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Water withdrawal symptoms – we just can’t get enough


Did you hear the one about the Englishman, Irishman and Australian who went to Stockholm for a week?

No? I’ll give you a clue: the cast also involves, among others, a Pakistani, several Chinese people, at least three South Africans, half a dozen Germans, an American or two and many, many Swedes.

These are just some of the people I’ve spoken to during the last few days while I’ve been on my annual pilgrimage to the World Water Week conference.

Some international conferences can be turgid events, during which policy wonks compete to inflict a didactic death by PowerPoint on their audience.

World Water Week conference, Stockholm, Aug 2012 © Yifei Zhang World Water Week conference, Stockholm, Aug 2012 © Yifei Zhang

But World Water Week is a rare thing: a genuinely useful talkfest. It’s where representatives from governments, aid agencies, the private sector, the research community and NGOs come to share ideas, form partnerships and exchange knowledge. It’s the place to be every August if you’re struggling to fix a water or river-related problem, or if you have bright ideas that might be helpful to others.

This week’s hot topic is “the Nexus”. It might sound like the latest electric car coming out of Korea but in fact this is policy jargon for the profound, but sometimes hidden, links between the fast-growing demand for food, water and energy.

In a nutshell, the upward trend in global population combined with rapid development in many emerging economies means that demand for food and electricity is sky-rocketing. Water is a critical and irreplaceable ingredient in the production of both. So, in many parts of the world, withdrawals of water from the world’s rivers, lakes and aquifers now exceed the rate at which nature can replenish flows.

As 1980s beat combo Depeche Mode might have put it, had they sung about water, “we just can’t get enough.”

Checking the quality of the water in the Rwenzori Mountains, Uganda © WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles Checking the quality of water at an irrigation project, Uganda © WWF-Canon / Simon Rawles

WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report highlighted the disastrous impacts of such unsustainable water withdrawals on freshwater biodiversity.

How do you solve a problem like the Nexus? Well, there is no silver bullet. But one part of the puzzle is better water allocation.

Essentially this involves smarter decisions about who gets water, how much, and when. In an ideal world such decisions would balance economic efficiency, socially equity and, of course, environmentally sustainability.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Water withdrawals are often none of the above. And when water becomes scarce, environmental sustainability is normally the first thing to go.

Silted up riverbank © WWF Silted-up riverbank © WWF

In recent years, WWF has looked closely at how sophisticated techniques and tools can be used to bring about better water allocation decisions. At a Tuesday lunchtime event this week, I helped to present our most recent work on the issue, the result of a close collaboration with China’s Ministry of Water.

China is concerned that lack of water might act as a brake on development. The OECD said this week that it’s now looking at the topic. Corporate giants such as SABMiller and Coca-Cola are also stepping up efforts to address business risk from water scarcity. It’s an issue that commands the attention of powerful economic players, as well as conservation groups.

And it’s an international problem, affecting most of us. Even in rainy old Britain, over-allocation of water is becoming more of an issue.

I’d like to provide a witty punchline to my joke. But the Nexus, water scarcity and water allocation are serious issues – among the great challenges facing the world in the 21st century. Instead, just because I’m in Stockholm, I’ll leave with you with this memorable Swedish version of that Depeche Mode pop classic to cheer you up.

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