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Blue Gold: A Looming Global Water Crisis? Dr. Julia Brown Department of Geography University of Portsmouth. Overview. 1. Fresh Water Resources. Fresh water as a important resource. Properties of water and different uses. 2. The World Water Crisis? Assess the evidence:

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Blue Gold:

A Looming Global Water Crisis?

Dr. Julia Brown

Department of Geography

University of Portsmouth.


1. Fresh Water Resources.

  • Fresh water as a important resource.
  • Properties of water and different uses.

2. The World Water Crisis?

Assess the evidence:

  • What are the driving forces?
  • How do we conceive our true water use (water foot-printing/virtual water)?
  • Wars of the future?? Blue-gold??

3. Water as a Societal Lens.

part 1 fresh water resources
Part 1. Fresh Water Resources
  • Water is a fundamental resource for sustaining all life.
  • It has many potential and also competing uses.

Chair of the Global Water Partnership reminds us:

“Water is an integral part of the lives and livelihoods of all of us. Our health, our food, our energy security and our environments all depend on investments in water resources management”. (2009).

there are many uses of water social economic environmental
There are many uses of water: social, economic & environmental

1. Social:

  • Drinking, washing and sanitation – essential for health.

Jay-Z videoclip

Lack of water can bring shame and loss of dignity.

Some people have to collect water.

social aspects of water use
Social aspects of water use
  • World Without Water film.


  • No access to running water.
  • 1 mile to collect from an unreliable well.
  • Health implications of untreated water.
  • Social stigma of not washing.
  • Do you have experience of no running water?
  • Water is heavy, expensive and cold!
  • No flushing loos…..
social aspects of water use1
Social aspects of water use


  • Many originated in arid areas.
  • Water is symbolicof purifying.
  • Christianity – christenings; baptisms; holy water.
2 environmental needs for water eg ecological functioning aquatic life
2. Environmental needs for watereg. ecological functioning, aquatic life.
  • Water makes up 60-70% (by weight) of all living organisms.
  • Essential for photosynthesis, and therefore, ultimately, food.
3 economic l arge scale economic activities
3. Economic: large-scale economic activities
  • Irrigated agriculture.
  • Manufacturing and industry (e.g. cooling power stations).
  • Hydroelectric power generation (HEP).
  • Fifth of the world’s electricity – renewable source.
limited fresh water supplies
Limited Fresh Water Supplies

Approximately 1385 million cubic kilometres of water are available on earth.

97% of the water is salt water that can be found mainly in oceans.

Only 2.6% is fresh water that can be used by plants, animals and humans. However, because it is centred in icecaps or nearly 90% of this freshwater is not readily available, in underground groundwater systems.

This leaves just0.014%of the total world’s water supply which can be used for drinking water production.

1 water differs from other resources has particular management challenges
1. Water differs from other resources, & has particular management challenges

Water flows.

Water crosses political and international boundaries eg the R. Danube crosses through 17 countries.

3. Many rivers are international rivers.


3. Navigable

Thames, London

Important for trade in many areas

River Rhine

4 rivers can be solvents of chemicals and carriers of materials waste
4. Rivers can be solvents of chemicals and carriers of materials & waste

In 1986, a fire at Sandoz chemical factory,

Switzerland, saw 30 tons toxic chemicals washed into the River Rhine….turning it red.

Waste: plastics, debris & human waste.

5 water can be subtractable
5. Water can be ‘Subtractable’
  • ElinorOstrom (2005, p79) defines a common-pool resource, such as a lake, a river, an irrigation system:

“One person’s consumption of resource units, such as water, fish, or trees, removes units from what is available to others”.

  • If water is used for irrigation (or cooling in power stations), it cannot be used for another purpose…..

because not all the water will return back into the system, or in a similar state.

6 emotive
6. Emotive

Particularly in non-western societies:

  • Maori (New Zealand) culture , it has a spiritual value.
  • In many African societies, water is seen as ‘god given’.
  • In Hindu mythology, rivers are sacred.

In classical mythology, water has been imbued with spiritual qualities - water is represented as a ‘minor’ deity: ‘naiades’ or ‘nymphs’ who inhabit rivers and streams.

Because it is vital for life, water has been imbued with spiritual qualities.

too much water is destructive and can be life threatening
Too much water is destructive and can be life threatening.

UK floods summer 2007: many families in Hull are still in temporary accommodation.

too little water can be equally devastating
Too little water can be equally devastating
  • 2006 - Australian drought: once in a thousand year severity.
  • Farming in Murray-Darling basin (72% of Australia’s farm and pasture land)- production decreased by 25%.
  • Water restrictions were in place. Many farms went out of business due to no water.
  • Extremes of shortage and excess are occurring with increasing frequency in many parts of the world (e.g. South Africa)…climate change????

Recent January 2011 Australia floods

“If you play with water, the water will win and you will come off worse”

uk flooding
UK Flooding
  • Implications as to where to build houses.
  • How to protect houses from floods…warning systems?
  • Insurance.
water is a renewable resource
Water is a Renewable Resource.
  • However, it is FINITE and exhaustible.
  • Attempts have been made to increase supplies via desalinisation (Middle East and Malta…..but it requires huge amounts of electricity……….
  • ‘Cloud seeding’ has had some success.

“Naturally available water has limits” Agnew and Anderson, 1992.

water is a renewable resource1
Water is a Renewable Resource.
  • Water is FINITE and exhaustible.
  • Fresh water supplies are relatively fixed.
  • DEMAND has increased in relation to supply: reducing per capita availability.
increasing demand for water
Increasing demand for water
  • Demographic change: in the last 70 years, the world’s population has tripled.
  • Population has changed from predominately rural, to a balance of urban/rural.
  • Population increase coincides with a six-fold increase in water withdrawals.
  • 40-fold increase in population in the last 300 years (half of this increase since 1950).

Distribution of demand

  • Increase demand in all regions, especially Asia and Latin America.
  • Developed countries still have the highest demand.
  • Causes:
  • Population growth (7.0 billion presently, 8.7 billion 2025).
  • Industrialisation and urbanisation: greater per capita water consumption.
part 2 evidence of a world water crisis
Part 2: Evidence of a World Water Crisis
  • Postel (1992) and Gleick (1993) present considerable evidence of the degradation of water (including groundwater) through pollution:
    • industrial processes,
    • chemical fertilizers
    • human waste
  • Pollution further reduces available supplies

“For much of the world, atlases no longer tell the truth. Today, dozens of the planet's greatest rivers run dry long before they reach the sea. They include:

    • the Nile in Egypt;
    • the Yellow River in China;
    • the Indus in Pakistan;
    • the Rio Grande and Colorado in the US;
    • the ancient Oxus that once poured into the Aral Sea in Central Asia;
    • the Murray in Australia;
    • the Jordan in the Middle East, which is emptied before it can even reach the country that bears its name.
  • The dire state of such rivers is the most visible sign of a profound crisis in how the world uses its water - a crisis that reflects water's new place as one of the most important and threatened commodities.
  • It's a situation that could herald a world in which wars are fought over water”.

R. Oxus once poured into the Aral Sea in Central Asia. Cotton production was very important, esp. in Uzbekistan, but cotton is a thirsty crop.

Now, boats are stranded bydrought in the Aral Sea.

water demand in developing countries
Water Demand in Developing Countries.
  • Rising demand is most acute in developing countries.
  • Industrial growth, coupled with lack of water-saving technology (often basic irrigation) or demand management (e.g. water pricing to encourage efficient use of water) has led to high consumption.
  • Agricultural sector places a very high demand on water ….surprising??

Consumption(withdrawals minus return flows & evaporation).

Without irrigation, agriculture would not be possible in many parts of the world.

agricultural water demand
Agricultural water demand.
  • For domestic uses, people use approximately 30 - 300 litres of water per person per day
  • To grow their daily food needs, people require 3,000 litres of water per person per day (FAO 2003)
  • Increasing demand for a Western-style, meat-based diet in developing countries requires livestock feed (cereals) which requires irrigation

Cubic meters of water/kg (av)Beef (grain fed) 15 or moreFresh lamb 10Fresh poultry 3.5-6Cereals 0.6-2.0Soybeans 1-2Palm oil 2Pulses, roots 1

& tubers

virtual water and water footprinting
Virtual Water and Water FootPrinting
  • “Water is probably one of the most precious resources and vital for everyone’s everyday life. Despite this obvious fact, people use large amounts of water: drinking, cooking and washing, but even more for producing things such as food, paper, cotton clothes, and almost every other physical product.
  • The water footprint of a person, company or nation is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce the commodities, goods and services consumed by the person, company or nation.
  • The idea of the water footprint is quite similar to the ecological footprint, but focussing on the use of water.”
  • Increasing abstraction of water.
  • Renewable resource becoming a finite resource.
  • Increasing evidence of water scarcity becoming a global problem.
  • Potential for water wars?

eg. Middle East – Lebanon, Israel and Hasbani River



  • Definition of scarcity
  • Measure in terms of water availability per person

- physical scarcity.

  • Economic water scarcity: resources are sufficient but investment is needed in storage and transport (25% minimum increase in investment)

Around 40% of world’s population will experience water scarcity by 2025

36 countries today experience water scarcity, likely to be 46 by 2025.

Eg. Middle East, north and central Africa.

a global water crisis
A global water crisis?
  • Predictions of a global water crisis threatening humanity in the 21st century loom large in the literature:
    • Gelick (1993, 1993);
    • Postel (1992),
    • World Development Movement, UNDP (2003),
    • 2000 Second World Water Forum.
  • In 2000, an estimated one fifth (1.1 billion) of the world’s population lacked access to safe drinking water, twice that of water-borne sanitation.
  • 3 million died in 2002 from diarrhoea and malaria, which originate from poor quality drinking water. 90% of these were children under five.
  • 1.6 million lives could be saved each year by providing safe drinking water – poverty and lack of sanitation are inextricably linked.
the enormity of the crisis
The enormity of the crisis.
  • “At any one time, half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by patients suffering from water-borne diseases.
  • Every week an estimated 42,000 people die from diseases related to low quality drinking water and lack of sanitation. Over 90 per cent of them occur in children under the age of 5. WHO/UNICEF, 2005
  • Two of the water-related diseases, diarrhoea and malaria, ranked 3rd and 4th place in the cause of death among children under 5 years old, accounting for 17 % and 8 % respectively of all deaths. WHO, 2005
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, a baby’s chance of dying from diarrhoea is almost 520 times that in Europe or the United States.WHO/UNICEF, 2005
water wars
Water Wars?
  • Much debate over ‘water wars’:

Eg. Middle East – Lebanon, Israel and Hasbani River

  • Other factors contribute towards hostility between countries.
  • Likelihood of water wars inevitably will increase as demand

increases exceed supply.

  • However, potential for conflict will involve external relations / intervention: role of US / UN important as mediators or power brokers.
  • Local history and politics are crucial in determining whether disputes can be resolved locally.
  • Local disputes lead to population unrest, disturbance, resentment, militias, terrorism…
gender dimension
Gender dimension.
  • Collecting water is done mainly by women and girls – when shortages occur, they increasingly walk further.
  • WHO research shows an average 3 hours a day are spent collecting water
  • This impacts on female education.
  • Jay-Z film….
what is being done
What is being done?
  • Prompted the Millennium Development Goals for halving “by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”, UNDP (2003).
  • Core message: unless radical changes are made to the way we view water, the global outlook is gloomy.
  • World Water Day: March 22 2008.
  • 2008 named International Year of Sanitation… series of events.
  • Jay-Z: MTV and UN collaboration to raise awareness.
countervailing literature arguments against scarcity and an imminent global crisis
Countervailing Literature – arguments against scarcity and an imminent global crisis
  • Swyngedouw (2004:47): “discursive production of ‘scarcity’”.
  • Kaïka (1999, 2003a) – discursive build-up of particular water narratives serve specific political and economic objectives and policies.
  • “A climate of actual, pending, or imagined water crisis serves not only to instigate further investment in the expansion of the water-supply side…but also fuels and underpins drives towards commodification”. Swyngedouw (2004:47).
  • “Except under specific conditions: there is no absolute scarcity of water, but rather that access to water is socially unevenly distributed”.
part 3 water as a societal lens
Part 3. Water as a Societal Lens.
  • Hydrological cycle is essentially a hydro-social cycle (Swyngedouw, Kaïka, & Castrol 2002).
  • C.S. Lewis: “What we call man’s power over nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with nature as its instrument” .

(The Abolition of Man, 1947).

water power money
Water, Power & Money

Robert. F. Kennedy Jr. “We are witnessing something unprecedented: Water no longer flows downhill. It flows towards money.”

Who controls water into LA – controls the city…..

Privatisation of water in the UK.

Multinationals in Latin America and Africa.

power water and money exploring the nexus
Power, Water and Money: Exploring the Nexus.
  • “It is plainly extraordinary – and something requiring explanation as well – that in the proliferation and abundant literature on water problems and the ‘water crisis’ relatively little if any attention is paid to one of the most trivial of truths, i.ethat water flows to power”.
  • “Only in the most exceptional of circumstances, caused by unexpected events, do powerful social groups of individuals lack access to water”
  • “It is also of course equally undisputed that ownership of, or control over water and its distribution and allocation, are formidable sources of social power”.
  • Swyngedouw,2006:15.
global water crisis alarmist rhetoric
Global Water Crisis: Alarmist Rhetoric?
  • There is a countervailing literature that suggests that the global water crisis narrative is “alarmist rhetoric” e.g. Wester and Warner (2002); Swyngedouw (2004); Mehta (2000, 2001).
  • Literature does not deny that fresh water supplies are limited, but argues that the water crisis discourse obscures the real issues:
  • Unequal access to, and control over, water.
  • Inefficient use of water by those who do have access (e.g. irrigators, industry).
  • Scarcity = social construct (refer to World Without Water film).
  • Attention should focus on inequitable access to water and water rights.
south africa
South Africa

Varying levels of access & service

White South Africa

Black & coloured townships

Homeland areas

  • Freshwater is a scarce resource.
  • Water is essential for life.
  • Freshwater is vital for health and dignity.
  • Sanitation does not demand as much interest…..but is vitally important…..
  • Freshwater is essential for food security.
  • Water scarcity is a growing problem (blue gold).
  • Demand is increasing and unable to be met in the context of increasing economic and physical scarcity
  • Water = focus for future conflicts is increasingly likely….
  • Need to look at issues of access.
  • Argue that through water, one can gain an understanding of how certain societies function.