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Global water crisis: too little, too much, or lack of a plan?

The global water crisis – caused by drought, flood, and climate change – is less about supply than it is about recognizing water's true value, using it efficiently, and planning for a different future, say experts.

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"[S]o climate change, it's Bangladesh. Global water crisis, it's the Horn of Africa. It's somebody else's problem, and those [who] can't afford something are going to be the ones that suffer. Rather than understanding, 'Yes, it's global. Yes, it's a crisis. But it's also very meaningful for us even if we can insulate ourselves from the changes in food prices.' "

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Consequences don't respect borders

"During the next 10 years, many countries important to the United States will almost certainly experience water problems – shortages, poor water quality, or floods – that will contribute to the risk of instability and state failure, and increased regional tensions," predicted the federal government's National Intelligence Council in an assessment of global water security earlier this year.

Annual river runoff and water availability in some high altitudes and in some wet tropical areas will actually increase 20 to 40 percent by midcentury, while it will decrease 10 to 30 percent in some already water-stressed dry regions in the mid-latitudes and in the dry tropics, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This may affect water resources in many arid and semiarid areas in the Mediterranean Basin, western US, Southern Africa, northeast Brazil, and much of Australia.

Over the next century, climate change will reduce the runoff from melting glaciers that feed major rivers, affecting water availability in important regions. More than one-sixth of the world's population relies on the meltwater from receding glaciers and snowpacks, including tens of millions of people in the Andes and hundreds of millions who depend on melt-water from the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas.

These supply problems will be exacerbated by bad water management, including the over-pumping of ground-water supplies, wasteful irrigation practices, deforestation, soil grading, leaking urban infrastructure, and faulty economic models that don't account for the true value of water, according to the National Intelligence Council.

In light of these changes, the OECD predicts that, by 2030, nearly half of the world's population will be living under severe water stress.

The problem is more than just water shortages. The risk of drought and flood would increase by the end of the century, according to the IPCC, and rising sea levels and deteriorating coastal buffers will increase vulnerability to coastal storms over the next few decades. While vulnerability will be greatest in urban areas of the developing world, where flood control structures are often poorly maintained, "at times water flows will be severe enough to overwhelm the water control infrastructures of even developed countries, including the United States," predicts the National Intelligence Council. Developing countries without the resources or ability to solve their water problems risk destabilizing social disruptions, even state failure, the report concludes, especially if the population believes the government is responsible.

While interstate conflict over water is unlikely within 10 years, beyond that time frame, water will increasingly be used as economic and political leverage between states and could even become a weapon, using dams to choke off water supplies to downstream neighbors or to flood them. Dams, desalinization facilities, canals, and pipelines may also make appealing targets for terrorist attacks.


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