Water Security in a Resource-Strained World: Part 1 of 5: The Basic Facts

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Posted by: Christopher L. Overcash, PE, BCEE, LEED AP, ENV SP

For any society, one of the basic needs for security is access to a clean and sustainable source of water. As we move through the 21st century, meeting this simple necessity is expected to become more and more of a challenge. For the 55th Annual U.S. Naval Academy Foreign Affairs Conference, held in April 2015, the topic of Sustainability and Sovereignty: Global Security in a Resource-Strained World paid special attention to the question of access to water around the world. I was asked to serve as the water resources expert for a panel discussion on day one of the three-day conference. This conference brings Naval Midshipmen and students from universities around the world together to discuss the chosen topic with experts in the field.

The topic of water security as discussed at the conference is based on societal security. Water security in this sense is defined as the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks for a society. To fully comprehend the aspects of water security in the world today, there are several points to understand:

Water is the Basis of Security. As we all know, water is a basic need of humanity and all life on earth. The human body is 65% water after all. It is also the main factor in effective sanitation, the production of food and the production of energy. Therefore, as noted above, access to clean water is essentially the basis of security of all societies on earth.

To expand on this theme, the long-term security of a society is based then on a sustainable supply of water. ‘Sustainable’ is a key word these days for many different aspects of the human endeavor. A concise definition of ‘sustainable’ is that the needs of the present are being met without compromising the ability of the future to meet their needs.

The Food – Water – Energy Nexus. The next point to understand is that of the food-water-energy nexus. A ‘nexus’ is by definition a connection or series of connections linking two or more things. The nexus between all three of these items is that each one is controlled by the amount of total water resources available. Specifically, with the given amount of water available, it can be used for water supply, production of food, or the production of energy. Today in the world the balance of this nexus is about 70% toward food production and agriculture, 16% percent is used for energy production while 14% is used for water supply. This balance is expected to stay relatively constant in the next 15 years.

This nexus of food, water and energy is something that is not found when looking at the historical context or when reflecting on the strategic situation that prevailed in the past. The reason for this is simple. The world in which we now live is much different than any that humanity has existed in to this point. The nexus is caused by the resource constraints now being imposed on humanity by the change in world human population. A review of human population growth shows the rapidity in which, over the past century especially, population has increased. Currently the world population is just over 7 billion, and it is expected to reach 8 billion around 2030. This population growth, then, has helped to create the nexus we now see between water, food and energy. These resources are now tied inextricably together by the newly constrained amount of available water. This situation simply did not exist in previous generations on a global basis but has become and will become even more important as we move into the future.

Water Scarcity. That brings us to the third point, that of water scarcity. There is plenty of water on the earth; however, only 2.5% of it is in the form of freshwater. The remainder is seawater. However, this is further complicated because much of that 2.5% is inaccessible as it is either in glaciers, ground water or contaminated and not usable. This situation contributes to the amount of the world population, which is living under water stressed and scarce conditions. The definition of a water stressed condition is that there is less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per person per year. Water scarce conditions are defined as areas where there is less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year. By comparison, the amount available in the U.S. in 2012 was about 2,500 cubic meters per person per year.

Currently, in 2015, about one-third of the world lives under water stressed conditions, and this is expected to increase to two-thirds of the world population by 2030. When discussing water scarcity there are two differing types: physical and economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity exists in arid regions such as the American Southwest. Economic water scarcity exists in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa where there are limited capital resources to develop the water resources that are available.