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Regional themes > Environment and climate change Last update: 2008-12-17  

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On the verge of a new water scarcity:
A call for good governance and human ingenuity

Falkenmark, M., A. Berntell, A. Jägerskog, J. Lundqvist, M. Matz and H. Tropp

Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)


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Is physical water scarcity an overlooked problem?

The 2006 Human Development Report, “Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Crisis,” (United Nations Development Programme 2006) considered water scarcity from two points of view: (1) as a crisis arising from a lack of services that provide safe water and (2) as a crisis caused by scarce water resources. It concluded that the world’s water crisis is not related to the physical availability of water, but to unbalanced power relations, poverty and related inequalities.

The focus now being placed on the importance of governance makes clear the importance of issues such as unfair power structures, and weakly defined roles, rights and responsibilities. These, it is felt, exacerbate natural water scarcity. This way of thinking has been useful in that it has increased our understanding of the need to manage demand as well as to increase supply.

However, while governance remains a key challenge, we also need to better understand the issue of ‘water crowding’ – as increasing pressure is being placed on finite, erratically available and vulnerable water resources. Recognising this is the key to proper policy formulation.

Rather than addressing management/governance problems, many countries still instinctively reach for supply-side solutions such as desalination or the use of reservoirs and other large-scale infrastructure. Such an approach is often the most politically feasible option within the context of a country or region’s water problems.

In certain situations, supply-oriented approaches are of course needed. However, the sensible approach to greater physical water scarcity is to adopt a range of demand-management measures before undertaking supply-side solutions. Examples of such management measures would include decreasing water losses in systems, reconsidering the volumes of water allocated to agriculture, and reducing water losses from soils.

The World Bank is presently raising people’s awareness of the increasing levels of water scarcity being seen in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region (World Bank 2007). This problem will only worsen as competition for limited or degraded resources intensifies. In fact, up to two-thirds of the world’s population will be affected by water scarcity over the next few decades (Rijs-berman 2006). But, improved water governance and demand management could effectively address many of the water scarcity problems faced by various regions – including MENA.

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