Girl at a well in Ethiopia.
People who have only very little water tend to use it only for drinking and cooking. Other things such as personal hygiene, laundry and dishwashing come second – and sometimes don’t happen at all. Where there is no water, there is no proper sanitation either, so bacteria flourish, and diseases spread easily.
The topic is no longer being neglected internationally. In 2000, the UN adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which included access to safe drinking water and sanitation, and in 2010 it declared these things to be human rights. Animals and plants need water too. When farmers lose their livestock or the yield of a whole season, they lose their most important assets and their livelihood is threatened. Where irrigation is available, people benefit. Water does not only mean life, but wealth too.
It is no surprise that this precious resource has always been the cause of conflicts – and things will probably get worse in the future. Water is said to be something like the new oil: in great demand, but scarce, and thus profitable. In view of the growing world population and climate change, distribution issues are becoming more pressing in many world regions, so tensions are set to escalate, pitting the rich against the poor, manufacturing against agriculture and commercial interests against the common good. The trend towards privatising water is particularly worrisome. Humanity must adapt to the impacts of climate change, distribute resources fairly and ensure sustainability. These issues are of global relevance. They affect people in prosperous countries with no apparent supply bottlenecks too. Wealthy nations exacerbate water scarcity in other places by importing virtual water – the water needed to produce the coffee and other agricultural commodities they consume. Germany’s so-called external water footprint, which measures its water use in foreign countries, is bigger than its internal water footprint, which measures its water use at home.
Agriculture accounts for the greatest use of water – and especially farms of industrial scale do so. Meat production is particular water-intensive. “Third-world products” such as cotton, palm oil or cacao also require a lot of water. Indiscriminate water-use fuels conflicts, for example in the Gaza Strip. It also leads to the salinisation, for instance of the Aral Sea, and destroys the ecological balance of rain forests. In order to rise to the global responsibility, humanity will do well to consider demands the UN has made. They include subsidising more efficient irrigation methods and extensive agriculture. Renewable electricity generation should get preference, moreover, since it requires much less water than nuclear, coal and gas-powered technology. Pesticides and other chemicals should be used sparingly in order to contaminate less groundwater. The international community needs more and better sewage treatment. So far, most wastewater – including from industries – pollutes rivers and oceans untreated. Groundwater resources must be protected. In short, we do not only need a global energy transition, but a water transition as well.
Katja Dombrowski is member of the editorial team of D+C Development and Cooperation / E+Z Entwicklung und Zusammenarbeit.