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Special Report: ‘Peak Water’ Debate Focuses on Asia’s Water Shortage

Water Source, India. Credit mckaysavage flickrBy Rich Bowden:

The concept of peak water as an overarching term for increased shortage of water supply in Asia remains contentious but it has focused attention on the growing water crisis facing many countries due, in part, to over-extraction of the precious resource.

Climate change, burgeoning population growth, pollution and increased industrial and agricultural capacity put more pressure on already stretched water resources. There is a lively academic discussion on whether or not we have indeed passed a tipping point in water consumption – peak water – in the same way many experts believe we have for oil – peak oil.

According to data from the World Resources Institute, EarthTrends and the Asian Development Bank, renewable water resources in Asia (excluding the Middle East) average slightly more than 4,000 cubic meters per year, while the global average is 8,500 cubic meters per year.

The extremely water poor Middle East has only 1,500 cubic meters per year and sub-Saharan Africa with about 6,300 cubic meters per year. South America gets almost 50,000 cubic meters per year.

While a rise in global temperatures threatens further water stress in the coming years, the A.D.B. believes there are other factors aggravating water scarcity.

“Likewise, over the next few decades, changes in the drivers of demand for water, including population growth, changes in dietary patterns and patterns of urbanization and economic development are likely to have greater impacts on relative regional water scarcity than increasing temperatures,” Arjun Thapan, A.D.B. special senior advisor for infrastructure and water, told Ecoseed.

Population pressures, agricultural irrigation and increased industrial use of water supply push up water use in many areas of Asia and over-extraction of groundwater in relation to recharge rates has already passed recognized tipping points.

“One way in which many regions in Asia have encountered or exceeded peak water (as defined) is in groundwater use. Many heavily populated regions, including the Gangetic Plain in India and the North China Plain, currently utilize groundwater at rates greatly exceeding long-term recharge, and in this sense have already passed peak water,” Mr. Thapan said.

Problems with definition

Peak water is not the deficiency of fresh water, but rather the condition where water demanded is higher than the rate at which supply is replenished.

World’s Water 2008-2009, a publication by the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, describe it as “peak ecological water,” where over-extraction of water resources exhausts the planet’s ability to absorb the consequences of water use. China illustrates this case.

“China has developed a set of water quality and quantity problems as severe as any on the planet,” said Peter Gleick, the lead author and the institute’s president.

“Rivers and lakes are dead and dying, groundwater aquifers are over-pumped, uncounted species of aquatic life have been driven to extinction, and direct adverse impacts on both human and ecosystem health are widespread and growing.”

However, Mr. Thapan said there is yet to be a broadly agreed upon definition for peak water, adding that certain assumptions about the global supply of a finite resource, such as oil, cannot be made about water resources.

“[T]he concept of peak water is constructed by analogy to the more widely discussed and documented concept of ‘peak oil,’” he said.

“Water, unlike oil, is not a finite resource, at least when viewed from the perspective of a given location such as a river basin.

“Unlike oil, which is a stock resource, water has characteristics of both stock and flow resources,” he explained. “For example, soil moisture, river discharge, groundwater and continental ice masses are all subject to replenishment, although at very different timescales.”

But he also noted that certain types of fossil groundwater may also be considered stock resources because they are not subject to recharge at timescales meaningful to human society.
Dr. Håkan Tropp, project director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Water Governance Facility at the Stockholm International Water Institute, also maintained some reservations about the concept of peak water. He also contended that Asia taken as a region cannot be considered water scarce.

“There are of course areas in Asia where water is scarce (Turkmenistan, parts of India etc.) but there are also other areas (for example Mekong countries, Bangladesh etc.) where there are ample water resources (and where flooding is a recurring problem),” Dr. Tropp told Ecoseed in an email.

However, Dr. Tropp acknowledged that despite his own concerns about linking the term peak water to a nonfinite resource, he believes in its usefulness in shedding light on the very real problem of over-extraction of water sources.

“[I]f the concept can put more light on the issue of water use being bigger than replenishment, I guess it is a good thing,” he said.

“Population growth in India, China along with changing consumption patterns (leading to more water pollution, more water intense foods, and other products) is an issue of grave concern and something that needs to be dealt with now! The economies of India and China are very dynamic and this will put added pressure on water resources.”

Focus on shortages

As Dr. Tropp pointed out, even if the term peak water is not deemed completely realistic in describing how demand outstrips supply, it still adequately describes the consequences for Asian governments seeking to balance steady economic growth with the water supply needs of their growing populations. The concept has particular usefulness in those countries, such as India and China, where stock water resources, such as fossil groundwater, is being extracted at dangerous levels.

Maude Barlow, author, U.N. advisor on water issues and cofounder of the water advocacy group the Blue Planet Project, told Ecoseed that over-extraction of water through technologically advanced bore well pumps in countries such as India remains a huge concern.

“India alone has something like 23 million bore wells going 24/7 and is mining groundwater in a way not possible technologically 50 years ago using bore well technology that was designed for oil extraction,” said Ms. Barlow. “Water is being mined for inefficient food production and to provide water for big cities, which usually dump it in the ocean once they have used it.”

She said people’s displacement and abuse of water are the key issues, adding she believes these are as much an underlying cause of climate change as greenhouse gas emissions.

“Slovakian hydrologist Michal Kravcik says that every year, 700 trillion liters of land-based water is pumped out of the ground and dumped into oceans after use, destroying vast amounts of water and drying up the land left behind,” Ms. Barlow said.

“I believe our displacement and abuse of water from where it is needed for the healthy functioning of the hydrologic cycle is at least as great a cause of climate change as greenhouse gas emissions,” she added.

The future for countries such as India and Pakistan look dismal as far as water supply is concerned.

“India and Pakistan are in crisis soon I fear, with cities like Mumbai running out of water and thousands of villages going dry.

“Pakistan depends on the Indus River which depends on melting snow from the Himalayas. As it is, 55 million Pakistanis lack access to clean water but the predictions are dire for the future,” noted Ms. Barlow.

Are recycling and desalination the answer?

Water recycling and desalination have been touted as the way forward on water reuse, as they help offset a peak water scenario. But experts consulted by Ecoseed noted significant drawbacks to both, including the amount of energy needed to power wastewater recycling and desalination plants.

“In general, desalinization and wastewater recycling are environmentally beneficial, since each practice reduces pressure on existing freshwater sources, potentially leaving more water available for ecosystems support and environmental services,” said Mr. Thapan of the A.D.B.

But he pointed out that the energy intensity of these activities could be the downside.

“Although technological advances, including membrane and nanotechnology, are reducing the costs and energy intensity of these processes, they still require considerable amounts of energy.

“To the extent that this energy is being provided by fossil fuels, these processes then contribute incrementally to global warming, which is possibly their most serious environmental impact.

“With regard to wastewater reuse, there is also an issue of public acceptance if this water enters the drinking water supply, although over time it is likely that the practice will become more common,” he explained

Ms. Barlow of the Blue Planet Project concurred that desalination is often not the answer in Asia due to high energy demands and lack of access to cheap energy sources unlike in the Middle East.

“Desalination is not an answer except in the most dire circumstances,” she said. “It is energy intensive, so it is part of the very problem it is supposed to address; it is very expensive so these poor countries do not have the money for it; and it produces a by-product made up of intensive brine, dead aquatic life that was sucked in with the ocean water for treatment, and the chemicals used in the reverse osmosis process.”

Though the term peak water remains contentious, there is no doubt that increased water stress is affecting Asia and most parts of the world. Governments need to use the concept to plan for the future and avoid conflicts arising from increasing water scarcity.

A report released last month by Britain-based nongovernmental organization Forum for the Future shows that regional cooperation in sharing scarce water resources must be promoted over natural urges by water-scarce nations to hoard dwindling supplies. The study was commissioned by the Britain’s Department for International Development.

“The scope for regional solutions will need to be explored much more over the next 20 years,” said Faisal Islam, the department’s environment and livelihoods advisor in Bangladesh.

“The South Asia region is already reasonably connected but more regional co-operation may be needed to address some of the connected energy, water, flood and food issues,” he added.

Whether peak water can be framed as an adequate description of a renewable resource, the concept neatly describes how over-extracting water resources from groundwater – combined with rapid population growth, global warming and increased irrigation for agriculture and industries – leads to an unsustainable scenario.

Peak water could just be the wake-up call Asia, and the rest of the world, needs.

“Humans have seen water as an infinite resource for our convenience and profit and we must move away from this model soon,” Ms. Barlow said.

“We need to start building our lives around water systems and protect and restore watersheds, stop polluting water, stop over mining groundwater and conserving like never before.”

Freelance writer, editor and co-founder of the independent news site theangle.org, Rich Bowden has a keen interest in environmental, political and human rights issues in his home region of Asia-Pacific. He lives in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia and, along with pursuing an active interest in the role of new media, spends his time between writing, reading and his family.

Article originally published in EcoSeed.

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