World Bank warns developing countries: Address water scarcity or else...

Dwindling water supplies could severely affect developing countries, the World Bank has warned. (Paul Botes, M&G)

Dwindling water supplies could severely affect developing countries, the World Bank has warned. (Paul Botes, M&G)

The normally bland World Bank has issued a stern warning to countries about the impact of water scarcity on their economies. Most of these are already facing scarcity – in a belt along central Africa to the southern Middle East – but climate change will only exacerbate this. 

That warning came through a report released last week – “High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy.” This said that developing countries would take a “severe hit” to their economic growth if they did not radically change the way they manage water. Some countries could lose a total of 14% of their GDP by 2050 as a result.

It said: “The impacts of climate change will be channeled primarily through the water cycle, with consequences that could be large and uneven across the globe.”  

Around 1.6-billion people – a quarter of humanity – live in countries with physical water scarcity. The UN’s climate change body – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – says this number will double in the next two decades.

The reasons for this are myriad. Citing climate projections, the World Bank said global rainfall would become unpredictable. Many places would have less rainfall – such as the western half of South Africa. Others will have more rainfall, such as north-eastern South Africa. But this will come in heavier and shorter bursts. 

For the southern parts of Asia, this will dramatically change the monsoon season - which underpins agriculture in the area. The Mail & Guardian reported last week that this shift is already affecting the  tea crop in China, an industry that sustains 80-million people. 

Heavier rains will destroy topsoil, and wash more pollutants into stores of freshwater, such as dams. Warmer oceans will mean higher – and more violent – storm surges. These will contaminate freshwater reservoirs, especially in low-lying countries such as Bangladesh. 

Richer countries – mainly in north America and western Europe – will be able to adapt to these impacts and escape relatively unscathed, according to the World Bank. But poorer countries will not have the resources to adapt. 

It said that some countries already lose two-thirds of their water through old infrastructure and pipes. This means that countries are already losing water that they cannot afford to lose. The Water Research Commission said in 2013 that a quarter of water in South Africa is lost this way. The best-practice for similar countries is 10% loss.

Water shortages will “cascade through food, energy, urban and environmental systems”, according to the Bank’s report. Growing populations will move to cities, where they will need more agriculture to support them and more water to drink. But this growth will happen at the same time as the Bank said “supply becomes erratic and uncertain”. 

This impact will be felt worst in cities, it said: “Reduced freshwater availability and competition from other uses – such as energy and agriculture – could reduce water availability to cities by as much as a third by 2050, compared to 2015 levels.”

Less water will mean slower economic growth. The Bank warned that in some countries – mostly in North Africa and Southern Asia – this could see economies shrink by 6% a year. This could send many into “sustained negative growth”.

Worst-hit will be the poor, who will be affected disproportionately, it said. This is because they rely on rain-fed agriculture to feed their families and earn a living. Variable rainfall will wipe out crops. 

At the same time, the Bank said that commercial irrigated crops will suffer through lowering rainfall. This will create spikes in food prices, and a general shortage in staple foods for long periods of time. This will “induce migration and ignite civil war”, it warned. With an increasingly globalised world, it said this will “induce migration and ignite civil conflict”.

Inklings of this water stress are starting to be felt in South Africa. Already the 30th driest country in the world, the worst drought in a century has slashed crop output. The maize crop last season dropped by a quarter to 10-million tonnes. This season it is predicted to drop by a further 7-million tonnes. 

Adding the impacts up, the World Bank warned that countries that did not water-proof their economies would end up in a spiral of “sustained negative growth”. That would lead to famine and war, it said.

Sipho Kings

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