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UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources Blog


Discussing global sustainability issues


Water resources – a slippery issue!

By ucftpdr, on 15 January 2013

image (c) SXC

This Christmas saw widespread flooding across the UK, bringing to a close a year which the Met Office describes as the ‘second wettest’ since records began – despite a prolonged drought in South-East England over the summer.

Although these events appear extreme in the UK, all over the world the extreme lack, and equally the extreme over-abundance of water is causing untold suffering and strife – from prolonged drought in West Africa to widespread floods in Pakistan.

In response to this global issue, the UN has designated 2013 as the ‘International Year on Water Co-Operation’. The aim is to raise global awareness of the challenges faced in water management, along with the potential for co-operation to overcome these challenges.  At first glance, ambition seems lacking – no revolutionary changes are promised. However, when the issues present are considered, there is ambition enough.

The volume of water on the planet does not change; it only moves from place-to-place and form-to-form (ice, water, steam – but also between freshwater and salt water). The alteration of the regime that governs where, when and in what volume water is transported around the planet (monsoons, dry seasons, snowfall, etc.), due to climate change is likely to cause difficulty to regions perfectly adapted to their historic conditions. This extends from the natural flora and fauna evolved to fit their surroundings – but also the human world in knowing what crops will flourish, when to store water for the coming dry season, and where not to construct critical infrastructure that may flood.  Rapid curbing of global emissions would seem the logical approach to prevent this change, but the likelihood of achieving such an ambition seems more remote with every passing year.  Adaptation to the new climate regime, then, may be the key.  This is easier said than done.

As ever, the issue is multi-faceted. Regions likely to experience amongst the greatest reduction in rainfall due to climate change, such as North Africa and the Middle East, are also expected to experience some of the most rapid population and economic growth at the same time. These are regions in which water resources are already amongst the lowest in the world – so an increasingly thirsty population, coupled with the agriculture and industry required to sustain them present quite enough of a challenge. Climate change simply makes the challenge all that much harder.

Increasing national demand for water may lead to those countries lucky enough to sit upstream of great rivers removing increasing volumes for use, reducing the volume available for nations resting downstream – potentially leading to ‘water wars’ and clashes in regions which need no further cause for conflict.

The use of ancient ‘fossil’ groundwater reserves may increase, along with the production of water by desalination. Desalination is the production of freshwater from seawater (and sometimes waste water), and consumes significant amounts of energy. If it is rolled-out in a significant way, energy consumption increases, producing more greenhouse gases, leading to further climate change. This is especially the case considering that the Middle East is the largest investor in desalination, and its use is expected to grow exponentially, fuelled by burning cheap fossil fuels.

If natural availability of water decreases and methods of extracting more are unsustainable, then the more efficient use of the resources available is the remaining option to ensure adequate supply. However, this is also fraught with difficulties.

A classic approach to ensuring the efficient use of a resource is to place upon it a price relative to its value. However, water is not like other resources or products.  When an oilfield is discovered, the volume of oil it contains is static. The value of the oil is based on what the customer is willing to pay for the volume available (in this simplified example). A barrel of oil also may only be used once.

Water is different. Whilst the total global volume of water remains the same, that there is no set volume in a lake – it is constantly changing, largely independently of how much is removed from it by human hands.  Water is also not ‘consumed’ in the same way as oil, it is simply returned to the hydrological system when used; albeit possibly in a different physical state, containing pollutants, or to a different location.

With this, and considering that water has a different value to an individual than it does to industry, how can a fair price be placed on the water taken from a lake by a farmer watering his livestock? Who would this even be paid to? How could it possibly be enforced? Since access to clean water is considered a human right, is pricing in this way morally acceptable?

Water management in many countries is often disjointed, with responsibilities scattered across agricultural departments, environment departments, local governments and others. These departments rarely co-ordinate, and often lack the capacity to fulfil their own remit – leading to ineffective and often counter-productive approaches to different priorities.

To progress toward solving the global water crisis, co-operation must be sought at all levels; from national and regional level down to the end users, be they the householders, farmers or industry.   The aims for this ‘Year on Water Co-operation’, then, may in fact seem optimistic rather than lacking in scope – especially in one short year. It seems success will not only be determined by improved international water management in the long term, but the extent to which it fosters a spirit of truly global partnership it requires to get there.


Paul Drummond is a research associate with the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources

UCL ISR currently has two PhD projects investigating water issues:

  • Recovery of nutrients from wastewater for sustainable fertiliser production
  • Sustainability of ‘manufactured water’: Comparative political ecology of desalination plants in London (UK) and Chennai (India)

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