World faces water crisis in 20 years

The world could be facing a global water crisis by 2025 if current trends in water policies and investment continue, say two international think-tanks. A global water shortage will also result in significantly reduced food production and in environmental damage, they say.

Global Water Outlook to 2025, by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), is the result of computer modelling, and predicts that water scarcity will cause global losses of 350 million metric tonnes of food production every year.

The problem comes in part from a high population growth rate and urbanisation in developing countries, which means that water use will increase by at least 50% in the next 20 years from the 1995 figure of 3,906 cubic kilometres (1,032 trillion gallons). Declining food supplies will result in increasing prices and malnutrition.

“Water is not like oil. There is no substitute,” warns Dr Mark Rosegrant, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI and lead author of the report.

It would only take a moderate worsening in global water policy to bring about a genuine water crisis, says the report. If governments continue to cut spending on crop research, technology and infrastructure, while failing to implement institutional and management reforms, global grain production could drop by 10% over business-as-usual scenarios. This is equivalent to losing the entire annual grain crop of India, says the report.

In the western United States, for instance, groundwater is being pumped at a rate in excess of natural recharge. These include the Rio Grande and Colorado River Basins.

In September, international leaders at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development agreed to halve the number of people without access to clean water by 2015 (see related story). However, “this goal will not become a reality unless governments redirect their water policies to meet the needs of poor people,” says Dr Joachim von Braun, Director General of IFPRI.

Policies to reduce water consumption could include charging wealthy people in developing countries for their water use, the use of low cost, small scale irrigation techniques, such as drip kits or manually operated treadle pumps.

Fortunately, there is good news. “A crisis is not inevitable,” said Rosegrant. “The world can both consume less water and reap greater benefits.” But governments must act now as required strategies will take time as well as investment and policies, he says.

Recently, edie reported on a new irrigation system that could halve water use by arable agriculture through partial root drying (see related story).

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