Conference Speakers Build Water Security Definition

Back to Spring 2013 Newsletter

By Becky Witte, WSP Graduate Outreach Assistant, University of Arizona

The meaning of “water security” was a major theme in the WRRC’s Annual Conference: Water Security from the Ground Up. In the Winter 2013 AWR Guest View, Robert Varady and Christopher Scott offered their definition. WRRC Director, Sharon Megdal addresses the question in her column (this issue, p. 11). As she points out, conference organizers left the speakers and attendees to come up with their own interpretations.

At the outset, keynote speaker Anthony Cox, Head of the Climate, Biodiversity and Water Division, Environment Directorate, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, articulated a comprehensive, risk-based definition that provided a scope for speakers to express a wide range of concerns.

The most often cited water security concern was availability of the resource. Will the water supply be sufficient to sustain demand, especially an increasing demand in the coming years? World water demand is projected to grow by 55 percent by 2050, said Cox. To meet demand, efficient management of water will be essential in the coming years.

Urban areas will feel the majority of the population growth. In many cities in the United States, much of the current water infrastructure, including pipes and treatment plants, is aging and causing system failures. The Environmental Protection Agency believes that “aging water infrastructure is one of our Nation’s top water priorities.” Tucson Water Director Alan Forrest stated that a reliable water supply depends on the infrastructure that moves and treats it. Infrastructure failures that disrupt service are becoming more frequent and maintenance, repairs, improvements, replacement and expansion will require substantial investments. In October 2012, a breach in the Central Arizona Project, which supplies water to Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties, caused 160 million gallons of water to spill out of the canal. This break did not disrupt water deliveries because water could be taken from Lake Pleasant while repairs were made to the canal. However, it serves as a warning about the importance of infrastructure to water security.

Another concern is transboundary water resources. Water supplies do not conform to political boundaries, so many nations must share water resources. There are 263 transboundary lake and river basins that involve 145 nations. Cooperation is essential to manage these water resources, but as water stress increases, tension over shared water resources is expected to rise. Anthony Cox quoted Ishmail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President, Environmentally Sustainable Development, who warned that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water – unless we change our approach to manage this precious and vital resource.” In some locations, cooperative steps have been taken to manage transboundary water resources, but there is much work still to be done.

Water is a natural resource that not only sustains humans, but is necessary for plants and animals, creating ecosystems and vibrant natural environments. The environmental benefits of water are sometimes overlooked, and when this occurs over time, it can negatively impact water security. Linda Stitzer, a Senior Advisor for Western Resource Advocates, argued that if the environmental water resource base, for example groundwater or river flow, is not adequately protected from pollution and overuse, valuable natural systems are disrupted and ecosystems can be lost. This not only impacts the visual appeal of the land, but also could have economic consequences. Billions of dollars generated from recreation and tourism are threatened by environmental degradation.

Cox also called attention to natural disasters—major adverse events that result from the Earth’s natural processes. Many natural disasters involve water: floods, tsunamis, blizzards, hurricanes, and droughts. Because these events can cause loss of life or property damage, natural disasters should be considered a security issue. Cox said that many organizations are now evaluating the trade-off of risks and costs in preparation for natural disasters.

Cox’s water security definition included the risk of water pollution. To survive, access to safe water is essential. Many people in developing countries face conditions where clean water and sanitation are a luxury and may suffer adverse health effects as a result. Even in developed counties, water quality is a major concern for water security, in terms of both drinking water and environmental protection.

All of these aspects combine to make water security a complex and dynamic concept. Elma Montaña, Researcher at the Human, Social and Environmental Sciences Institute, National Scientific and Technical Research Council, and Professor, National University of Cuyo, Argentina, advocated for cultural security under the umbrella of water security, where cultural continuity depends on continuing access to water. For this reason she offered a definition developed by Robert Varady and Christopher Scott, “Water security constitutes the sustainable availability of adequate quantities and qualities of water for resilient societies and ecosystems in the face of uncertain global change.” Montaña explained that concern for resilient societies expressed in this definition should include traditional cultures .

At the conclusion of the conference, Megdal noted that the discussions had not reached a single best definition of water security. The conference “will have to end being unsure what it means,” said Megdal. That discussion will have to continue.