The Doorstep: The Global Water Crisis, with Susanne Schmeier

Sep 14, 2022 35 min listen

In two years, two-thirds of the world's population may face water shortages that will lead to crises of epic proportions from water refugees to potential armed conflicts over water supply. Yet the global water crisis does not typically get regular press attention. IHE Delft Institute for Water Education's Dr. Susanne Schmeier speaks with Doorstep co-hosts, Nick Gvosdev and Tatiana Serafin about how we can frame water crises discussions and begin to work on solutions.

What trade-offs must be made? Can the United States and United Nations, whose annual meetings begin in New York City next week, do more? How will next year's UN Water Conference set a new agenda?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep podcast. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I am Tatiana Serafin, also a senior fellow here at Carnegie Council, welcoming today Dr. Susanne Schmeier in a little bit to talk to us about the global water crisis, which I have become increasingly interested in and passionate about after experiencing a drought when I was Upstate this summer. After looking into it more, I am so excited that we are going to be talking about this today.

But before we do, Nick, considering some of your work on Twitter, your recent comments about the war and the impact on civilians in the war in Ukraine, and the advances that we are all hearing about Ukraine. I was at a farmer's market this weekend and I was getting fist bumps from some of the people saying, "Go, Ukraine, you can do it," and I thought, Well, that's great. I don't represent Ukraine, but somehow, someway, at a very doorstep level, the advances being made in Ukraine are exciting people after a summer when Ukraine was not in the news.

Can you tell us in short form what are the latest developments? What are you seeing? I loved your question to Putin about what is happening in Russia. What are you seeing? How did this happen?

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: In short, what brings it back to the doorstep and the fist bumps at farmer's markets is, after weeks of hearing about all of this Western aid going to Ukraine people are seeing the results of that, which is not simply that Ukraine is hanging on by its fingernails but in fact has been able to retake territory that was lost after the Russian invasion in February. I think for many people this seemed to validate why Ukraine should be supported, because you are seeing results.

There are several questions moving forward. One is, can Ukraine sustain this? Can it do it in other parts of the country? We are going to have Dr. Schmeier on talking about water, and of course one issue in Ukraine's South is control of the water resources that feed into Crimea and whether we will see a Ukrainian advance there as well. Can Ukraine sustain this in a way that would change the tenor and balance of the war?

Inside of Russia this is bringing up doorstep questions because, yes, sanctions have been imposed on Russia, but the Kremlin was very careful to ensure that the invasion of Ukraine was being done by a relatively small number of forces—local Donbas militias, mercenaries, and the overwhelming number of Russian regular forces drawn from the more peripheral parts of the Russian Federation. They didn't want to have a situation where a lot of people in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Voronezh, and Rostov suddenly have their sons and daughters being drafted and sent to Ukraine, but what we have just seen over the last week calls into question whether Russia can sustain its invasion with a relatively light footprint, and what will be the doorstep impacts there?

The third set of doorstep impacts is: Can Ukraine get this done before the inevitable economic, financial, and energy crisis engulfs Europe this winter? At some point European euros that have been going to support Ukraine are going to be diverted to prop up subsidies for domestic energy crises in Europe, so at some point the West's ability to keep supporting Ukraine may flag. The Russians may be waiting to see whether or not this produces either pressure for a negotiated settlement or that Ukraine can't sustain its forward momentum, so a lot is in play.

Then of course some other recent developments tie into all of this—the resumption of fighting in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan, continued problems in Libya, all of this calling into question whether or not energy for Europe from sources other than Russia is necessarily going to flow to market. A lot of things are in play at this point.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Energy and water scarcity is something that is really important. Let's go to Dr. Schmeier to talk about water now.

Thank you so much, Dr. Schmeier, for joining us today at the Carnegie Council podcast. This is the first podcast of our third season, and we are starting with an important topic, water and the global water crisis.

I was struck by a quote from a recent piece you put out: "In light of various crises the world is facing water typically doesn't make it high on the agenda."

I think you are right. We see headlines when drought happens or Pakistan floods or we are asked to conserve water if something happens in our local area, and then it goes away because we think that we see water everywhere. I am here in New York City next to the Hudson River, and I think: Well, that's a great river. It looks fine to me. But in fact though 70 percent of the world is covered by water, only 3 percent of the water is freshwater, and that is the problem. I wonder if you could help us frame the discrepancy between the water that we see and the water that we use.

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Yes. That is indeed a good observation. We do see a lot of water. Seventy percent of our planet is water. As you said only 3 percent is freshwater, but out of these 3 percent two-thirds of that is actually stored in glaciers or icecaps of the planet, so what is available for human use in rivers, lakes, and groundwater is even less.

On top of that, this very little water that is actually available for human use is distributed very unevenly across the planet. There are regions—you mentioned New York; I am based in the Netherlands—usually known, not last summer, for having a lot of water. There are other regions, arid, semi-arid regions—think about the Middle East, think of the Sahel, and parts of Central Asia—where there is significantly less water available. On top of that, the water that is available is often polluted to an extent that it cannot be used by people directly, and they might not have the treatment facilities available to actually access clean water.

If we compare that relatively limited supply of water and the uneven distribution around the world with the growing needs that people have because of growing populations in most parts of the world but also the economy developing, industries growing, and our demand ever increasing, that of course creates a mismatch that has been happening for a long time already, but with climate change these days it gets increasingly worrisome.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I wanted to also throw out there because you mentioned climate change, everybody talks about carbon footprint—"My carbon footprint is this." Here in the United States the press this summer was saying, "Oh, these celebrities say they are environmentalists, but their carbon footprint, they take these private planes"—but nobody ever talks about, and in view of your comments on scarcity, I would like to talk about the water footprint. You mentioned some of the things that we do to create that footprint, our uses of water. To bring it home to the doorstep, which is what we try to do, to the average person in their home, what is our water footprint and how can this scarcity you are talking about be maintained or contained by our water footprint?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Our water footprint is indeed something that is quite important and that we should all be thinking about, and we do have methods to actually calculate this water footprint. Just to give you an example, when we talk about food, when we talk about what we eat every day, you can imagine that growing food that we directly consume—plants—of course has a much lower water footprint than if we grow plants first, feed cattle with it, and ultimately end up eating the meat in a burger, for example. Eating meat but also the clothes we wear, everything that we use in terms of industrially produced goods, is something where water goes into it that we typically do not see.

On top of that, I think it is important to also think about "virtual water trade." What we mean by that in the water community is water that leaves the area where it originally came from through exported goods such as food. Think about grapes, for example, that are grown in South Africa and are being exported to Europe, although South Africa is much more water-scarce than a lot of parts of Europe, or think about avocados, also a quite water-intensive vegetable that is grown often in water-scarce areas, Central and South America and even Israel, and that we consume in North America or Europe. Thinking about how much water is in what we eat, what we wear, what we consume, and what we use in our everyday lives is definitely a step that everyone can take and think about how to reduce their water footprint and ultimately their water consumption and add their small contribution to improving the world's water situation.

TATIANA SERAFIN: When we talk about the virtual water trade, I think it is important to think about where water is scarce and is not scarce because that discrepancy is the problem that is going to lead—in your research at the Water, Peace and Security partnership you talk a lot about this conflict because of the discrepancy. I would like to touch on that and on your definition of water diplomacy—you mentioned that some journalists are not using that term correctly—so that maybe we can take this to a global perspective to understand the discrepancies in the water supply. This carbon and water footprint is so interesting to me because I think that will help people understand where and how their usage is impacting water in another region entirely.

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Just to add, I think things are quite complex here. We have a water footprint, and the immediate idea that we as consumers would probably have is that we should be buying products from regions where there is no water scarcity, and that would help the overall water crisis.

However, we should not forget that a lot of regions depend highly on the export. Think about cotton exported from Uzbekistan, for example. It is not a country where one should necessarily grow something as water-intensive as cotton given the water scarcity in the region, but if you look at the contribution it has to the gross domestic product of the country and how many people depend on it in terms of jobs, income, livelihoods, and so on things get a little bit more complicated. I think in the long run it is about adapting to the respective water situation but in the short run also keeping these complexities in mind and maybe helping countries also to adapt to crops that are more suitable for their respective water situation.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That tradeoff is an interesting question: What can we do? Since we are the Carnegie Council for Ethics, what are some of the ethical tradeoffs that we should consider? That is one of them, the fact that scarce regions may be producing something that we need. Are there other tradeoffs you can think of that we need to be thinking about from an ethical perspective?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: I can think of many. What would be a good example? A question for me that relates to ethics a lot is the conflict that can potentially be caused by water insecurity, by drought, and by taking water into the picture when we look at conflict.

I am thinking of the Sahel, for example, where we often hear in the news about illicit groups—terrorist groups, Boko Haram—and local conflict in the Inner Niger Delta and Mali, but I think what people tend to forget is that there is quite a big water component in that, not in the simple sense that water scarcity leads to conflict and violence automatically but in the sense that because there is less water available or quite often also because water is available at different or shorter periods during the year conflict emerges between different water users, farmers and herders, for example, that in previous years, when the time when water was available was longer, did not enter into direct conflict over crop land and pasture land, but they do now. Also indirectly these people then have reduced livelihoods and are able to grow less food or have fewer cattle that can graze, which deprives them of their livelihoods and might push them to join illicit groups or terrorist groups simply because there is a lack of livelihood opportunities.

I think when we talk about conflict—that for me is also a question that relates to ethics and how we look at these conflicts but also at how we look, for example, at refugees that often come from these conflict-affected regions and have to make their way elsewhere. When we look at that I think we definitely need to keep the water dimension in mind as well.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I think that is very important because as Tatiana started the conversation water doesn't always seem to be on the top of a list of concerns, particularly for national security, but then when you start digging you find that in many cases conflicts have a water dimension. Either the problem is that water is not in a particular place and that place needs to get it, or the people move to find the water. You mentioned Uzbekistan and the cotton industry. It was different when the Soviet Union existed and could divert water, but now Uzbekistan's water lies not in its own country but in other countries, which may say, "We don't choose to share it with you," or "We're going to charge a price."

We see it with many conflicts—Crimea, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has a water dimension for controlling water access to Crimea; the conflicts in the Middle East; China's conflicts with India and other states in Southeast Asia about control of access to the sources of water. We almost had a war between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dams on the Nile. Can you perhaps talk a bit more about water diplomacy and this idea of water, peace, and security, the notion that the question of access to water and control of water is a driving factor in whether we see peace or conflict in any particular region of the world?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Let me start with water diplomacy in that context with relations between states or international relations over water. Water diplomacy is an approach or is the tool that countries but also international organizations and other actors use to ensure that countries that might be in competition over water—you mentioned Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile, for example—engage in peaceful conflict resolution or even in conflict prevention instead of engaging in conflict or even violence.

We see the conflicts around the world. You mentioned some, but you could add to those also Afghanistan and Iran, for example, you could add the Mekong, even the Lower Mekong without China. There have been conflicts between Laos building dams and Vietnam and Cambodia downstream.

We have these competitive situations, but if we look at the transboundary watercourses around the world—there are more than 310—and in most of them we actually see much more cooperation. Think about the Rhine, the Danube, the Great Lakes between the United States and Canada, the Okavango River in Southern Africa, and many, many more.

Why is that the case? It is because water diplomacy is employed, and water diplomacy is being employed because countries have acknowledged that engaging in conflict with a neighboring state has too many negative effects and has too many costs on their bilateral or regional relations, on trade relations, on cultural exchange, economic exchange, financial exchange, or whatever it might be that links them. So water diplomacy is a tool employed by local but also by foreign policymakers in order to ensure that even if there are tensions they are contained in a way that allows them to peacefully settle their disputes. At the international, transboundary level that typically works. You mentioned Ethiopia and Egypt, yes, it has escalated to an extent that it has not in other basins, but still we have not seen war.

That is quite different, though, if we look at the more local, subnational level, where we do see conflicts. I mentioned the ones between farmers and herders in Mali before, but we see similar conflicts in the Horn of Africa, and we have seen tensions, conflicts, and violent protests over water in Iran, Iraq, and other places. There we indeed see more violence than at the interstate level, of course not only because of water but also because of a lack of effective governance mechanisms, effective dispute-resolution mechanisms, and sometimes even the entire absence of a state.

Think of large areas of the Sahel when the state, the government, is practically not present and has had to leave large areas to these illicit terrorist—or whatever you want to call them—groups. Then there is no means available similar to water diplomacy at the international level that would help the different water users to address their conflicts peacefully. That is where we then see occasional violence, still keeping in mind that overall worldwide we do see much, much more cooperation than conflict at all levels from the individual, interpersonal, and communal all the way to the international simply because we are so linked to each other through the water that we share that in most cases it forces us to cooperate, and that is again water diplomacy.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Which sounds great but going back to your comment it does fall off the big-picture agenda. I think that is a concern, and that is why we wanted very much to speak to you to highlight this.

The thing that got me was that by 2025 two-thirds of the world's population may face water shortages. I thought, Gosh, that's right around the corner. We're almost at 2023.

I don't think people are speaking enough about this idea of water shortage. Currently, yes, there may be haves and have-nots that we have been talking about today, certain areas that are under more stress than others, but I think indeed this statistic makes it clear that every region of the world is going to face this problem. What can regions that might not be feeling it yet do proactively today to avert a further crisis or shortage given these positives that you mention, that there are institutions that do work to conserve and make sure we cooperate well. Is there anything more that we can do proactively to avert further shortages?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Absolutely, and I agree with you that that is definitely needed because the trend we are seeing, in spite of the positive news that I mentioned, is quite negative. There are estimates by the United Nations that if we go not only to 2025 but maybe 2050 that up to 8 billion could be affected by water scarcity for at least one month a year. There are other estimates that say that by 2030, so not that long, there might be around 700 million people displaced because of water scarcity. That will of course also have its effects and repercussions even on countries that themselves might not or not yet face such a crisis. In any case, countries should prepare, whether they will be affected directly or indirectly, and the ones who may be affected less or more indirectly, such as European ones or parts of North America, can then help other countries to adapt.

We can look at it in two dimensions. We have to address the supply and the demand side, and we have to address the more technical side, including the finances we need for that, and the governance side.

When we think about the supply side there is relatively little that we can do given that the overall amount of water that is available is limited. Of course we can speak about desalination, but that is only an option for very small places and for very small use given the huge amount of energy that we need for this technology. But what we can do on the supply side is protect our watersheds, protect our ecosystems from land degradation, from erosion, and from pollution that would negatively affect the availability of the water that is there.

The demand side is where we can actually do much more if we think of how much water is being used where. Agriculture, for example, is the biggest consumer of water worldwide, at 70 percent in global average, but if we think about areas such as Iraq, Iran, and the broader Middle East, their agriculture consumes more than 90 percent of the water, so a very water-scarce region with agriculture consuming way more water than the global average. Clearly here something needs to be done and something can be done in terms of adapting crops but obviously also in terms of irrigation technology and increasing efficiency.

Water-loss reduction is something. There are places like Tehran, for example, where we know that up to a third of the water in the city that is used for urban water supply is lost in pipes because of leakages, because of poor maintenance of the system—partly of course also related to the sanctions but not only. That is what we can do on the demand side.

If we look at the technical versus the governance side, there are a lot of technical solutions available. I mentioned more efficient irrigation technology, wastewater treatment, recharging aquifers, using treated wastewater in agriculture, and so on, but this technology, where we have seen a lot of advances in the last years, also needs to be made available, and typically the countries that suffer the most from water scarcity already or will in the future because of climate change are the countries that have very limited access to technology and lack the financial resources available to actually access that. That is something that all countries, the Global North and the international community together, can tackle. That is definitely something that needs to be done.

Looking at the governance side, it is hardly ever water itself that is the problem, but it is how water is being managed, how water is governed, whether there is an effective legal framework and an effective policy framework for managing water resources, and whether such a framework ensures equity or disadvantages certain groups that might then hold grievances and maybe protest, which could lead to insecurity. All that needs to be addressed, and institutions need to be strengthened.

What we know from research coming out of Oregon State University is that water tends to only lead to conflict if the institutions that exist, the government—local to national to international levels—are not resilient or not adaptive enough to deal with water-related change. If we have well-functioning institutions that can, for example, in times of drought provide support to people, can provide support to farmers to overcome a certain drought period, or can provide the support and capacity building as well to invest in new irrigation technologies or to change crops from the cotton that we mentioned earlier for Uzbekistan to some less water-intensive crop, then countries and individual people find it much easier to adapt to the new situation that we will all be facing.

Of course implementing all of that has been a challenge, remains a challenge, and will probably be even more challenging in the future given that the pressures are increasing.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Your comment that the Global North needs to take the lead—I don't know. On this podcast we have been talking a lot about the pandemic and how the Global North failed to serve with technology and with access and everything you are saying.

I am wondering if you think you see in your research, your work, and your contacts that in fact because of the pandemic lessons were learned on how to transfer technology. If any event happened that showed connectedness of the world and how the haves need to help those who don't, it would be that, and I am wondering if you saw any movement or change especially in the research that you are doing and in the work you are leading on the Water, Peace and Security project.

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: I would totally agree that the pandemic should have shown us how things need to be done differently and how the haves need to help the have-nots, but in the field of water I am not so optimistic. I think we have rather seen the opposite. As the pandemic hit countries of the North were very concerned about their own financial resources. Development aid decreased to some extent or was diverted into pandemic-specific aid, which of course was very much needed, but it has distracted attention from other crises, especially slow-onset crises such as water. While I would totally agree with your observation that the Global North has to do more and that the pandemic has shown why and how that is needed I am not seeing positive effects in the water sector yet.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I mentioned before we started taping that we have the United Nations descending upon New York City starting on the 18th. Since we are talking about what lessons have been learned, what institutions worked and didn't work addressing the global issue—clearly water is a global crisis; we are all interconnected—have you seen, have you worked with, or is there somebody we can look to on this multinational, multigovernmental level such as the United Nations that has been more effective in spreading the word? There is so much information on this topic on the Internet, and yet somehow that is not translating into news stories or policy pronouncements from policymakers that I have seen. Can we look to the United Nations to lead on this as we look forward?

Also, what should we be following if it is not the United Nations? Do you have recommendations for our audience on how to get more information on this issue? Who should they be following? Is there a Greta Thunberg of water?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: No. Unfortunately there is not, although you would think, given how connected water and climate are and given that the climate crisis is actually a water crisis if you think of drought and flood, there should probably be one.

I think the United Nations is definitely one key actor there that does play an important role and should play a probably even more important role. Many, many UN agencies deal with water, drinking water supply, sanitation support—think of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). There are others that deal with the more environmental dimension of water—the UN Environment Programme—and others, but that is of course a little bit of a challenge because there is no single entity, no single UN organization that is in charge of water. It is spread over more than ten different UN agencies. That creates some need for coordination. Let me put it that way.

I think the United Nations has definitely acknowledged the challenge and is engaging much more. In March of 2023 there is going to be the big UN 2023 Water Conference, as it is called, co-led by Tajikistan and the Netherlands together with the UN organizations in charge of water. They will be gathering in New York to discuss what progress has been made when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and especially SDG 6 with its different dimensions on water supply, sanitation, water resources management, and so on. We will hopefully develop recommendations but also gather real commitments from states, and I would say it is about time because the last big water conference the world saw was in 1977.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Really?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Yes. We in the water community tend to take a lot of time—too much time definitely—to gather regularly and move the topic ahead, but I hope the UN 2023 Water Conference next March will be a big push and will provide incentives for countries, even the ones that have been reluctant so far to engage in alleviating the water crisis, to commit in terms of better managing their water resources but also better cooperating with their neighbors over the rivers, lakes, and aquifers that they share.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is wonderful. I am looking forward to hearing more about what happens next year in New York at the United Nations.

What I want to know for our audience here, which is very U.S.-based is: What more can the United States do? I feel like we have not focused on the United States. You talk about technology and finances. Is the United States the leader in water technology and financial investment? Is it someone else? What more can we do here?

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: I think the United States does play an important role when it comes to developing technology, but the leader in water technology or one of the leaders is definitely Israel, simply because of their own situation and the need to adapt to living in a very water-scarce environment. A lot of technology is coming from the United States, and I think the United States can play a role in sharing this technology.

The United States also is an important—not the important, but an important—donor when it comes to supporting water services, water protection, and water management around the world. I think definitely much more can be done there. There are countries such as the Netherlands that are way smaller that are more engaged, so maybe that is a call for the U.S. audience to push their policymakers to engage more in that context. As we started our conversation, everyone individually can think about what water is in the products they consume and how they can maybe change their lifestyle or their consumption patterns.

It is not that the United States is not facing its own water crisis. If we look at the West of the United States, if we look at California, if we look at the Colorado River, the Rio Grande, and others, we do see that there is a huge water crisis as well, so I think there is also a lot for the United States to do domestically, but maybe also then share the lessons that are being learned in addressing the Southwest U.S. water crisis with the rest of the world and the countries that are more in need.

TATIANA SERAFIN: As we enter our midterm elections I certainly hope I hear more about water, and we will certainly continue to talk about it here at The Doorstep. Thank you so much for your time today.

SUSANNE SCHMEIER: Thanks for having me.


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