Thirsty for Solutions

Tackling Global Water Scarcity Through Transboundary Governance Frameworks and Technology Transfer By Angel Versetti

Angel Versetti

Water scarcity is a burning question. Less so for water-abundant or technology-savvy countries and much more so for water-deprived developing countries with little infrastructure in place to deal with this pressing issue. Water scarcity is defined as “an excess of water demand over available supply” There are 3 types of water scarcity: physical, economic (whereby lack of adequate infrastructure prevents people from taking available water from rivers, or extracting it from underground, thus creating water scarcity) and institutional (in which lack of functioning political institutions or legal framework creates limited and highly inequitable access to water. Agricultural sector is by far the largest consumer of freshwater, accounting for over 90% of total freshwater consumed globally.

An estimated 1.2 billion people live in areas with physical water scarcity – mainly in
Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa – while another 1.6 billion people are facing economic water shortages – throughout virtually all of Sub-Saharan Africa, large parts of South and South East Asia and western parts of South Americaiv. As the population growth continues to exert increasing pressure on water resources, and with water ultimately being „the‟ resource that determines humans‟ ability to survive in any given environment, both through its direct consumption by people and its immediate usage in agriculture to produce food, one thing should be clear to policy-makers: discussions of long-term development assistance strategies to developing countries will be of no avail, if in the short-term some 3 billion people are facing a feasible threat of shortages of water and food supply. This issue has therefore serious geopolitical implications and can even affect the core aspects of national security and states‟ sovereignty.
Thus, we have to look beyond what will be affected, and to consider how to rethink and reshape patterns of regional and global governance of water resources and where the largest impetus might come from to solve this problem rapidly and effectively. This essay will focus on transboundary water governance that aims to strengthen supply of water resources: transboundary due to many freshwater resources in water-deprived areas being shared across borders; and supply-side because there is technology available that can respond to water scarcity without having to restrict our water consumption.

While the answer to water scarcity will come from engineers and scientists, it will ultimately be policy-makers and government officials who will usher in closer cooperation in both water management and technology transfer across countries and regions. There is a need for multidimensional convergence in water management to solve this problem.
The first dimension for convergence is epistemological, and the convergence needs to occur between researchers and policy-makers. Oftentimes, there are significant gaps between abstract models that economists employ, or findings that chemists discover in their sterile laboratories, and the imperfect, dirty reality of our world where policy-makers take decisions as dictated by their political objectives or whispered by their intuition. In fact, neither approach is entirely wrong, since there is a clear need for rigorous evidence-based findings to enable policymakers to make informed decisions, but at the same time geopolitical realities cannot be ignored in the realm of international relations. When rivers such as the Congo, Euphrates, Mekong, Niger, Nile, Senegal and Zambezi each flow through multiple sovereign states, whose populace depends on supply of these rivers for 70-97% of their total freshwater needsv, geopolitical and national security considerations will be a major factor in any proposed water governance initiatives.

This interplay between science and politics calls for a convergence, which hopefully comes sooner rather than later, whereby senior government officials will possess more in-depth scientific knowledge to make appropriate, well-informed decisions; at the same time scientists who serve as policy-advisor will have to be increasingly aware of political realities and accordingly make proposals that are feasible given the existing state of affairs. This is not at all a utopian vision. Consider how the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used her political weight throughout the late 1980s to successfully push for an international ban on production of chlorofluorocarbons, which were destroying the ozone layer. A chemist by education, Thatcher fully appreciated the dangers posed by the CFCs, something that many of her counterparts might not have been too worried about, unless a natural cataclysm were to occur.

The second dimension for convergence is economic. There are various technologies available that have a potential to provide sustainable solutions to water scarcity. However, there is often insufficient funding to adapt these technologies to low-cost large-scale operations. The state alone is not necessarily able provide adequate funding for research, especially in less economically developed countries where government budgets are low. The inability of state to 1 This is of course not to negate the impact of many praiseworthy efforts done to increase efficiency of water usage in agriculture or develop water-saving consumption practices provide appropriate infrastructure can create vicious circles such as those observed in many Sub- Saharan African countries, where large rivers contain natural contaminants such as arsenic and fluoride. If purified, this water would be potable. Yet due to lack of purifiers, local populations have to use groundwater instead, often depleting its reserves, which exacerbates this economic water scarcity, by adding a physical onevi. To avoid this, governments should encourage private investment into water purification technologies, though this is complicated as well, since the private sector may not be willing to invest due to uncertain returns from what is largely perceived to be a public good. The state could facilitate convergence of interests of public and private sectors by fostering public-private partnerships and infectivity enterprises to engage in socially desirable projects.

The third dimension for convergence is political. Countries will have to recognize the need to cooperate to find sustainable solutions to water scarcity. The case of the Aral Sea disaster in Central Asia showed that adverse environmental, social and economic consequences of the dried up sea went far beyond the borders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan where the Sea is located and affected the neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, inducing these 5 states into establishing a regional governance framework to restore water and fish supplies. However,
sometimes global action might be required to effectively facilitate knowledge-sharing and technology transfer from developed countries to the developing ones. This brings the issue of water scarcity into purely geopolitical realm, since countries will need to cooperate and share strategic research on agricultural practices and water management, while on a global level there will have be some kind of agreement on who will transfer technology to developing countries.

One example where technology transfer is required is seawater desalination systems.
Many countries experiencing freshwater shortages have access to saltwater, which constitutes 97.5% of all water available globally. Were proper desalination systems to be made available to the developing countries, the problem of global scarcity of water would rapidly disappear and there would be enough potable water to be used both for direct human consumption and agricultural production. Many developed countries located in arid areas as well as the oil-rich economies of the Middle East have already invested significantly in water desalination systems called reverse osmosis. The costs of infrastructure and energy to run then are still high, however, and many poor countries are struggling to build these systems. There will have to be a functioning framework in place to enable sharing of these technologies with poor countries. Given that energy scarcity is also a persistent issue and that usage of fossils only exacerbates the climate change and water scarcity, innovative means to desalinate water will need to be developed.

Currently, nuclear desalination is promising to be such a means. Nuclear desalination technology uses a small nuclear reactor to generate electricity, whereas the excess heat that is produced from the nuclear fission is used to provide energy for the reverse osmosis to desalinate seawater. Not only is nuclear energy cost-competitive and carbon-neutral, its large-scale potential means that consumption of water by agriculture or industries will not have to be reduced, thus removing obstacles to economic transition for developing countries. Moreover, if this technology does take off, it could process sufficient quantities of seawater into freshwater to satisfy their own needs as well as to supply landlocked regions and countries located in arid areas with no access to the sea. If removal of seawater deeper into continents occurs on a large enough scale, it could also partially offset the rising sea levels caused by the global warming, thus solving two global problems at once – diverting excess waters in oceans to water-strained regions within continents. Yet, given the sensitivity of nuclear technologies research, without close political cooperation, the launch of such an ambitious project on a global scale is unlikely to be a reality.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has been encouraging shared research and technical cooperation in this field. There are currently over 20 countries participating in the international initiative to promote nuclear desalination. However, since nuclear powers do not experience significant water shortages at the national level, for them cautiousness and national security considerations frequently trump the acute needs of smaller, less developed countries for reliable water supply. While the transboundary water governance networks are slowly shaping up, people in water deprived areas can only wait and remain thirsty for solution

Andrea Schaller

Founder and editor Go4Ges

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