Some good news for a thirsty world

September 28, 2011

Amid the worry about water and food scarcity, some hints of good news: a five-year, 30-nation analysis suggests there might be enough water – and therefore enough food — for Earth’s hungriest and thirstiest as the human population heads toward the 9 billion mark sometime around mid-century.

Anxiety about food and water supplies stems in part from the effects of climate change, with its projected rise in droughts, wildfires, floods and other events that cut down on food production. Another factor is the increase in population, much of it grouped around water sources in the developing world. But water experts said at a conference this week in Brazil that there could be plenty of water over the coming decades if those upstream collaborate with those downstream and use water more efficiently.

The leader of the study, Simon Cook of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, said this is actually possible. And he said it wouldn’t require the repeal of the more selfish impulses of human nature.

Citing an article in Harvard Business Review, Cook said, “It’s not necessarily human to be totally individualistic. There’s substantial evidence that people can collaborate.”

In fact, Cook said, this kind of discussion between upstreamers and downstreamers — the ones most likely to be at odds over how water should be used — is already taking place. There is evidence that China’s involved in a project to enable hydropower development along the Mekong River, one of several huge river basins examined in the water study. “They’re actually engaged in dialog with the people who will be affected by it” in Laos, Cook said, with a bit of wonder in his voice. “So there are some glimmers of hope.”

That would be different from what has often happened in developed countries, including the United States, where those who use water for irrigation may have scant discussion with those who use it for rain-fed farming, hydropower, aquaculture or other purposes.

The key is to communicate across borders and across sectors, Cook said. One problem is that those who have power tend to want to hang onto it.

“Power tends to stick,” he said. “Once you get a power interest … for example amongst irrigators or amongst farmers and pastoralists who have an interest in preserving the status quo, then it’s more difficult to shift.”

Much of the solution may come down to communication. Right now, systems that are meant to manage large river basins are often fragmented, Cook said, with ministries of agriculture that don’t talk to ministries of water.

So should big global organizations step in? Not really, Cook said.

“It’s got to be a local broker, obviously,” he said. “The UN or the World Bank can try to ensure that this process takes place and that there’s an informed dialog. But it can’t pre-determine the outcome.”

Photo credits: REUTERS/Akhtar SoomroShaista (Three-year-old girl, displaced by floods, holds a drink of water as she takes refuge with her family in a camp for flood victims in the Badin district of Pakistan’s Sindh province September 23, 2011.)

REUTERS/Jason Lee (A man rides an electric bicycle through an underground passage near a fountain in central Beijing, September 22, 2011)

REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom (A boy plays in the flood waters near a temple in Nonthaburi province on the outskirts of Bangkok September 19, 2011)

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