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Water Challenge - a blog by Peter Brabeck-Letmathe


I hope this blog will create discussion about the important issue of water use and availability around the world.

Your comments and views are very important and I encourage you to help me build and develop the conversation.

Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

Chairman Nestlé SA

Water management – part one: water for survival as a human right

Often when I talk about water management, some people think this means water privatisation. But it is not as simple as that.

I’d like to discuss some of my ideas on this subject in a four-part post, summarising points I’ve made earlier on this blog along the way.

Water management, for me, means using water very carefully according to its value and great importance for individuals and society - making sure there is the highest possible societal outcome from the provision and use of this increasingly scarce resource.

Water shortage “has to become the first priority”

Today’s Financial Times (please note the Financial Times has a paywall) carries an excellent, in depth look by Pilita Clark at “A world without water”, in which I make the case for world leaders to make water scarcity a bigger priority than climate change.

In the piece, which draws on a range of expert views, I argue that this problem is persisting because water is “so undervalued that it is typically used inefficiently – and there is not enough investment to boost supplies”. Regular readers of this blog will recognise this as a consistent theme: the need to set a price for water in order for its essential value to be recognised.

Rising food waste and water shortage

The German word for food is ‘Lebensmittel’, i.e., a means to live, which reflects better than anything else its importance. But “one third of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally.” (FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation)

On the one hand, this has an economic impact: the global economic cost of food wastage, based on 2009 producer prices, is USD 750 billion, approximately the 2011 GDP of Turkey or Switzerland. (Source)

On the other hand, it adds significantly to water overuse: present wastage is the equivalent of more than 1,000 cubic kilometres of freshwater abstracted per year, i.e. close to 25% of total estimated global withdrawals for human use in 2005. (2030 Water Resources Group, Charting our water future, page 6) This is particularly important as water, and the rapidly growing gap between withdrawals and sustainable supply, will be by far the most critical chokepoint for global food supply security for the next 10-20 years.

2014 Stockholm Water Prize for John Briscoe

In September 2014, the Swedish King will hand over the Stockholm Water Prize to John Briscoe for his unparalleled contributions to global and local water management, inspired by an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of people on the ground.

For several reasons, I have the feeling that there are relatively few people who are working in the water space who do not know John. John has been making a considerable impact for quite some years in a number of countries around the world. Please do read his CV if you would like to know more.

Water shortage and policies to stimulate savings in China

Traditional Turpan irrigation system

Over the last few weeks I reported about water shortage from overuse in several parts of the world. The rising demand for water and continuing poor management practices are also causing water crises in China. Some time ago I wrote about one of the symptoms, namely disappearing rivers (source). The first official national river census of China estimated that the country had 22,909 rivers, each with a catchment area of at least 100 square km, at the end of 2011. This is less than half of the more than 50,000 rivers estimated by the Government in the 1990s. The official explanation for this shortfall is mainly the “inaccurate estimate of the past, as well as climate change, (and) water and soil loss”. (source) This could explain why some of the rivers have disappeared, but the primary causes are likely to be declining groundwater and river flow levels, widespread deforestation and increasing withdrawal of water from water bodies. Quoting Peter Gleick from the Pacific Institute: “The water challenges in China are far greater than just climate change." (source 

Very recently I came across this post from Liping Jiang, senior irrigation engineer at the World Bank. It describes the situation, and also presents solutions. It was originally posted a couple of weeks ago on the Worldbank water blog. Thanks to Liping for his permission to repost.