricted by the power in place (authoritarian regimes, ethnic, age or gender discrimination, fiscal or legal constraints, religious prohibitions, etc.); war or conflict zone.

The factors that underlie access to water are the same as those involved in vulnerability to “natural” disasters and climate change: economic insecurity, social exclusion, degraded socio-cultural capital, political regime, etc. The water crisis is rooted in social, economic, territorial, and political inequalities, which are partly inherited, much more than in “natural determinants”.

The issue of access to water is not only a problem of so-called “poor” countries. In Guadeloupe, France, access to water is so degraded that cyclical cuts (water shifts) have to be scheduled because water cannot be provided to everyone simultaneously. In 2018, only 39% of the water introduced into the distribution system was consumed. Half of the water was lost due to leaks and untreated water being massively discharged into the environment, with grave ecological and sanitary consequences for surface water. In the United States, at least 2 million people do not have access to running water and 13% of Native American households do not have access to drinking water and wastewater treatment. In poor neighborhoods of large American cities, lead pollution prevents safe water consumption.

What about climate change?

In 2021, the multi-agency report “State of Climate Services 2021: Water”, coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), emphasized that water is “an issue that is of great significance to communities in every corner of the globe, and that affects every economic sector (…)Water lies at the heart of the global agenda on climate adaptation, sustainable development, and disaster risk reduction”.

Trends in terrestrial water storage over the past 20 years (2002-2021).
Trends in terrestrial water storage over the past 20 years (2002-2021).
Areas in red are those that experienced significant water mass loss during this period. These areas are the most affected by climate change and/or human activities. They also include Greenland and Antarctica, which are not shown on the map because their water mass loss trends are so large that they would dwarf the trends of other continental water masses. Source: WMO

According to the WRI, 33 countries (half of which are in the Middle East) will be facing “extreme water stress” within the next 20 years due to population growth, increased consumption, urbanization, and climate change.

In some regions of the world, climate change will increase the rainfall deficit and will impact inter- and intra-annual variability. Beyond extreme events occurring (droughts, prolonged low water levels, floods), the frequent recurrence of these episodes could destabilize certain parts of the world.

For instance, Chile (19 million inhabitants) has been hit by an unprecedented drought for the past 11 years, the effects of which have been aggravated by water grabbing by large landowners and the COVID pandemic. In 2019, the rainfall deficit averaged about 75% in the country’s most densely populated central area. While drought in Chile is a naturally occurring phenomenon, it is amplified by climate change. The impacts on agriculture, especially livestock, have been catastrophic (40% loss of livestock in some regions).

Moreover, torrential rains will worsen soil erosion and will not replenish groundwater resources. Finally, let us not forget the domino effect, which is hard to model: for instance, episodes of high heat may increase water consumption, including to produce the energy needed for cooling (air conditioners).

Depending on the decreases in available resources and increases in pressure on water, water stress may turn into water shortages. The burden now falls onto local and national authorities and international organizations to guarantee access to water in sufficient quantity and quality.. Scarcity will not necessarily be solved through self-sufficiency: it is above all a matter of sovereignty, power, and fair share.

With climate change accelerating and worsening, ensuring access to drinking water will become all the more complicated as some of the solutions are either misguided or maladaptive. For instance, desalination of seawater consumes high amounts of fossil fuels and produces highly expensive water. Water storage in reservoirs or basins can have detrimental consequences on ecosystems or the sediment balance of rivers, contributing to the retreat of certain coastlines, in addition to losses due to evaporation.

Water, climate, transition: same fight

Like any other environmental issue, water scarcity – and even more so drinking water scarcity – is a fundamentally political problem. It is rooted in unequal access to resources due to inequitable sharing often caused by power asymmetries. While historians have shown that there has rarely been a “water war” stricto sensu, water can be a catalyst for conflict. In already unstable situations, water scarcity can crystallize tensions and act as a trigger.

Climate change is one more destabilizing factor in a situation where pressure on water resources is increasing due to ever greater needs, mainly linked to production, and part of the world’s population is already suffering from a lack of water. Locally, climate change can create serious shortages. But at the global scale, climate change will reveal the (geo)political and economic imbalances and the limits of a development model which, instead of satisfying the vital needs of the greatest number, degrades the living conditions and well-being of the most fragile under the guise of progress.

Despite progress over the past decades, UN-Water reports that the world is still not on track to achieving access to clean water and sanitation for all (SDG 6) by 2030. Achieving this goal would require a fourfold increase in current progress rates. Water is a 21st-century challenge that has not been sufficiently addressed, including in France. Water is a 21st-century challenge that has not been sufficiently addressed, including in France.. Two issues must be urgently put on the global and national political agenda:

  • establish strategies to adapt to the new hydro-climatic situation (adapt needs, reducing consumption, swapping crops, changing certain activities, storing water, etc.) and allocate the necessary means and funds;
  • establish the conditions for fair access to water and equitable resource sharing (water transfer and interregional solidarity, right to water, universal minimum water service, etc.).

Concluding thoughts

Water management is an essential part of the ecological transition. Technology and behavioral changes can help but not without foresight, strategy, support, and steering, and nor without reflections about our modes of consumption and needs. Technological innovation and moralizing individuals will not solve anything on their own because they do not address the root causes of the problem.

“We need to wake up on the looming water crisis,” said Mr. Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the WMO, in 2021 during the presentation of the report “State of Climate Services 2021: Water”. The water war, just like the water crisis, is not inevitable. But we must arm ourselves with the means to act, to shift away from a curative to a preventative approach, and when necessary, to accompany this transition.

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