Back in August 2006, Asit Biswas, head of the Third World Centre for Water Management, stated, “There is no shortage of water in the world . . . what it is facing is a crisis of bad water management.” Considered a bold statement at the time, Biswas’s assertion has never gained much traction in a world where “the prevailing wisdom upholds the notion that the disparity between the water we need and the water we have can be blamed on diminishing supply.”
A new study released Monday at the World Water Congress meeting in Brazil emphasizes the connection between water efficiency and the distance between demand and supply. “There is clearly sufficient water to sustain food, energy, industrial, and environmental needs during the 21st century,” read the report, published in a special edition of the journal Water International.
The new research, released by the Challenge Program on Water and Food, or CPWF, (a subset of the UN-supported CGIAR: Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research), indicates that, for all intents and purposes, there is more than enough freshwater in the Nile, Ganges, Yellow, and Volta river basins to supply all of the world’s population. According to the researchers, scarcity is not the problem. Instead, the issue is that these river basins are located far away from the communities who demand the largest supply. As such, the report indicates that rather than focusing on a new water source, we should instead be finding ways to manage our current resource more effectively.
In a statement, CPWF director Alain Vidal elaborated on the issue. “Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today,” he said. “Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern. Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used, particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.”
The research—which was conducted over a five-year span in 30 countries— indicates that, in addition to Africa, multiple regions in South America, Asia, India, and Pakistan are underperforming: With a few modifications, all of these areas could harness natural water resources to up food production by 10% to 50%. In fact, Dr. Simon Cook—who participated in the research—asserts that there are sufficient water resources to support a world population in excess of 9 billion.
“The most surprising finding,” said Simon in a statement, “is that despite all of the pressures facing our basins today, there are relatively straightforward opportunities to satisfy our development needs and alleviate poverty for millions of people without exhausting our most precious natural resource. With a major push to intensify rain-fed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems.”
So what do you think? Can we—and should we—really shift our focus from finding and protecting water sources to more effective water collection and conveyance? Is fragmentation the issue—with river basins and watersheds managed and beholden to a myriad of different sectors including agriculture, industry, residential, and environmental concerns? And could tweaking current management protocols—including the forging of new interstate and international partnerships—allow us to more efficiently capitalize and protect what we have?