Water Securities: Policies for Better Access

Water security is a defining global challenge of the 21st century. The global demand for fresh water is soaring as supply becomes more uncertain. Today, one out of six people—more than a billion—do not have adequate access to safe water, participants heard at Friends of Europe’s European Policy Summit Water security: Policies for better access, organised as part of the official programme of the European Commission’s Green Week 2012.
The situation is set to go from bad to worse. The United Nations forecasts that by 2025, half of the countries worldwide will face water stress or outright shortages. By 2050, as many as three out of four people around the globe could be affected by water scarcity.
As population growth and urbanisation rates rise, stress on global water resources is intensifying. Climate change is expected to worsen the situation significantly. The stakes are high. Experts agree that reduced access to freshwater will lead to a cascading set of consequences, including impaired food production, the loss of livelihood security, large-scale migration within and across borders, and increased economic and geopolitical tensions and instabilities. Over time, these developments will have a profound impact on global security.
The situation is especially worrying for developing nations. Achieving growth and sustainable development requires that countries hammer out rational water development and efficient water management policies.
Water is essential in all aspects of our lives – from health and sanitation to food production, industry and energy production.
There is a crucial nexus between water, food and energy that is still little understood by policymakers and by many members of the business community. However, water is of critical importance for future global development and prosperity.
For many, particularly in the industrialised world, access to water is taken for granted even as others in developing countries are denied access to adequate supplies.
Providing water to those without easy or reliable access to it remains a huge challenge. In all countries there is an urgent need to educate citizens and businesses on how to use water more efficiently in order to eliminate the huge wastage that occurs in water supply infrastructure, where leakage rates of 30-40% are common. The use of water in agriculture is incredibly inefficient and the depletion of groundwater levels is unsustainable.
Improving water security also requires a great deal more investment, which is a challenge in itself in times of austerity and global economic uncertainty. Public-private partnerships are one answer, while multilateral development organisations such as the European Investment Bank will also play an important role.
However, water projects are doomed to failure unless there is buy-in from the communities involved. This requires that communities are much more involved in decision-making and in directing funding.
One of the main reasons for inefficient water utilisation is that water is not priced properly. Because of its central place in people’s lives, there is a tendency for governments to subsidise water. While this is understandable, it means users have no incentive to use it more efficiently. However, irrespective of capacity to pay, everyone should have the right to safe water for maintaining life and livelihood.
Water plays so many different roles in our lives that it is easy to hide behind issues in one area – climate change, for example – to disguise problems that are due to factors such as simple mismanagement. At the same time, water problems cannot be solved by focusing simply on water – there is an array of other factors that need to be taken into account in areas as varied as forestry and demand management.
While water realities are intensely local, water is also a global geo-political issue with cross-border and trans-national impacts. Certain hotspots such as the Middle East and the Himalayan region are likely to see increased tension and volatility as a result of water stresses and conflicts. In the latter region, the role of China will be pivotal and the situation is further complicated by the politics of Tibet. At this level, what is needed is strong governance, frequent dialogue and a spirit of co-operation on all sides. Whether this will happen remains to be seen.
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