Third World Centre for Water Management


State of World’s Waters

It is now widely accepted that the world will face a major water crisis in the coming decades because of increasing physical scarcities in numerous countries. Many international organisations have published maps in recent years, all somewhat similar, which show that more and more countries of the world will become water-stressed because of increasing scarcities.

It is high time to review critically the reliability of such forecasts for several reasons. First, the information base on which such forecasts and maps are based is highly unreliable. For many major countries, like India and China, some estimates of water availability and use are currently available, but no one has any clear idea about the reliability and usefulness of such national statistics. It is thus impossible to get any reliable picture of the global and regional water situations, which are based on the aggregation of such incomplete and unreliable national data sets.

Second, water abstraction is at present widely used as a proxy for water use. Methodologically, this of course is fundamentally wrong. Unlike oil, water is a reusable resource, which can be used and reused many times. For example, some scientists have pointed out that each drop of the Colorado River water is currently used 6-7 times before it reaches the sea. Globally water is being increasingly reused, both formally and informally, and all the indications are that the extent of reuse in all countries will accelerate further in the coming decades. Accordingly, the current practice of using water abstraction as a proxy for water use is already significantly erroneous. In 10-20 years, when reuse becomes even more extensive, this practice of using water abstraction data as a proxy for total water available would become virtually meaningless.

Currently, no reasonable estimates exist for reuse of water, even at the national levels, let alone for the world as a whole. Some data exist only for a very few developed countries like Japan. Since the water profession has not considered reuse as an important factor in global water availability and use considerations, all the existing forecasts are highly suspect.

The current estimates of the future global water requirements are likely to prove to be far too high, and thus would most probably have to be revised significantly downwards during the next decade. Simultaneously, the amount of water that is available for use at present is seriously underestimated because of several reasons: reuse and recycling are ignored; estimates of groundwater availability have to be revised upwards; and technological advances are making costs of desalination and new non-conventional sources more and more attractive. Because of the upward adjustments in water availability and downward revisions in requirements, one can now be cautiously optimistic of the global water future.

An important reason which could contribute to a water crisis could be due to continuous water quality deterioration. Globally, water quality is receiving inadequate attention, even though it has already become a critical issue. While global data on water quantity is poor, it is virtually non-existent for water quality. Even for major developed countries like the United States or Japan, a reliable picture of national water quality situation currently simply does not exist. For developing countries and for countries in transition, existing frameworks and networks for water quality monitoring are highly deficient, adequate expertise on water quality management simply does not exist, and laboratories for water quality assessments suffer very seriously from poor quality control and quality assurance practices. Furthermore, senior water policy-makers in most developing countries become interested in quality aspects primarily when there are major local crises due to political and /or media interventions. Sadly, for all practical purposes, water quality is still receiving only lip service from the water professionals, most senior bureaucrats and politicians of developing countries and countries in transition.

Not surprisingly, because of the above deficiencies, water quality problems are becoming increasingly serious in all developing countries. For example, nearly all surface water bodies within and near urban industrial centres are now highly polluted. While data on the existing groundwater quality are extremely poor, it is highly likely that groundwater is also getting increasingly contaminated near centres of population.

Because of poor and unreliable water quality data, we now have an incorrect picture of the existing water quality conditions for most of the world. As a general rule, in developing countries, the official pictures of water quality situations are mostly rosier than the current conditions warrant. Such optimistic statements are often repeated by international institutions, which simply adds to a false sense of security.

Absence of good data and information means that many of the currently accepted wisdoms in the water sector need to be reassessed. Furthermore, some of the current problem identifications may be wide of the mark because the data used may not be reliable, or data required are simply not available or accessible. If the problem identifications are not accurate, their solutions cannot be correct either.

The quality and extent of data available in most parts of the world at present do not allow us to assess, analyse and evaluate the degrees and extents of many global and/or regional water problems. Thus, when the World Commission on Water, started its work, very soon it became clear that the current data availability is a serious constraint to conduct proper global water policy dialogues. Furthermore, in some instances, data may have been collected, but they may not be accessible.

Faced with these constraints, the Third World Centre for Water Management initiated a project on the assessment of freshwater-related issues in certain major countries of the world. The study considered issues like water availability (quantity and quality), uses, demands, impacts on environment and health and other related issues.

Unlike earlier assessments, these studies were not carried out by bureaucrats in international organisations with limited knowledge of national water situations, but by knowledgeable water experts from the countries selected.

Based on the studies carried out, several definitive books on the state of the waters of specific countries have been published. Among these books are Water Resources of North America, which assesses the water situations of Canada, United States and Mexico, Springer Verlag, 2003; State of Mexico’s Water (Available only in Spanish), Miguel Angel Porrúa, 2003; Water Resources of the Indian Subcontinent, Oxford University Press, 2009, this book analyse the situation in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. For more information visit the Publications Section. National analyses of countries like Argentina, Chile, China and Egypt can be seen also in Publications on Line of this website.

The Centre believes that these studies will give the water professionals a good platform from which the current problems in the countries concerned can properly be assessed, and reliable forecasts can be made of the potential water and water-related problems of the future. It would also enable water professionals to formulate and implement realistic and cost-effective solutions.

Continue Reading

View All Results »