A global environmental crisis is gradually bubbling to the surface. It may not be apparent to those suffering the rainy seasons or annual floods, but to those in areas where fresh water is in short supply the insidious nature of the crisis is increasingly obvious: Human activities have disturbed the water cycle in ways we could not have foreseen in the pre-industrial era. Once mighty rivers, such as the Yellow River and the Indus, do not bring as much water to the seas as they once did, once fertile lands have eroded and become desert and groundwater aquifers are so overdrawn that our hidden stores are now dwindling at alarming rates and not being replenished.
As Olli Varis of Aalto University, in Espoo, Finland, explains in the Foreword to a unique Special Issue of the International Journal of Sustainable Society, “The water quality problems of surface and groundwater are growing increasingly severe. Land use changes and climate factors cause the increase of damage and calamity due to floods, storms and droughts.” Varis points out that increasing urbanisation and human congestion are amplifying the problem with more than a billion people already living in slums deprived of fresh water and sanitation services quality of life for many is falling.
Water supply and sanitation are a human right, critically important to welfare and health, dignity and security alike as well as underpinning economic development. Varis notes how much agriculture depends on good water supply, how the development of emerging economies hinges on its presence and how energy, both conventional and renewable, are driven by water. It is inevitable that in those parts of the world where nations share water sources that friction will occur, especially if one nation’s water usage is detrimental to the other’s economic growth.
“Economic growth is desperately needed if poverty is to be reduced, Varis says, “but growth alone is not sufficient if growth polarises society.” Within a generation, we might expect at least two-thirds of the world population to be urbanised with all the increasing demands that will place on water supply particularly in China and Asia, South America and Africa.
The Special Issue of the journal draws together various analyses of the role of water supply, development, climate change and the potential for so-called “water wars”, opening up the debate and offering ideas for the mitigation of conflicts, tensions and rivalries through improved water governance and enhanced institutional development, particularly on the international stage so that we can all enjoy water security, peace and sustainability.