Seeking fresh water in times of climate change crisis

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“Water is a far more pressing problem than climate
change. Even if climate wouldn’t change, we have
a water problem and this water problem is much
more urgent…..”
Peter Brabeck

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AT the dawn of the 21st century, it was touted that 2001 marks the first year of the century of water. The idea, however, was overtaken by dramatic changes in climate throughout the world that many thought climate is the biggest problem and nothing else matters. Thus, in the meantime, the looming global water shortage got far less attention than global warming.

According to the United Nations, one reason water receives less attention is that unlike global warming, there is no such thing as a global water crisis. Instead, there are a series of regional predicaments in a world where the distribution of water is so lopsided that 60 percent of it is found in just nine countries including Brazil, the US and Canada.

As a chemical compound, nothing could be simpler than water. Two atoms of hydrogen joined to one of oxygen equals water. And, there is no shortage of water on planet Earth, which is covered by water but more than 97 percent is salty. The shortage is of fresh water to grow crops, drinking and sanitation water for households and to cool power plants.
In the past, military conflict over water rights was a grave national security issue between some countries: Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile; Botswana and Namibia over the Okavango; Israel, Palestine and Jordan over the Jordan River, to mention a few.

Water from rivers in those countries cross political boundaries with the concomitant boundary issue. Be that as it may, the situation created a natural interdependence between countries in sharing the water resource, drawing people to work together on the water availability aspect even when countries were officially at war.

Perhaps, “water wars” were averted at that time due to the changing perception of the concept of permanent sovereignty over natural resources in favor of functional sovereignty or equitable utilization of transboundary shared resources. But in the light of the recent changed political and security environment, could peaceful negotiation over water issues still hold on for a much longer time?

Figure out the following: (i) China’s damming the source of water of the Mekong River has sparked serious concern among countries downstream namely Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; (ii) India, China and Pakistan see rising tensions over shared water resources to boost production to keep up with their huge and expanding populations; (iii) A growing sense of alarm in Central Asia over the prospect that poor but glacier-heavy nations (Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan) may one day restrict the flow of water to their parched but oil-rich neighbors (Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan); (iv) Ultimate peace between Pakistan and India may hinge as much on water as on nuclear weapons for the two countries must share the glacier-dependent Indus.

The limited supply of freshwater must meet the needs of a human population that has tripled in the last century and continues to grow at almost 80 million every year. Right now, there is a torrent of water-related news concerning the dry spell brought about by the drought effect of El Niño, the declaration of state of calamity in specified areas due to lack of adequate water supply and a decline in agricultural production on account of scarcity of water for agriculture.

Based on numerous studies, including those done by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and confirmed by a UNICEF-WHO report, 8.4 million Filipinos have no access to clean drinking water. The major reason for freshwater scarcity in the Philippines is pollution from industries, households, tourism sites and agricultural areas. Industries use a wide range of chemicals, many of which are highly toxic and find their way to natural water systems. Wastewater from households follow the same route to natural water channels like run-offs of agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.

A UNDP report further mentioned that the Metro Manila main underground aquifer is so over pumped that groundwater levels have considerably dropped to critical levels. This has induced saline water to encroach into coastal zones and threaten Marikina Valley and places along the Laguna Lake region. Once again, water rationing plans are on board in Metro manila.

Even the Rainwater Collection Facilities and Spring Water Protection Law (1989), which mandates construction of water wells, rainwater collectors, development of springs, rehabilitation of existing water wells in all barangays in the Philippines, remains in the books, largely unimplemented.

The solution to water scarcity is largely in the hands of governments because it requires policies such as better and effective regulation of groundwater, irrigation and more intelligent use of wastewater. Among Asean countries, Thailand adopted a policy to minimize use of water by not growing off-season rice as a response to the gravity of the drought situation. Water has to be conserved for household consumption. Farmers switched to drought-resistant crops such as beans or raising livestock. Others resorted to raising poultry or farming shallow-water fish in baskets. Many rice farmers have also joined government-sponsored employment schemes such as working on irrigation canal dredging projects, which generate more than 40,000 jobs nationwide.

With the recent formal signing at the UN Headquarters in New York by 171 countries of the Paris Agreement on reduction of greenhouse gas emission, water scarcity has “come of age” as a forefront issue. As countries actively pursue major actions like a shift to renewable energy sources (solar, wind, biomass, hydropower, etc.) to stop the devastating impacts of climate change, it is now the time for action to set the pathway that will lead to a far-reaching effort to meet the challenges posed by the most precious but finite resource on Earth – fresh water.

Ambassador Amado Tolentino, Jr. continues with his engagement as a member of the Asociacion Internacional de Derecho de Aguas (Rome).

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