Third World Centre for Water Management


Water, environment and development

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe and Asit K. Biswas



China Daily | June 5, 2013 

As we mark the World Environment Day (June 5), it would be pertinent to reflect on why a serious issue like water and its close interrelationship with the environment has for all practical purposes disappeared from the global political agenda.

The increasing demand for water, coupled with poor management practices over decades, has already caused a lot of damage to the environment. Take the Aral Sea for example. During the first half of the 20th century, it was the world’s fourth-largest inland water body with a surface area of about 68,000 square kilometers, equivalent to more than half the area of England.

In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union government decided to divert the waters of the two major rivers, Amu Darya and Syr Darya, which fed the Aral Sea to irrigate the arid areas of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (which then were part of the Soviet Union). The Karakum Canal, whose construction was completed in 1967, diverted the waters of the Amu Darya to irrigate the perennially dry areas of nearly 3 million hectares primarily to grow cotton. Although irrigation was successful, it sounded the death knell for the Aral Sea. The Amu Darya, which has been completely cut off from the Aral Sea, now ends in a dam some 110 km away.

The Aral Sea started to shrink as soon as the water diversion started. Its surface area has reduced to one-fourth of its original size and its water volume has diminished by 90 percent. The Aral Sea used to produce more than 40,000 tons of fish a year, but by the early 1980s the fishing industry had collapsed, dealing a deadly blow to the communities that depended on it. By the late 1980s, because of the serious reduction in river flows, the sea split into two distinct water bodies, North and South Aral. The South Aral Sea split further into eastern and western sections. Moreover, with no fresh water coming in, salinity started to increase and all the 24 species of native fish species of the sea disappeared.

As the Aral Sea shrank, it left behind a highly saline bed that was contaminated with pesticide and fertilizer runoffs spanning decades, leading to a serious public health hazard. As a result, infant mortality became one of the highest in the Soviet Union and the incidence of cancer and respiratory diseases increased significantly.

The rising demand for water, continuing poor management practices and erratic rainfall patterns are causing water crises across the world. For example, the first official national river census of China said the country had 22,909 rivers, each with a catchment area of at least 100 sq km, at the end of 2011. This is less than half of the more than 50,000 rivers estimated by the government in the 1990s. The official explanation for this shortfall is mainly the “inaccurate estimate of the past, as well as climate change, (and) water and soil loss”. This could explain why some of the rivers have disappeared, but the primary causes are likely to be declining groundwater and river flow levels, widespread deforestation and increasing withdrawal of water from water bodies.

The Aral Sea story and China’s disappearing rivers are different symptoms of two important diseases: poor water management and focus on short-term economic benefits as opposed to the longer-term view of closely linking water with the environment.
The Aral Sea disaster should have been foreseen. Growing cotton, wheat and other crops in the perennial arid steppes by diverting the water of the two main rivers of the region can never be a sustainable proposition. Given the demise of the Aral Sea, the desert boom cannot be justified in economic, social or environmental terms.

Fortunately, we have also seen some cases of good understanding of the interrelationship between water and the environment. Much of Australia, for example, faced unprecedented droughts between April 1997 and March 2010. To tackle the serious water shortage over a prolonged period, the Australian government set up the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, through the Water Act of 2007, to hold and manage water assets purchased from the water market or acquired as water savings from government-financed infrastructure upgrades. Its objective is to restore and protect environmental assets in the Murray-Darling Basin, which is spread over 1,059,000 sq km, an area slightly larger than the combined area of France and Germany.

By the end of March 2013, the new entity held water assets with a long-term average annual yield of more 1,100 giga-liters, equivalent to about 8 percent of the water previously available for consumption in the basin. During the past five years, the CEWH has delivered 2,250 giga-liters of water to the rivers, wetlands and flood plains in the Murray-Darling Basin. And this diversion of water has not harmed agricultural production in the basin because of efficient water management.

The benefits of this diversion have been substantial. It has helped sustain wetlands, and support native birds and plants through improved water quality, volume and duration of flows. It has improved fish breeding and the export of salt and nutrients out of the basin. It has also connected rivers, wetlands and floodplains to improve habitats for breeding and migration of animals and birds. Besides, it has improved the quality of water for irrigation and human use, and increased opportunities for tourism.

The Australian case shows we already have sufficient knowledge of the intricate interrelationship between water and the environment. We also know that the problems are solvable and we often have the means to solve them. What we lack is the political will and commitment to do so.

For at least the past 35 years we have known that the environment and development are two sides of the same coin. Development can never be sustainable unless environmental issues are given priority. Equally, the environment cannot be protected without development. Until and unless this symbiotic relationship is explicitly considered, we are unlikely to have sustainable development in any area, including water.

This consideration is especially important for a country like China, which has witnessed breakneck economic growth but has not laid enough emphasis on environmental protection. China faces the enormous challenge of combating existing air, water and soil pollution, and unless the trend is reversed, it will face even bigger environmental challenges in the coming years.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe is the chairman of the board of Nestl S.A., Vevey, Switzerland, and the chairman of the 2030 Water Resources Group. Asit K. Biswas is a distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management.


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