We might have enough water to survive the 21st century after all

There's been a lot of talk recently about a coming water crisis, in which there both won't be enough water to go around and what water there is will be dangerously polluted. Well, there might be some good news.

While pollution is absolutely still a major concern, scarcity might not be as big a problem as some have feared. That's the finding of new research from the Challenge Program on Water and Food, or CPWF, which is a subset of the UN-supported CGIAR (which originally stood for Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). The researchers argue that there's plenty of freshwater to go around in the world's river basins, including the Niles, Ganges, Yellow, and Volta.

According to the researchers, the problem isn't scarcity itself, but rather that areas around these basins have guaranteed plentiful water resources, and those located far from basins have to cope with constant shortages. But this means the problem isn't finding new sources of water, but rather finding more effective ways to manage the resources we've already got. That's still a big challenge, but it's a whole order of magnitude less difficult than the alternative.

CPWF director Alain Vidal explains:

"Water scarcity is not affecting our ability to grow enough food today. 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. Huge volumes of rainwater are lost or never used, 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."

And it's not just Africa where better water management could seriously improve food production and, hopefully, quality of life. The research - which spanned five years and thirty countries - found multiple regions of South America and Asia where production was at least 10% below its real potential, and parts of India and Pakistan were producing only half of what they could potentially yield on a sustainable basis.

Obviously, this doesn't magically fix everything, but this allows some room for a bit of cautious optimism in what is often a bleak environmental landscape. Researcher Dr. Simon Cook argues that we have the existing water resources to feed the world's growing population, even if it does indeed hit 9.5 billion by 2050:

"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. With a major push to intensify rainfed agriculture, we could feed the world without increasing the strain on river basins systems."

If these results do indeed hold up, then the real challenge going forward will be to forge new partnerships that can more equitably share water resources and maximize food production. That's definitely an easier task than massive projects to recover new water resources, but it's far from an easy task. Dr. Cook and the authors of the report describe the current situation facing many of the world's key river basins:

"[There's] complete fragmentation of how river basins are managed amongst different actors and even countries where the water needs of different sectors — agriculture, industry, environment and mining — are considered separately rather than as interrelated and interdependent...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."

Via the AFP. Image by ryPix on Flickr.