Diving into empty pools

world water forumToday’s post is by Bill Below of the OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development

We humans have a dynamic relationship with the water we depend on. Call it fluid. Indeed, the story of civilisation is a water story. And, we’ve had fairly good success taming and stabilising our supplies of it. Other stories began well and ended badly. A theory posits that the fall of the Roman Empire can be traced in part to the high marginal cost of securing water for its colonies. There have also been unmitigated disasters. The desiccation of the Aral Sea in the 1960s, the failure of China’s Banqiao and Shimantan dams and the ongoing pollution of our precious groundwater reserves are examples.

Thirst has an edgy urgency. It informs the brain in no uncertain terms that the situation must not escalate. Perhaps that’s why when we think about water scarcity, we tend to focus on drinking water (the same water we in the developed world use to water our lawns, clean our clothes, take showers and flush our toilets). But in terms of global usage, drinking water accounts for only 8% of water use, with 22% used by industry and 70% for farming and irrigation. Effective water governance must mediate across a broad set of actors and needs that cut across all economic sectors.

This mediation is critical, for tough times lie ahead. The OECD 2012 Environmental Outlook projected that by 2050, the world’s population will have risen to 9 billion, 4 billions of which will live in severely water-stressed basins. By then, demand for water will have risen by 55% globally, and global nitrogen effluents from wastewater will have grown by 180%. According to the UN, over the last century water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase. UNESCO reports that at the current rate, demand is set to surpass availability as early as 2050.

We can be oddly optimistic when faced with hugely challenging news. Unpleasant choices, novelty, the momentum of the status quo or just wishful thinking can delay necessary action. But even diehard optimists should not expect the present crisis to be solved by reclamation technologies, desalination or eleventh-hour innovations. Not even by rain. In many regions prolonged drought requires substantial precipitation and snowfall over many seasons—a trend that may very well remain elusive. Nor will population growth, a critical stress factor, suddenly abate. This leaves the onus on citizens, the private sector, civil society, governments and political leaders to forge solutions.

Scarcity is the crucible of good governance. Shedding light on what countries are actually doing to manage freshwater and wastewater is the focus of the OECD report “The Governance of Water Regulators.” Independence, accountability, the ability to collect accurate data as well as enforcement of regulations and standards… these qualities are critical if water regulators are to meet present and future challenges.

But there are leaks in the system. Water sources tend to span all forms of boundaries—administrative, geographical and political. Municipalities, regions and cross-border stakeholders must work in unison to ensure efficient, balanced and equitable usage of shared water resources. Surprisingly though, few mechanisms exist for concerted coordination. Nor are top-down solutions adequate to solve many of the local or regional issues of equitable water resource sharing. The OECD report concludes that best practices in water governance favour bottom-up, inclusive decision-making that involves a broad range of protagonists and stakeholders.

Yet, even long-standing, multi-stakeholder agreements are facing pressure. In the southwest United States, the Colorado River Compact comprises a complex web of federal laws, court decisions, compacts, decrees, contracts and regulatory guidelines determining water allocation to seven western states and Mexico. Allotments were defined in the 1920s, a time of relative water abundance at the start of the explosive urban expansion of the last century. Indeed, southern California’s growth was made possible in part by absorbing water surpluses not needed by the other states. Now, with drought and their own growing populations, those states are calling in their chits. Mexico, last served, is also vigorously defending its rights.

Cross border issues bring additional challenges. Approximately 40% of the world’s population lives in river and lake basins that comprise two or more countries. Over 90% of the world’s population lives in countries that share basins. More than 44 countries depend on other countries for over 50% of their renewable water resources. A United Nations convention offers the only global framework for dealing with shared basin disputes, but water rights remain a contentious international issue in many parts.

This is the case in the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile and other shared river basins where water issues are enmeshed in a number of upstream and downstream disputes mixing sovereign rights, modified water volumes through hydroelectric and other developments, drought and the growing population needs of all riparian neighbours.

The takeaway: drought and population growth create uniquely acute pressures, and in the quest to secure water resources, sovereign, regional, local or sectorial entities will always put their constituencies first.

In the face of scarcity, societies must find new channels to inclusive growth. Better governance towards more efficient use of water will play a big role. Less water-intensive crops need to be promoted along with less wasteful irrigation techniques. Urban water management also must rise to the challenge of growing their economies with less water. The upcoming OECD publication “Water and Cities, Ensuring Sustainable Futures” underlines the necessity of interlinking finance, innovation, urban-rural cooperation and governance in achieving this.

But enforcement of water usage remains challenging. While the use of surface water can be more easily controlled by water authorities, groundwater use is often neither measured nor scrutinized. California, for example, passed its first law limiting groundwater pumping last year. Understanding both surface water and aquifers as a single system is crucial to a meaningful water policy designed to protect against aquifer depletion. As it stands, even developed countries are strangely schizophrenic on this point.

Part of this may be the difficulty of accurately measuring groundwater. New methods based on satellite gravimetry developed by NASA and Jay Famiglietti of the University of California, Irvine, enable remote measurement of groundwater, allowing scientists to gather objective data on regional volumes and depletion. The other dimension may prove thornier: namely, the complexity of water rights. Political, legal and even cultural blowback to attempts to create a more comprehensive, modern and inclusive approach to water rights is guaranteed.

Water governance and meaningful reform are a matter of scale. It requires widening the number of stakeholders in order to limit policy capture by regional or sectorial interests that run counter to goals of inclusiveness and sustainability. That means local interests must link up with regional and even national and transnational governing bodies. This subject is treated in depth in the OECD’s upcoming publication “Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance.” The political complexity can be daunting, and yet this is exactly where evidence-based policy tools and recommendations can make a difference. As accurate information flows in regarding how real-world policies are working, or not, and more precise global scientific data becomes available as to the true, net effect of policies on surface water and aquifer depletion, progress may be possible.

In the absence of adequate and equitable governance arrangements, water scarcity will impose its own organisation, or chaos. As always, the hardest hit will be the planet’s most vulnerable populations. The work of the OECD on water governance focusses on providing evidence-based data on governance arrangements so that government at its various levels may learn from the experience of others.

A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but along with political will and good old human resolve, we might just get the bucket back to sustainable levels.

Useful links

OECD Principles on Water Governance

UNESCO World Water Report, Water and Energy, 2014

OECD at the 7th World Water Forum in Daegu & Gyeongbuk, Republic of Korea

OECD Water Governance Initiative at the 7th World Water Forum

The Governance of Water Regulators

Water and Cities, Ensuring Sustainable Futures

Stakeholder Engagement for Inclusive Water Governance

The Ripple Effect: Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Click to find out more about the Global Forum on Environment
Click to find out more about the Global Forum on Environment

Today’s post is by Naazia Ebrahim of the OECD Environment Directorate

In Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Timothy Mitchell tells how in 1942, an epidemic of gambiae malaria in Egypt was caused by a perfect storm of interactions between rivers, dams, fertilisers, food webs, and the influences of World War II. It began with the building of the Aswan Dam and its storage reservoirs around the Nile, which provided the anopheles mosquito with new breeding spots. Thanks to the dams, basin irrigation was replaced by perennial irrigation, encouraging a denser population of humans who no longer needed to disperse to avoid flooding. Government protectionism on behalf of the sugarcane industry then helped it expand at the expense of food-growing lands, while new irrigation techniques led to reduced soil fertility. When ammonia was diverted from fertilizer to explosives manufacturing for World War II, the resulting malnourishment and closely populated settlements created an easy target for this particularly social mosquito.

Splitting technological, agricultural, epidemiological, and geopolitical considerations into separate boxes led at least in part to the epidemic. The engineers building the dam could never have imagined the ripple effects their work created. But today, we know better (well, somewhat at least: it’s worth noting that deforestation has been strongly linked to the Ebola epidemic). And, with studies estimating that the global demand for water, energy, and food will increase by 55%, 80%, and 60% respectively by 2050, those ripple effects are going to be all the more critical – especially between these three areas .

Risks in one sector often correlate with risks in the others – but equally often, decreasing the risk in one sector causes it to increase dramatically in others. Figuring out how to provide enough water for wheat farming, hydropower generation, and maintaining local ecosystems, while still decreasing carbon emissions, is not an easy task.

The world is facing unprecedented stresses, and we are going to need an unprecedented response. We’re doing our best to help create that response at the OECD. Next week we’re hosting a forum on the nexus between water, energy and food. We’re looking forward to discussing (with senior private sector leaders, policy experts and government officials) ways to manage these trade-offs, co-ordinate planning across sectors, anticipate unexpected developments, engage business, and minimise risks across all three sectors. If we get it right, there’s potential for huge collaborative gains.

During all this work, it’s worth remembering that the malaria epidemic was often framed as one of intelligence versus nature. But intelligence and technological advancement were not created through externally imposed “solutions”. Rather, they were developed iteratively by engaging and interacting with the challenges. We have no doubt that the same will be true here.

Useful links

OECD work on Biodiversity, water and natural resource management

World Water Day: Big problems but there are solutions

Click to find out more about International year of Water Cooperation
Click to find out more about International year of Water Cooperation

This week, around 30,000 children under the age of five will die from water-related diseases, one every 20 seconds. In fact unsafe water now kills more people than all forms of violence, including war, with diarrheal diseases claiming 1.8 million victims a year and causing more deaths in children under 15 than the combined impact of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. Uleftae Mundeo from Manzo in Ethiopia told NGO WaterAid what that means. “Children often die here from the water. Often all of the money we earn from farming is spent on medicine.”

Uleftae uses a local pond, but often collecting water means walking a dozen or more kilometres a day carrying a heavy load, leading to chronic back pain and sometimes spinal deformities. China’s Global Times interviewed 12 year-old Mi Guie who spent her weekends helping her parents fetch water after a drought hit Yunnan Province in 2009-10. They walked for hours getting to and from the nearest river, climbing a 600 metre high cliff on the way there and back, for a few litres of muddy water each time.

In areas where supply is worst, women and girls (always them) get up in the middle of the night and queue for hours for their turn then a couple of hours more as water trickles into buckets. In urban areas, the problems are different but no less serious. Infrastructure hasn’t expanded as much as population, leaving millions of citizens with no access to piped water and modern sanitation, or forced to live near open sewers carrying household and industrial waste. One of these sewers caught fire in a shantytown in Nairobi in September 2011 after petrol spilled into it, burning to death over 100 people.

Fortunately for us, stories like these don’t take place in OECD countries, but the number of water-related disasters has increased worldwide over the last three decades, particularly floods, droughts and storms, with almost 40% in OECD countries, 30% in the BRIICS and 30% elsewhere. Only about 5% of the victims were in OECD countries, although OECD countries suffered almost two-thirds of the economic losses.

Floods accounted for well over 40% of the disasters over 1980-2009, storms nearly 45% and droughts 15%. The number of victims ranges between about 100 million and 200 million per year with peaks of 300 million or more. Almost two-thirds of the victims are due to floods, with droughts and other temperature extremes accounting for 25% and storms the remaining 10%.

Economic losses were $50-100 billion a year between 1980 and 2009, although that jumped to $220 billion following Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005. Storms account for half of all losses, floods one third and droughts almost 15%.

With so many different factors influencing and being influenced by each other, it’s hard to define an overarching framework to think about water-related issues. Even the basic geographical categories I used above aren’t that useful in many cases. Within a single “OECD country” like France, the main concern can vary from place to place – pesticides and fertilizers polluting rivers, financing the replacement of ageing infrastructure, limiting the impact of drought on economic activity…

However, “water security” provides a useful lens through which to examine the issues, as we celebrate World Water Day, especially as this year, World Water Day is part of the UN’s International Year of Water Cooperation. Water security is emerging as one the major global challenges of the 21st century. World water use is projected to be 55% higher in 2050 than it was in 2000, and the OECD Environmental Outlook says that by mid-century, nearly half the world population will live in river basins under severe water stress. That means an additional 1 billion people compared with today. These figures are only talking about the quantity of water available. Degradation of water quality adds to the uncertainty about future water availability.

In forthcoming work, the OECD will argue that when you talk about security, you’re implicitly or explicitly talking about risk, so a risk approach may be the best way to tackle water security. Water security would be defined as maintaining an acceptable level of risks in terms of water shortage or excess, pollution, and freshwater system resilience for society and the environment, today and in the future. The main thrust of a risk approach to water security would be to secure benefits for society and the environment in a way that maximises expected social welfare.

Issues ranging from infrastructure financing to climate change influence water resources, as well as economic activities have to be considered. Some of these activities are obvious, while others may come as a surprise, energy for example. Thermoelectric power generation accounted for 39% of all freshwater withdrawals in the US in 2000, roughly equivalent to water withdrawals for irrigated agriculture. You may also be surprised to learn how much water goes into making the products you use every day, over 15,000 litres for a kilo of beef for instance, or 1500 litres for a litre of apple juice. (You can calculate your own “water footprint” here)

From a risk perspective, water governance poses three main challenges: know the risk by obtaining the information needed to make effective and informed decisions; cap the risk by setting and enforcing acceptable limits on use and standards for water quality and flood protection; and managing the risk through policies and regulations that allow equitable and efficient allocation of water resources, equitable and efficient land-use planning for flood prevention, and implementing the polluter-pays-principle.

From a water cooperation perspective, that means for example ending the institutional fragmentation and promoting a multi-level approach so that all the different needs, options, and consequences can be looked at as a whole.

The problems are undeniable, but there is room for optimism. Next week sees the first meeting of the OECD Water Governance Initiative that argues that “Managed correctly, there is sufficient water on Earth for the world’s population”.  I’ll drink to that.

Useful links

The Water Challenge: OECD’s Response

Water Chapter of the OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction

Water Governance in OECD Countries: A Multi-level Approach

OECD expert meeting on water economics and financing


Water stewardship: Does the OECD practice what it preaches?

Today, to mark World Water Week, we’re publishing the second in a series of three articles by Liisa-Maija Harju, Environmental Coordinator in the OECD Operations Service on the OECD’s environmental performance.

This week, when world’s water experts are gathering in Stockholm, Sweden, to attend the annual World Water Week, more than one in six people worldwide 894 million don’t have access to improved water sources. To put this into perspective, imagine if nobody in Europe (plus another 100 million world citizens!) had no access to safe drinking water.

Global water demand is projected to increase by 55% by 2050, due to growing needs for manufacturing, energy generation and domestic use. Almost four billion people will live in water-stressed river basins by 2050 if better policies are not introduced. The OECD recognises freshwater as one of the four most pressing environmental challenges today (the others being climate change, biodiversity, and health impacts of pollution). The issues of water security, water and green growth, as well as climate change adaptation, are an important focus of our work.

Australia, for example, has undertaken a long period of water policy reform, and Mexico recently initiated a Water Reform Agenda. In Meeting the water reform challenge, the OECD outlines three fundamental areas that need to be addressed whatever reform agendas are pursued by governments:

  • Sustainable financing lies at the heart of many of the solutions to improved water management.
  • The governance and institutional arrangements that are in place
  • And coherence between water policies and policies in place in other sectors of the economy (such as agricultural support subsidies).

The private sector appears to be taking water stewardship seriously, too. For instance, Coca-Cola, whose products are based on water, has engaged in more than 386 Community Water Partnership projects in 94 countries since 2005. Unilever’s assessment shows that their laundry, skin and hair products account for over three-quarters of the company’s overall water footprint. They will halve the water associated with the consumer use of their products by 2020. Levi Strauss has pioneered the clothing sector’s studies related to the water use throughout the life-cycle of products. Together with Procter & Gamble, Levi Strauss raises awareness about the environmental and economic advantages of washing in cold water because, for example, 45 % of the water used in the lifecycle of a pair of 501 jeans occurs during  customers’ wash-and-dry home care.

How about us here at the OECD itself? Water use is one of the key environmental policy areas we work with. We reduced the amount of water used to run the our facilities by 6% over 2010-2011.

So far we’ve installed aerators, small metal balls, in the bathroom and kitchen faucets. These reduce water consumption by 20 %. We’ve put in place eco toilet flush systems that reduce toilets’ water usage by 50%. We studied whether rainwater could be collected and used to supply water to our garden’s irrigation system but this turned out not to be both technically feasible and cost effective.

We also have 54 drinking water fountains in our office buildings because according to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME), filtered Parisian tap water is safe and 1000 times more environmentally friendly than bottled water. Tap water is also 1000 times less expensive than bottled water. We do however purchase bottled water. In 2010, for example, we purchased 232,000 0.5L-bottles of water that were used by that year’s 50,000 visitors and 2300 employees, but we are currently also studying their replacement by drinking water fountains.

Global water use has been growing at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century. This trend has to be reversed, and we need to be part of this change by finding new ways to minimise water use in our buildings and by reducing the consumption of bottled water. Hopefully, we will soon be able to calculate the real water footprint of our operations in order to perform as well as we can.

Useful links

OECD work on water

OECD: Meeting the water reform challenge

OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction