Water is an increasingly rare resource, and might be a source of future international tension.

by Juan Santiago and Gary Smith.

As summer looms over Manila, so do rotational water shortages. My friends in the U.K. find it difficult to believe that Manila receives 300% more rain than London and finds itself in such a situation. How did this happen? The key reasons are population growth, increased per capita demand as the economy develops, delays in adding new water infrastructure, and increasingly, the issue of climate change. There are lessons for other cities around the world to learn. Over the past 20 years the population of Metro Manila has grown by around four million to reach nearly 14 million. At the same time there has been an increased demand per capita as the Philippines has become wealthier (think of the water used by a dishwasher machine). This growth in water demand was not unforeseen and several infrastructure projects have been proposed but not been delivered, due to a variety of reasons that were often compounded by a weak political system. Without new infrastructure, the reservoir that supplied the east side of Manila with water has not kept up with demand. The water level in the dam has on occasion dipped below the level necessary for water to flow. Climate change is playing a growing role. Global warming is triggering a higher frequency of El Niño events (El Niño is a disruption to weather patterns that leads to more frequent droughts in the western pacific). Warmer temperatures in times of drought cause more water to evaporate. Wetter air then results in more violent storms and flooding when the wet season comes, and violent rainfall cannot make up for the lack of rainfall during the dry season as dams overflow and excess rainfall is often simply lost. Water management can be addressed in several ways. Urban areas should adopt more water-efficient technologies in plumbing and appliances, and by capturing rainfall that falls on buildings. Capturing more rainfall will result in less run-off into sewers and rivers in nations where coastal flooding might also be a regular threat. In agricultural areas, water consumption can be reduced through improved irrigation methods, and possibly even by growing alternative crops. Creating additional supply infrastructure is rarely straightforward and can be made more difficult where a single river serves as a shared source of water for several countries. Conflicts arise when countries upstream push for the development of dams that prove detrimental to those downstream. In Asia tensions already exist between China and Laos, countries along the length of the Mekong river, and between Afghanistan and Iran. Military conflict over the use of water is a growing risk. It’s a double whammy for the climate-vulnerable developing countries that are located between the tropics. Historically they have they contributed far less to the total global carbon emission total, and it is the wealthier (mostly northern hemisphere) nations that have been the chief polluters. However, developing nations located in tropical geographies are more at risk from climate change events. Is it time for the international community to examine the case for “polluter pays” aid for vulnerable nations?

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