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Water at the heart of global geopolitical issues

Water security: a local issue with international impact

Patricia Crifo, Professor of Economics at École Polytechnique (IP Paris), Researcher at CREST (CNRS) and Associate Researcher at CIRANO and Maxime Elkington, Masters student in "Economics for smart cities and climate policy" at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
On February 14th, 2024 |
7 min reading time
Patricia Crifo
Patricia Crifo
Professor of Economics at École Polytechnique (IP Paris), Researcher at CREST (CNRS) and Associate Researcher at CIRANO
Maxime Elkington
Maxime Elkington
Masters student in "Economics for smart cities and climate policy" at École Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Water is an essential resource, playing a major role in food security, human health, regional stability and international tensions.
  • Water security depends on its availability in sufficient quality and quantity to meet people’s needs.
  • While global demand for water is increasing, available freshwater resources are diminishing, exacerbating tensions.
  • Water is an issue that must include all stakeholders, including local and indigenous communities, who often hold essential knowledge about sustainable management practices.
  • The UN report on water development estimates that, at the current rate of progress, targets are far from being met and that efforts in some areas need to be quadrupled.

Water, a pre­cious resource fun­da­men­tal to life and all forms of civil­i­sa­tion, is at the heart of some of the most press­ing issues of our time. In an era where cli­mate change and resource deple­tion dom­i­nate glob­al dis­cus­sions, water secu­ri­ty has emerged as a piv­otal chal­lenge for human­i­ty. Defined as the avail­abil­i­ty of an accept­able quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty of water for health, liveli­hoods, ecosys­tems, and pro­duc­tion, cou­pled with an accept­able lev­el of water-relat­ed risks to peo­ple, envi­ron­ments, and economies1. As such, it is strong­ly relat­ed to the notion of water stress, a mea­sure of the pres­sure that human activ­i­ties exert on nat­ur­al fresh­wa­ter resources2.

Recog­nis­ing its vital role, the Unit­ed Nations estab­lished it as one of its sus­tain­able devel­op­ment goals, SDG6, aim­ing to ensure the safe access to water and san­i­ta­tion for all. From sus­tain­ing agri­cul­ture, the pil­lar to food secu­ri­ty, to sup­port­ing grow­ing urban pop­u­la­tions and ener­gy pro­duc­tion, water’s role in soci­ety can­not be over­stat­ed. How­ev­er, var­i­ous risks, enhanced by cli­mate change, threat­en this resource and its security.

Water, a pillar to society

The Unit­ed Nations 2023 World Water Devel­op­ment Report3 high­light­ed the key role sus­tain­able water man­age­ment plays in safe­guard­ing food and ener­gy secu­ri­ty, sup­port­ing human health and liveli­hoods, and mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change impacts. It is indeed key to food secu­ri­ty, being the first pil­lar agri­cul­ture relies on and with­out which entire pop­u­la­tions risk fac­ing famine. It was esti­mat­ed that 691–783 mil­lion peo­ple in the world faced hunger in 20224. Increas­ing water stress and uncer­tain­ty will only wors­en this sit­u­a­tion, pos­ing great threats to human life, impact­ing food secu­ri­ty, mal­nu­tri­tion, and the sta­bil­i­ty of affect­ed regions.

Water secu­ri­ty is not only vital in pro­vid­ing food and san­i­ta­tion, but also a neces­si­ty to main­tain peace and sta­bil­i­ty in the world.

Indeed, water secu­ri­ty is not only vital in pro­vid­ing food and san­i­ta­tion ser­vices to pop­u­la­tions, but it is also a neces­si­ty to main­tain peace and sta­bil­i­ty in the world. Pedro Arro­jo-Agu­do, the UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur on the human rights to safe drink­ing water and san­i­ta­tion, stat­ed that “Lack of clean water leads to despair, degra­da­tion of trust in insti­tu­tions, mass migra­tion, vio­lence, and desta­bil­i­sa­tion of entire regions.” Con­flicts risk aris­ing or wors­en­ing in regions fac­ing water short­ages. For instance Soma­lia, a coun­try affect­ed by con­flicts and pover­ty, great­ly depends on agri­cul­ture with live­stock account­ing for almost 40% of its GDP. The coun­try is par­tic­u­lar­ly vul­ner­a­ble to droughts, which have become sig­nif­i­cant­ly more fre­quent in the past 30 years. Stud­ies sug­gest that these droughts have wors­ened vio­lence in the coun­try, with some drought-affect­ed farm­ers and herders turn­ing to ille­gal activ­i­ties to com­pen­sate for their rev­enue loss or sup­port­ing rebel groups in exchange for cash rev­enues5. “Boko Haram was born where there was no water” [trans­lat­ed cita­tion], stat­ed Abdoulaye mar dieye, UN Spe­cial Coor­di­na­tor for devel­op­ment in the Sahel dur­ing a con­fer­ence that empha­sised the role of water for peace in the Sahel region.

This risk of an increase in ten­sions not only entails inter­nal insta­bil­i­ty, but also inter­na­tion­al diplo­mat­ic ten­sions. Indeed, fresh­wa­ter sources like rivers and lakes, does not recog­nise bor­ders, often mak­ing it the sub­ject of inter­na­tion­al ten­sions and con­flicts. More than 60% of all fresh­wa­ter sources are shared by at least two coun­tries6, high­light­ing the need for coop­er­a­tion between coun­tries on the mat­ter. “Con­flicts over water will become more com­mon with­out sci­ence-based water diplo­ma­cy”7.

Increasing demand

Glob­al­ly, water use has been increas­ing by rough­ly 1% per year over the last 40 years, with a large part of this increase con­cen­trat­ed in mid­dle- and low­er-income coun­tries, par­tic­u­lar­ly emerg­ing economies. This trend has been dri­ven by a com­bi­na­tion of pop­u­la­tion growth, socio-eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and chang­ing con­sump­tion pat­terns. Three major sec­tors are respon­si­ble for water use and con­sump­tion: Agri­cul­ture, Indus­tries, and Municipalities.

Evo­lu­tion of glob­al water with­drawals, 1900–2018 (km3/year). Source: UN World Water Devel­op­ment Report, 2023

Between 2010 and 2018, munic­i­pal water with­drawals increased by 3%, while Agri­cul­ture with­drawals increased by 5% to rep­re­sent 72% of cur­rent total with­drawals. Dur­ing the same peri­od, indus­tri­al with­drawals decreased by 12%, main­ly due to more water-effi­cient cool­ing process­es in ther­mal pow­er pro­duc­tion. Ten­sions and trade-offs in water sup­ply between agri­cul­ture and cities have been grow­ing. This is part­ly due to rapid urban­iza­tion, with urban water demand pro­ject­ed to increase by 80% by 2050.

Diminishing per capita resources

Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly to this glob­al demand increase, avail­able fresh­wa­ter resources have been decreas­ing over the last 20 years. Between 2000 and 2018, glob­al per capi­ta inter­nal renew­able water resources (IRWRs) decreased by 20%.

Per capi­ta renew­able water resources avail­abil­i­ty by geo­graph­ic region (m3 per capi­ta). Source: UN World Water Devel­op­ment Report, 2023.

This decline has most affect­ed coun­tries with the low­est resources to start with, often locat­ed in Sub-Saha­ran Africa, Cen­tral Asia, West­ern Asia, and North­ern Africa. In sub-Saha­ran Africa, water avail­abil­i­ty per capi­ta declined by 40% over the past decade. How­ev­er, such glob­al sta­tis­tics can be mis­lead­ing, hid­ing the very local issues of water stress. Effects can be high­ly dis­parate, vary­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly with­in sin­gle regions and coun­tries, and with high sea­son­al vari­abil­i­ty. Water is a local issue, which is why it is essen­tial to con­sid­er it as such and delve into its direct impact on populations.

Water stress in the world

More than 733 mil­lion peo­ple live in coun­tries with high (70%) or crit­i­cal (100%) water stress, account­ing for almost 10% of the glob­al pop­u­la­tion. Base­line water stress mea­sures the ratio of total water demand to avail­able renew­able sur­face and ground­wa­ter supplies.

Annu­al Base­line Water Stress. Source: UN World Water Devel­op­ment Report, 2023.

About 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple live in areas where severe water short­ages and scarci­ty chal­lenge agri­cul­ture and where there is a high drought fre­quen­cy in rain­fed crop­land and pas­ture­land areas or high water stress in irri­gat­ed areas. North­ern Africa, South­ern Africa, and West­ern Africa each have less than 1 700 m3/capita, which is con­sid­ered to be a lev­el at which a nation’s abil­i­ty to meet water demand for food and from oth­er sec­tors is compromised.

Scarcity vs Security

This phys­i­cal water stress or scarci­ty, mea­sured by a ratio of water demand over avail­able renew­able resources, describes a mis­match between the demand for fresh­wa­ter and its avail­abil­i­ty. Water secu­ri­ty is a broad­er con­cept, encom­pass­ing access to water ser­vices, safe­ty from poor water qual­i­ty, and appro­pri­ate water gov­er­nance ensur­ing access to safe water8. For instance, phys­i­cal scarci­ty does not account for eco­nom­ic water scarci­ty, describ­ing a sit­u­a­tion in which there are suf­fi­cient resources to meet human and envi­ron­men­tal needs, but access is lim­it­ed due to a lack of water infra­struc­ture or poor water resources management.

In addi­tion to the 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple liv­ing under con­di­tions of phys­i­cal water stress, an esti­mat­ed 1.6 bil­lion peo­ple face con­di­tions of eco­nom­ic water scarci­ty)9. This includes cas­es of mis­man­age­ment lead­ing to pol­lu­tion of water sources, an unreg­u­lat­ed water use from agri­cul­ture or indus­try, and major inef­fi­cien­cies in water use. Indeed, the increase in phys­i­cal water stress is cou­pled with the accel­er­a­tion of fresh­wa­ter pol­lu­tion, threat­en­ing even more drink­ing water resources, with sig­nif­i­cant impacts on both the envi­ron­ment and human health. UNEP esti­mates that 4,000 chil­dren die every day from dis­eases caused by pol­lut­ed water and inad­e­quate san­i­ta­tion. A major exam­ple of inef­fi­cien­cy can be found in agri­cul­ture, which con­sumes 70% of glob­al fresh­wa­ter resources. Some 60% of this is wast­ed due to leaky irri­ga­tion sys­tems, inef­fi­cient appli­ca­tion meth­ods as well as the cul­ti­va­tion of crops that are too thirsty for the envi­ron­ment in which they are grown10.

Fur­ther­more, cli­mate jus­tice has been an increas­ing­ly dis­cussed top­ic at the COPs, acknowl­edg­ing the fact that coun­tries suf­fer­ing the most from the con­se­quences of cli­mate change are not its main con­trib­u­tors. On one hand, the rich­est coun­tries rep­re­sent­ing 16% of the world pop­u­la­tion are respon­si­ble for almost 40% of CO2 emis­sions. On the oth­er hand, the two cat­e­gories of the poor­est coun­tries in the World Bank clas­si­fi­ca­tion account for near­ly 60% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, but for less than 15% of emis­sions11.

Since devel­op­ing coun­tries are often the most affect­ed by droughts and water scarci­ty, they are often also the ones for which the econ­o­my depends the most on the agri­cul­tur­al sec­tor, intrin­si­cal­ly reliant on water sup­ply. Their economies are there­fore the most impact­ed by increas­ing uncer­tain­ty on water sup­ply, while they are pre­cise­ly the ones with the biggest need for eco­nom­ic growth to improve liv­ing stan­dards. With­out inter­na­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty, these coun­tries have lim­it­ed eco­nom­ic means to build resilience and adapt their water and agri­cul­tur­al sys­tems. In addi­tion, the lack of ade­quate access and capac­i­ties to take advan­tage of nat­ur­al cap­i­tal can lead to an overuse and exploita­tion of non-renew­able resources to meet short-term needs, wors­en­ing future threats.

Solutions: partnerships, cooperation, and coordination

Var­i­ous types of solu­tions to water scarci­ty were dis­cussed dur­ing COP28, from tech­ni­cal inno­va­tions enhanc­ing water effi­cien­cy to invest­ment in infra­struc­ture to avoid water loss from leak­ing and evap­o­ra­tion. There is no ‘one size fits all’ pre­scrip­tion12 to address water scarci­ty, the com­plex­i­ty of very local water-relat­ed issues trans­lat­ing itself into the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of exist­ing and poten­tial solu­tions. How­ev­er, one com­mon pil­lar to all projects, fre­quent­ly men­tioned dur­ing COP28, is the need for an inte­grat­ed and holis­tic approach in partnerships.

For instance, a side event host­ed by the Euro­pean Pavil­ion stressed the role of this inte­grat­ed approach and of inclu­sive­ness in mit­i­gat­ing water-relat­ed risks. The lack of progress towards SDG6 high­light­ed the need for part­ner­ships and col­lab­o­ra­tion. Indeed, near­ly every water-relat­ed inter­ven­tion requires some form of part­ner­ship, and any progress towards SDG6 heav­i­ly relies on the effi­cient and pro­duc­tive per­for­mance of partnerships.

The pur­suit of water secu­ri­ty is a shared respon­si­bil­i­ty that involves gov­ern­ments, com­mu­ni­ties, and individuals.

Water sys­tems are inter­con­nect­ed with var­i­ous envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic, and social sys­tems. Due to this inter­con­nect­ed­ness and com­plex hydrol­o­gy, a holis­tic approach that con­sid­ers all facets of water sys­tems and their inter­de­pen­den­cies is essen­tial. One essen­tial aspect of this holis­tic approach is to con­sid­er the var­i­ous actors involved in part­ner­ships, with some­times dif­fer­ent water-relat­ed goals, requir­ing an inclu­sion of all their voic­es to ensure a coor­di­nat­ed approach in fac­ing water scarci­ty. Tak­ing into account all per­spec­tives of involved actors helps deter­mine a clear, shared vision of the objec­tives, out­comes and results, based on a com­mon under­stand­ing of the prob­lem. For instance, a major top­ic dis­cussed dur­ing COP28 was the inclu­sion of local and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties’ voic­es in part­ner­ships for adaptation.

Their knowl­edge and per­spec­tives are essen­tial, with a pro­found under­stand­ing of their envi­ron­ment and ecosys­tem dynam­ics. They are often on the front lines of cli­mate change and its con­se­quences on water, and their involve­ment ensures water secu­ri­ty efforts answer to the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges they face, that no one is left behind and that the human rights to water and san­i­ta­tion are brought to fruition.

To sum up

The dis­cus­sions at COP28 in Dubai have brought to the fore­front the crit­i­cal issue of water secu­ri­ty. “Devel­op­ment banks have made water one of the pri­or­i­ties of this COP”, insist­ed Ambroise Fay­olle, Vice Pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean Invest­ment Bank, dur­ing an event held at the Water for Cli­mate Pavilion.

Nev­er­the­less, address­ing water scarci­ty and the chal­lenge of fresh­wa­ter pol­lu­tion requires com­pre­hen­sive and strate­gic solu­tions. The impor­tance of gov­er­nance, cou­pled with the need for inno­v­a­tive part­ner­ships and inte­grat­ed resource man­age­ment, has been clear­ly iden­ti­fied as a crit­i­cal path for­ward. COP28 dis­cus­sions empha­sised the need for a holis­tic approach in tack­ling water secu­ri­ty. This approach should include all stake­hold­ers, includ­ing local and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, recog­nis­ing that those direct­ly affect­ed by water scarci­ty often hold essen­tial insights into sus­tain­able man­age­ment practices.

As glob­al efforts con­tin­ue towards achiev­ing Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals, par­tic­u­lar­ly SDG6, the insights from COP28 serve as a guide for future actions. The pur­suit of water secu­ri­ty is a shared respon­si­bil­i­ty that involves gov­ern­ments, com­mu­ni­ties, and indi­vid­u­als. It’s an issue that entails envi­ron­men­tal, eco­nom­ic, and social con­sid­er­a­tions, touch­ing on the fun­da­men­tal rights of all. The path to ensur­ing a water-secure future requires col­lec­tive and coor­di­nat­ed actions.

The UN water devel­op­ment report esti­mat­ed that at cur­rent rates, progress towards all the tar­gets of SDG 6 is off-track, with some areas for which the rate of imple­men­ta­tion needs to quadru­ple or more. There­fore, we are far from being on track with the nec­es­sary change, but the numer­ous events orga­nized around water secu­ri­ty dur­ing COP28 high­light the increas­ing impor­tance of the top­ic in glob­al nego­ti­a­tions and give hope for ambi­tious action at the COP29 tak­ing place in Azerbaijan.

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