Monthly Archives: February 2013

5 Sobering Realities about Global Water Security


Some people say that water is the oil of the 21st Century. If only water were that simple.

Water is very complicated. It’s affected by large-scale issues like climate change and globalization. International commerce moves virtual water (the water it takes to grow or produce a product) from farms in Brazil to grocery stores in China and Egypt.

But water is also inherently local, impacted by site-specific weather, geography, and other environmental and land use conditions. Managing and using water, then, requires understanding it in its full geographic context.

Today, WRI is launching its new Aqueduct mapping tool to do just that. Aqueduct provides businesses, governments, and other decision makers with the highest-resolution, most up-to-date data on water risk across the globe. Armed with this information, these decision-makers can better understand how water risk impacts them—and hopefully, take actions to improve water security.


Aqueduct provides users with the highest-resolution, most up-to-date data on water risk across the globe. The red sections indicate areas facing water risks.

5 Findings about Water

So, what are these global maps telling us? Here are five immediate conclusions:

  • Water risk has many dimensions. WRI’s Aqueduct tool offers a new way of combining and mapping multiple indicators of water stress. Factors like inter-annual variability, floods, droughts, and groundwater depletion are added to baseline water stress, revealing a richer picture of water stress across the globe. Other important factors related to water quality and reputational risk are also included to help companies and governments understand the full breadth of water risks associated with a particular region or water basin. Not only do these layers enrich the overall picture, they can help inform strategies for improving water security.
  • Water stress is growing worldwide. Our new global Aqueduct maps use the most recent 2010 data (previous maps used data from 2000). The picture that emerges shows that water stress is both more prevalent and more severe than estimated in 2000. The new maps reveal areas of higher water stress on every continent, particularly in China, South and Central Asia, and Africa.
  • Water stress isn’t just in arid regions anymore. One of the striking things about Aqueduct’s new maps is that many parts of Europe and the U.S. East Coast and upper Midwest now show medium to high levels of water risk. These regions are not arid, yet they still face significant water stress as demand increases and supply is affected by climate change and other factors.
  • High competition and annual variability make for a bad combination. In some areas with elevated water stress—including the U.S. West, Australia, northern China, northwest India, and parts of Pakistan—there is also high variability in available water supply from year to year. In places where demand for water is high relative to the available supply, a greater likelihood of low-water years makes the situation even riskier.
  • Increasing risks to food security. Most of the world’s water is used for agriculture, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals. Overlaying the world’s major irrigated crop regions on Aqueduct maps reveals that many of these areas already face significant water stress. The situation may become more severe in the future—water stress is likely to grow due to climate change and increased demand for food and water.




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Submitted by Betsy Otto on January 30, 2013


Freshwater for All


UN Secretary-General message “International Year of Water Cooperation 2013”

Video Message from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the importance of Water Cooperation

There is no evidence of coming ‘water wars’ – UNESCO


Strikingly, the territory of 148 nations falls within international basins and more than 30 countries are located almost entirely within these basins. In all, there are 276 international basins. These cover around 45% of the Earth’s land surface, host about 40% of the world’s population and account for approximately 60% of global river flow.

International river basins

The high level of interdependence is illustrated by the number of countries sharing each international basin (see table); the dilemmas posed by basins like the Danube, shared by 19 European countries, or the Nile, shared by 11 African countries, can easily be imagined.

The high number of shared rivers, combined with increasing water scarcity for growing populations, led many politicians and headlines to trumpet coming ‘water wars.’ In 1995, for example, former World Bank Vice-President Ismail Serageldin claimed that ‘the wars of the next century will be about water.’ Invariably, these warnings point to the arid and hostile Middle East, where armies have mobilized and fired shots over this scarce and precious resource. Elaborate, if misnamed, ‘hydraulic imperative’ theories cite water as the prime motivation for military strategies and territorial conquests, particularly in the ongoing conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

The only problem with this scenario is a lack of evidence. In 1951–1953 and again in 1964–1966, Israel and Syria exchanged fire over the latter’s project to divert the Jordan River but the final exchange, featuring assaults by both tanks and aircraft, stopped construction and effectively ended water-related tensions between the two states. Nevertheless, the 1967 war broke out less than a year later. Water had little, if any, impact on the military’s strategic thinking in subsequent Israelo-Arab violence, including the 1967, 1973 and 1982 wars, yet water was an underlying source of political stress and one of the most difficult topics in subsequent negotiations. In other words, even though the wars were not fought over water, allocation agreements were an impediment to peace.

While water supplies and infrastructure have often served as military tools or targets, no states have gone to war specifically over water resources since the city-states of Lagash and Umma fought each other in the Tigris−Euphrates Basin in 2500 BCE. Instead, according to FAO, more than 3 600 water treaties were signed from 805 to 1984 CE. Whereas most were related to navigation, over time, a growing number addressed water management, including flood control, hydropower projects or allocations in international basins. Since 1820, more than 680 water treaties and other water-related agreements have been signed, with more than half of these concluded in the past 50 years.

The historical record proves that international water disputes do get resolved, even among enemies and even as conflicts erupt over other issues. Some of the world’s most vociferous enemies have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so and the institutions they have created often prove to be resilient, even when relations are strained.

The Mekong Committee, for example, established by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as an intergovernmental agency in 1957, exchanged data and information on water resources development throughout the Vietnam War (1955−1975). Israel and Jordan have held secret ‘picnic table’ talks on managing the Jordan River following the unsuccessful Johnston negotiations of 1953–1955, even though they were at war from the time of Israel’s independence in 1948 until the 1994 peace treaty. The Indus River Commission set up under the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan in 1960 survived two major Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971. All 11 Nile Basin riparian countries are also currently involved in senior government-level negotiations to develop the basin cooperatively, despite continuing disagreement between upstream and downstream states.

In Southern Africa, a number of river basin agreements were signed when  the region was embroiled in a series of local wars in the 1970s and  1980s, including the ‘people’s war’ in South Africa and civil wars in  Mozambique and Angola. Although negotiations were complex, the  agreements were rare moments of peaceful cooperation between many of the  countries. After most of the wars and the apartheid era had ended,  water proved to be one of the foundations for cooperation in the region.  In fact, the 1995 Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems was the first  protocol to be signed within the Southern African Development Community.

Excerpt from an article by Annika Kramer, Aaron T. Wolf, Alexander Carius and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, published in A World of Science, volume 11, number 1, January 2013


Water Outlook to 2050: The OECD calls for early and strategic action



May 21, 2012

Around the world, cities, farmers, industries, energy suppliers, and ecosystems are increasingly competing for their daily water needs. Without proper water management, the costs of this situation can be high – not just financially, but also in terms of lost opportunities, compromised health and environmental damage. The OECD and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency have reviewed recent trends, projected plausible future trends, and explored potential policy responses.

Trends and projections

The Water Outlook1 covers four issues: the availability of the resource, water quality, access to water supply and sanitation, and water-related disasters.

1. Resource availability

Water demand is projected to increase by 55% globally between 2000 and 2050. The increase in demand will come mainly from manufacturing (+400%), electricity (+140%) and domestic use (+130%). In the face of these competing demands, there will be little scope for increasing water for irrigation.

This situation is compounded by two factors. First, the number of people living in river basins under severe water stress is projected to reach 3.9 billion by 2050, totalling over 40% of the world’s population (see Understanding water scarcity). In water stressed basins, small changes in water regimes (droughts) can have major consequences. Second, groundwater depletion, which more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, may become the greatest threat to agriculture and urban water supplies in several regions in the coming decades.

2. Water quality

The quality of surface water outside the OECD is expected to deteriorate in the coming decades (see Figures 2a and 2b). The consequences will be increased eutrophication, biodiversity loss and disease. Micro-pollutants (medicines, cosmetics, cleaning agents, and biocide residues) are an emerging concern.

3. Water supply and sanitation

Despite tremendous efforts in the last two decades, the number of city dwellers without access to an improved water source has increased since 1990; as urbanisation has outpaced the development of infrastructure. More than 240 million people (most of them in rural areas) will still be without access to an improved water source by 2050 (see Figure 3a). The situation is even more daunting given that access to an improved water source does not always mean access to safe water. In addition, 1.4 billion people are projected to be without access to basic sanitation in 2050, with severe consequences on health and environment, as well as hampering water uses downstream (see Figure 3b).

4. Water-related disasters

The number of people at risk from floods is projected to rise from 1.2 billion today to around 1.6 billion in 2050 (nearly 20% of the world’s population). The economic value of assets at risk is expected to be around USD 45 trillion by 2050, a growth of over 340% from 2010.

Policy options and needs

Governments and authorities in charge of water management need to act to reverse these trends and to make the water outlook manageable. A number of initiatives have already taken place. A more strategic approach can save cost and accelerate favourable outcomes.

Improved water efficiency remains a policy imperative in most regions of the world. Water pricing can be used to signal scarcity and to create incentives for efficient water use in all sectors (e.g. agriculture, industry, domestic). Social consequences are best addressed through well-designed tariff structures or targeted measures.

Water storage capacities will secure access to the resource. At the same time, they should not conflict with other environmental objectives (e.g. preservation of ecosystem services, forests or biodiversity). Green technologies (such as groundwater recharge, floodplains and wetlands restoration) are available and could be scaled up in most parts of the world.

Flexible mechanisms are required, to allocate water where it is most needed. This requires appropriately defined water rights, an issue which is insufficiently considered in many regions.

Water policies need to place quantity and quality issues on an equal footing. Wastewater collection (sewerage systems) needs to be systematically coupled with wastewater treatment.

Innovative techniques and business models will be needed, to secure water-related services (including water supply and sanitation), while consuming less water, energy or capital. The private sector will be an important player. Public policies can support the development and diffusion of such innovations, including in developing countries.

These initiatives work best when integrated with policies that have an impact on water availability and use, primarily agriculture, energy, and land use. Water governance needs to be reformed to ensure such coherence. One requisite is the engagement of all relevant stakeholders (different levels of government, water user groups, and private companies).

One pragmatic step forward would be assessing the vast number of subsidies that encourage unsustainable water use, with a view to phasing them out. For example, the reform of agricultural support in the European Union has helped to better align agricultural and environmental objectives, typically by reducing production and input related support, as well as shifting toward agro-environmental measures thereby helping to ease stress on the environment, including water. Similarly, removing incentives which encourage people to settle or invest in risk-prone areas will reduce the impact and occurrence of water-related disasters.

In all of these domains, early action will avoid being locked in costly and detrimental trajectories.


1. OECD (2012a), OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050: The Consequences of Inaction, OECD Publishing, Paris

2. OECD (2012b), Water Quality and Agriculture. Meeting the Policy Challenge, OECD Publishing

3. OECD (2010), Alternative Ways of Providing Water. Emerging Options and Their Policy Implications, OECD Publishing, Paris


A printable pdf version of the article is available here.

Xavier Leflaive is a principal administrator at the OECD Environment Directorate, where he heads the water unit. His work covers urban water, the economics and financial dimension of water resources management, and water as a driver for (green) growth. Before joining the OECD, Xavier Leflaive has worked as a consultant, advising French authorities and international water utilities on policy and corporate responses to future water trends. Xavier Leflaive studied business administration and social theory in France, Canada and the UK. He holds a PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge, UK. For more information, please contact Xavier Leflaive in OECD’s Environment directorate: or visit