©OECD / Michael Dean

Seth M. Siegel is a businessman, activist and the author of Let There Be Water. He visited the OECD on 31 January 2017, giving a talk on solutions for water scarcity. Part of the Coffees of the Secretary-General series, you can read the complete transcript of Mr Siegel below. 

Too much, too little, too polluted: these are three water risks facing many urban areas. By 2050, worldwide water demand will increase by 55%. This will mean fierce competition across different water users–farmers, industries, households, etc. Whether containing flooding in Paris, drought in San Francisco or groundwater contamination in Mexico City, cities everywhere are asking how to anticipate, avoid and overcome future water crises. 

Major floods and droughts have prevailed in many countries throughout 2015. South Africa saw the emergence of its worst drought in 30 years, Ethiopia is threatened with a major food crisis, and California suffered its fourth consecutive year of drought. Floods caused over 2 000 deaths in India last summer, while England, Paraguay and South Carolina reported unprecedented flood damage. The trouble is, climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of such extreme weather events in the coming years.

©2010 ERSI

Open any atlas, look at any globe, and Ireland appears as a small green island on Europe’s Atlantic rim. In fact, Ireland’s territory is almost the size of Germany, and mostly blue.

Freshwater is essential for life, yet makes up only a tiny fraction of all water on earth. In many areas, especially arid and dry regions, underground aquifers are the only source. Even in less arid regions, groundwater provides an essential resource: in fact, some 2.6 billion people worldwide rely on groundwater resources. Farming is one major reason: over 60% of irrigated agriculture in the US uses groundwater, and in Spain more than 70% of irrigation comes from below ground reserves.    

©Rights reserved

In January of this year I visited the Mexican state of Tabasco–a state crossed by rivers and facing the Gulf of Mexico. The state’s population has doubled over the past 30 years and its economy relies heavily on oil and natural gas resources. It has its challenges as well: unemployment, poverty and a lack of resources. 

Her farm needs more rain ©Reuters/David Gray

It is widely accepted nowadays that climate change affects water supply. After all, it plays havoc with rainy seasons, melts glaciers, and causes drought in normally humid regions. 

Unintended benefactor ©AFP/Biosphoto/Minden Pictures/Fotonatura/Ingo Arndt

In Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, Timothy Mitchell tells how in 1942, an epidemic of gambiae malaria in Egypt was caused by a perfect storm of interactions between rivers, dams, fertilisers, food webs, and the influences of the Second World War. It began with the building of dams and storage reservoirs at Aswan by the Nile, which provided the anopheles mosquito with new breeding spots.

©Roy Philippe/HEMIS.FR

How to improve water systems is one challenge; financing them is another. Public authorities in most countries play the main role in implementing and funding water infrastructure, but it is a model that is under increasing pressure, with government budgets stretched and banks still prudent about issuing credit. 

Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD ©OECD

Water, like air and food, is our life support. It covers about 70% of the surface of our planet. But only 2.5% of it is fresh water, the rest being ocean, with a small fraction of that being available as drinking water. As a fragile resource, water must be nurtured with investment, management and care. From oceans and vast rivers to the spring in the garden, we must safeguard our water as a source of well-being, prosperity and progress.

Charlotte Moreau

Water holds huge potential for economic, social and individual betterment. There are challenges to confront, but also opportunities. With the right approach, water could be a harbinger of progress. 

California dreamin' at the World Agricultural Expo in February 2015 ©David McNew/Getty Images/AFP

Investing in infrastructure for water is important, but how we govern water is more critical than ever. 

"Israel’s successes arise from the continuous need for and support of innovative methods, technologies, holistic water resource management and strategies for sustainably providing for the nation’s water needs."

Water infrastructure (particularly piping) in our cities is old, cracking and needs to be upgraded. In some cities, leakage from distribution networks is as much as 40%.

What are the main threats to the world’s stability in the 10 coming years? Geopolitical risks as well as a water crisis have become a bigger threat than an economic breakdown, according to the World Economic Forum.

Studies estimating that the global demand for water, energy, and food will increase by 55%, 80%, and 60% respectively by 2050.

Climate change is, to a large extent, water change. Water is the predominant channel through which the impact of climate change will be felt. More torrential rains, floods and droughts can be expected in many parts of the world. Not only that–climate change is reshaping the future for freshwater on the planet. 

©Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

In September 2013 the Kenyan government and the United Nations announced the discovery of huge underground reserves of water in northern Kenya, enough water to last the entire nation for 70 years. The Lotikipi Basin Aquifer and Lodwar Basin Aquifer were located by satellite in drought-afflicted Turkana County, where water scarcity and competition for grazing land has led to deadly cattle raids between communities. 

The EU’s ban on discarding caught fish in February 2013 has received widespread applause. Why?

Click to enlarge

“We’re going to run out of water much much earlier than we’ll run out of oil,” warned Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of Nestlé, at the OECD Forum in May 2012.

Click to enlarge. By StiK, especially for the OECD Observer.

©REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

New York is investing in a greener, cleaner future.

©REUTERS/Stringer Shanghai

Common sense and dealing with the right people would help unblock badly needed investment in water in developing countries. Mr Briscoe explains. 

If America’s great civil works such as the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam or the Tennessee Valley Authority were proposed today, they would most likely remain ink on paper.

On 8 September 1854, London health authorities removed the handle of a water pump located at the juncture of Cambridge and Broad Streets. The well was famous in the city for the sweetness of its water, apparently used as an ingredient in a “celebrated nectar”.

Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, leads inauguration of a drinking water plant in 2010 ©Alfredo Guerrero/Notimex/AFP

OECD Observer: You are launching Water Agenda to 2030. What pressures led to these reforms?

In the last edition of the OECD Observer we showed how investing in a gas-based kitchen can save lives. The simple water closet can also be a means to good health and dignity, and a source of economic wellbeing, says a new OECD report, Benefits of Investing in Water and Sanitation.

Click to enlarge.

Development aid for water supply and sanitation projects has risen in recent years after a decline in the late 1990s. Considering the importance of safe water, perhaps it hasn’t risen far enough. In 2007-08, OECD Development Assistance Committee countries committed on average $5.1 billion in bilateral annual aid to the water supply and sanitation sector, 50% up on 2003-04 in real terms. When combined with aid from multilateral agencies, the total was $6.6 billion. Over the 2003-08 period, bilateral aid to water increased by an annual average of 15%, while multilateral aid rose 3% annually. Still, for DAC countries, aid to the water supply and sanitation sector rose to just 7% of all aid commitments in 2007-08, only slightly up from 6% in 2003-04.

Click to enlarge.

Although agriculture and industry are the thirstiest of all water consumers, household water use accounts for some 10-30% of total consumption in developed countries. As governments develop strategies to promote water conservation, an OECD survey of households conducted in 2008 offers insight into what really works. Based on some 10,000 responses across 10 countries, the answer is as clear as what comes out of the tap: having to pay for water encourages water-saving behaviour and investment in water-saving appliances, thus reducing consumption.

A salmon would find it a hardscrabble life in the waterways of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Not because of dried riverbeds, overfishing or pollution, but because the region has more dams per cubic metre of water than any other place on earth.

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