The number of people suffering from water scarcity stands between 1.6 and 4 billion.
Photo: Olive Bexten/ Rural21

World Bank warns of water threat

According to a new World Bank report, water scarcity exacerbated by climate change could severely harm economies, cause migration and spark conflict in some regions.

The combined impact of growing populations, rising incomes and expanding cities will lead to an exponential increase in water demand, claims the report “High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy”, released by the World Bank early in May. Supply, on the other hand, is set to become more erratic and uncertain given the effects of climate change.

Conservative estimates put the number of people suffering from water scarcity at 1.6 billion, although different definitions of scarcity imply up to four billion. The World Bank is reckoning with an increase in global water demand by 100 per cent over the next 20 years.

The report warns that without swift action, water is even going to become scarce where it is currently abundant, such as in Central Africa and East Asia.  In regions like the Middle East or the Sahel in Africa, where water is already in short supply, scarcity will greatly worsen. In these areas, growth rates could decline by up to six per cent of GDP by 2050 under water-related pressure on agriculture, health and incomes. Water availability in cities could drop by up to two thirds by 2050 compared to 2015 levels owing to reduced freshwater availability as well as to competition from the energy and agricultural sectors. In coastal regions, higher salinity levels are causing concern, with rising seawater contaminating aquifers.

According to the report, the food sector’s water demand alone will increase by 40-50 per cent, with municipal and industrial demand rising by 50-70 per cent in the same period. And the energy sector is expected to consume 85 per cent more water. All this is going to have an additional severe impact on the environment.

Furthermore, the report notes that changes in water availability and variability can cause migration as well as social conflict. “Food price spikes caused by droughts and floods have generated waves of migration and statistical spikes in violence within countries,” explains the report’s author, World Bank Lead Economist Richard Damania. “In a globalised and connected world, such problems are impossible to quarantine. And where large inequalities prevail, people move from zones of poverty to regions of prosperity, which can lead to increased social tensions.”

However, the report also maintains that the negative impacts of climate change could be neutralised with better policy decisions, and that some regions could even improve their growth rates by up to six per cent with better water resource management. “There is a silver lining,” Damania argues. “When governments respond to water shortages by boosting efficiency and allocating even 25 per cent of water to more highly-valued uses, losses decline dramatically and for some regions may even vanish. Improved water stewardship pays high economic dividends.”
Damania refers to water as “the common currency which links nearly every Sustainable Development Goal”. He maintains that it will be “a critical determinant of success” in the SDG process and warns that neither positive growth in jobs and industries nor food security and health can be sustained without proper water management.

Policies and investments to promote more water-secure and climate-resilient economies include addressing aspects such as better planning for water-resource allocation, incentives to increase water efficiency and improving infrastructure to create more secure water supplies and availability. In the world’s extremely dry regions, more far-reaching policies are needed to avoid insufficient water use. Also, deepening climate stresses call for stronger policies and reforms.

“Water scarcity is a major threat to economic growth and stability around the world, and climate change is making the problem worse,” says World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. “If countries do not take action to better manage water resources, our analysis shows that some regions with large populations could be living with long periods of negative economic growth. But countries can enact policies now that will help them manage water sustainability for the years ahead.”

Mike Gardner, journalist, Bonn/Germany