Water security

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“…water security represents a unifying element supplying humanity with drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, food and fish, industrial resources, energy, transportation and natural amenities, all dependent upon maintaining ecosystem health and productivity.” ~ The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Water security refers to the capacity of a country to ensure that they continue to have access to safe, reliable, affordable, and sufficient water for people, agriculture, industry, and the ecosystem. It is an increasing concern, arising from population growth, drought, climate change, salinity, and pollution. Water security is rapidly declining in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, 2 billion people who lacked it have gained access to a safe water source since 1990. The proportion of people in developing countries with access to safe water is calculated to have improved from 30 percent in 1970 to 71 percent in 1990, 79 percent in 2000 and 84 percent in 2004, parallel with rising population. This trend is projected to continue.

Historically, there has been many conflicts over the use of water from rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates. Another example is Israel’s control of water resources in the Levant region, where Israel securing its water resources was one of many drivers for the 1967 Six Days War.

According to some research, about 80% of the world population [5.6 billion people in 2011] live in areas with threats to water security.

Map: DMU

Towards a greater water security

Achieving water security by reducing its destructive potential and increasing its productive potential has always been a goal of human society and remains a central challenge for many of the world’s poorest countries today. For those countries that have not achieved water security, this objective lies at the heart of their struggle for sustainable development, growth and poverty reduction.

There is now a gradually re-emerging consensus that water resources development and management are essential to generate wealth, mitigate risk and alleviate poverty; that poverty demands that many developing countries will need to make large investments in water management and infrastructure at all levels; and that this development must be undertaken, building on the lessons of experience, with much greater attention to institutional development, to the environment and to more equitable sharing of benefits and costs. The challenge is to promote growth and poverty alleviation, while at the same time ensuring both environmental sustainability and social inclusion and equity.

What determines water security?

Achieving and sustaining water security is determined by many factors, of which three stand out.

  • The hydrologic environment — the absolute level of water resource availability, its inter- and intra-annual variability and its spatial

distribution — which is a natural legacy that a society inherits.

  • The socio-economic environment — the structure of the economy and the behavior of its actors — which will reflect natural and cultural legacies and policy choices.
  • Changes in the future environment, with considerable and growing evidence that climate change will be a major part. These factors will play important roles in determining the institutions and the types and scales of infrastructure needed to achieve water security.

Water security remedies

Focus on resource management. Multi-disciplinary advancements have broadened the range of adaptive management options available. Allocation mechanisms, such as water rights and regulations and water pricing and fees, are used to ensure better management of both the quantity and quality of water resources.

Important evolving practices include innovations in environmental and social impact analyses (particularly of local project-affected populations and environments), instream flow management, environmental set-asides, demand management, re-engineering and reoperations, enhancement of natural water storage and regulation and benefit sharing with affected populations and trans-boundary neighbors. Water institutions that promote equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability will facilitate achieving and sustaining water security.

Focus on economic resilience. In water-insecure nations, there may be potential for managing the economy to make it less vulnerable and more resilient to water shocks. Increased investment in more water-resilient sectors, settlement and production in areas with less water stress or climate variability, water pricing which provides appropriate incentives, trade in “virtual water” and greater economic diversification more generally could all diminish an economy’s vulnerability to water shortages and shocks. This would lessen the need for water development and accelerate the achievement of water security.

Focus on social inclusion and equity. An enduring challenge in water management and development decisions is to balance the aspirations of society at large with protection of individuals, in the context of the larger socio-political arena. This requires understanding and support for the challenges of affected groups, disenfranchised people and women. Strategies and tools are continuously evolving for more effective social and gender impact analyses and safeguards, successful development communications, broader inclusion and greater transparency. The engagement of civil society and ensuring equitable benefit sharing are likely to lead to more sound investment choices and diminished social costs in the achievement of water security.

Water security links and resources