Over the last few decades, water shortages and conflicts over water rights sparked concerns that H2O could be the next oil. But there is plenty of water to go around for the next century to meet food, energy, industrial and the environmental needs said a recent report by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
The problem is that water is not distributed and used efficiently or fairly.
"Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today," said Alain Vidal, director of the Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), the division of CGIAR that completed the report released yesterday at the XIV World Water Congress. The report was also published in two special issues of the journal, Water International.
"Yes, there is scarcity in certain areas, but our findings show that the problem overall is a failure to make efficient and fair use of the water available in these river basins. This is ultimately a political challenge, not a resource concern," said Vidal in a press release.
"Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used," he added, "particularly in the rain-fed regions of sub-Saharan Africa. With modest improvements, we can generate two to three times more food than we are producing today.
Vidal and his colleagues studied 10 river basins: the Andes and São Francisco in South America; the Limpopo, Niger, Nile and Volta basins in Africa; and the Ganges, Indus, Karkheh, Mekong, and Yellow in Asia.
A river basin in the entire area, from highlands to lowlands, that drains into a river.
These 10 basins were selected because they represented the full range of challenges faced by watersheds in the developing world.
In fact they directly affect a large portion of the developing world. Altogether, the river basins cover 13.5 million square kilometers and are home to about 1.5 billion people, including 470 million of the world's poorest.
"The most surprising finding is that despite all of the pressures facing our basins today, there are relatively straightforward opportunities to satisfy our development needs and alleviate poverty for millions of people without exhausting our most precious natural resource," said Simon Cook, leader of the CPWF's Basin Focal Research Project.
"With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems," said Cook.
Africa had the greatest opportunity for improvement. The report found that only about four percent of the rains down in Africa were captured and used to irrigate crops or quench the thirst of livestock.
The researchers also found that countries need to view whole river basins and watersheds as a whole and not focus on individual sectors of the economy in water use plans. Currently, too much emphasis has been placed on agriculture and not enough on fisheries and livestock.
For example, in the Niger basin, freshwater fisheries support 900,000 people, many of them struggling in dire poverty. Along the Mekong in South Asia, 40 million people depend on fish for at least part of the year. Back in Africa, in the Nile River basin, almost half of the water in the basin is involved in livestock operations.
Nations need to think beyond not just economic divisions in water use policy, but also their own political borders, said the report. Water has no respect for the lines humans draw on maps, and water use policies need to take this into account.
The CGIAR report echoes the words of John Wesley Powell, the indomitable, one-armed geographer who explored the Grand Canyon.
Powell said that a watershed is "that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community."
Finding common ground over water may be difficult, since it involves nations and regions that may not have the friendliest relationships, but in the long term people need to re-examine how they relate to water.
"In many cases, we need a complete rethink of how government ministries take advantage of the range of benefits coming from river basins, rather than focusing on one sector such as hydropower, irrigation or industry," the authors stated.
Fishermen on the Niger River in Mali. (Wikimedia Commons)
Women wash clothes along the Niger River. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Niger River basin; basin is in green. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Mekong River basin; basin is outlined. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Mekong River in Laos. (Wikimedia Commons)