Water is a basic necessity of life, but partly due to climate change and the increasing demand for water for agriculture, industry and households, water problems are becoming increasingly acute.
“Due to increasing prosperity, the demand for water in Bangladesh, for example, has increased sharply,” says program leader sustainable water management Arjan Budding of Wageningen University & Research. “That higher prosperity leads to a different diet with more animal products. More agricultural land is then needed to grow animal feed, with crops such as corn that need a lot of water.”
The diet also changes closer to home. Avocados are known for their very high water demand, and they are almost impossible to get hold of, that’s how much we love them, as shown in this video:
In the meantime, however, the availability of water is declining in many places. This has everything to do with climate change: higher temperatures increase evaporation, which can lead to drought in times of low rainfall. Also in the Netherlands, where the word drought did not even appear in the dictionary until recently, Budding dryly remarks.
Due to warming, glaciers are melting at an increasing rate, even in high mountains such as the Himalayas. “Initially, that actually leads to more meltwater,” says Dr Hester Biemans, water and food security researcher at Wageningen University & Research. “The expectation is that the increase in the amount of meltwater in the Himalayas will continue this century. But the peak discharge will come at other times. For example, farmers in India and Pakistan may need more groundwater at the end of the growing season , because at that time there is still a shortage of both meltwater and rainwater.”
In time, the amount of meltwater will irrevocably decrease. Many smaller glaciers have already reached that point.
Conflict over water
Access to natural resources often plays a role in the emergence of armed conflicts. Oil is an obvious example, but water scarcity is also increasingly a factor.
“There is a long history of violence related to access to water, and unfortunately water conflicts are on the rise as climate change and water scarcity intensify,” said Dr Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in California. “Major efforts are needed to mitigate the risks of water conflict.”
Rivers often cross several countries and that creates dependency. Both the amount of water and the water quality are influenced by what the upstream land does with it. By no means everywhere have agreements been made between the countries concerned on how to deal with the water, which increases the risk of conflict.
Take the longest river on earth, the Nile. Ethiopia, where part of the Nile originates, has built a large dam in the Nile for their electricity production. “This restricts the water supply in downstream countries,” says Budding. “Sudan and Egypt are therefore far from happy with the Ethiopian dam. Egypt exists by virtue of the Nile. How are they going to feed 110 million mouths when that water flow decreases? In some places they are now tapping deep fossil groundwater reserves, but once gone that water is no longer replenished.”
Enough safe drinking water remains a theme
There is also good news: more and more people have access to clean drinking water. But that improvement is very slow: if the current trend continues, 1.6 billion people will still lack safe drinking water in 2030. And an even greater number will still not have access to sanitation and basic hygiene.
Drinking water in the Netherlands is still of excellent quality, but the surface water is even dirtier, as can be read here:
Wetlands are disappearing at a rapid pace
And then we haven’t even talked about so-called wetlands, water-rich nature reserves, which are under pressure worldwide. 85 percent of it has been lost in recent centuries. While those areas are crucial for biodiversity, but also for tackling climate change. They form natural buffers against climate change and water scarcity.
The aim of the Water Conference is to come up with an action agenda to deal with these and other water problems. When asked, Budding does not expect that a specific goal will be agreed, as was the case at the biodiversity summit and the climate summit at the end of last year. It is mainly about countries putting their shoulders to the wheel together and making commitments to deal with the water crisis.
Or as King Willem-Alexander said during the opening ceremony: “We want to make the water wheel turn!”
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