Third World Centre for Water Management

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Addressing Increasing Complexities of Water Management

It is highly likely that water management practices and processes will change more during the next 20 years compared to the past 2000 years. Traditionally, during the past five decades, factors like population growth and urbanization have driven water requirements. During the next 20 years, forces driving water management are likely to be different. Population growth rates all over the world have steadily declined in recent years, and in many developed countries, total populations are actually declining. In about half a century, for the first time in human history, the global population is expected to stabilize. For the first time in human history, the debate on the global birth rate is now over when, and not whether, it will fall below the replacement level. Urbanization will continue in the developing world, but a new set of overarching forces are likely to arise in the future, on which the water profession will have limited or no contril, and which has mostly been neglected thus far. Among these new complexities will be the following:

  • Increasing ruralisation – While a main focus has been on urbanization, many developing countries are witnessing exploding ruralisation. From Mexico to Morocco, the numbers of rural settlements of less than 2500 inhabitants have increased very rapidly during the past 20 years. Providing water supply, sanitation and other support facilities to these rural settlements will be a very difficult and expensive task. This is an issue on which not even a single country or major international institution has addressed so far, let alone make a serious attempt to find solutions.
  • Neglect of mid-size cities – While the global system has focused its attention on megacities (over five million people), the Centre’s work indicates that such cities have considerable economic and political power, and they will manage to muddle through the problems. The main water problems of the future will probably arise in small-to-medium size urban areas (50,000-500,000 population) of the developing world, which neither have economic and political power, nor management and technical expertise to solve their water-related problems.
  • Globalisation – Increasing globalisation, especially through free trade of industrial and agricultural products, will radically alter water requirements and use patterns, and thus water quality, in many countries of the world. If free trade in agricultural products is allowed between the three NAFTA countries, it will result in tectonic revolution in water use and availability, as well as in water quality conditions. Globalisation will affect the water sector radically in many countries, ranging from China to the United States, and Bangladesh to Burkina Fasso, through a veriety of pathways, most of which are now presently not properly understood. These issues were specifically analysed at a workshop in Costa Rica in April 2005.
  • Information and communication revolution – The massive information and communication revolution of the recent years has been affecting the water sector, but these impacts have basically been neglected thus far. Moore’s Law is likely to be valid for at least another 10 years, and possibly for much longer. This will ensure further continuation of the information and communication revolution at a rapid pace. All these developments will affect the water sector significantly, but the various pathways through which these impacts will appear are also unknown. It is thus imperative that the implications of this revolution be carefully assessed to ensure that the potential future benefits can be maximized, and that this revolution can be used to improve water use and management practices for the humanity as a whole.
  • Technological developments – Nearly all the existing analyses of global water crises assumes that technology will remain mostly static, or at best improve incrementally in the foreseeable future, inspite of the fact that major technological developments are expected during the next 20 years. Many of these developments will come from outside the water sector, but these will have major impacts on water requirement, availability and use. For example, the cost of desalination of seawater has come down radically during the past 5 years to about 45 U.S. cents per m3. Biotechnology is likely to significantly modify the water landscape through the development of drought- and pest-resistant crops, improved crop yields and water treatment processes. Technology advances with time. Also, in 1961, the average cereal yield in Asia was 930 kg/ha. If the same yield pattern had continued, nearly 600 million ha of additional land of the same quality would have had to be cultivated to equal the total 1997 cereal harvest. The water requirements would have been significantly higher as well. Technological developments of the future thus need to be considered very carefully in terms of their potential impacts on water management: business as usual is not a plausible future scenario.

The factors noted above, as well as other issues will radically change water availability, use and demand patterns and management practices during the next two decades. The Centre is currently working on a series of future-oriented analyses which are likely to affect the water sector significantly in the future.

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