International Day of Forests and Water

On the March 21st, International Day of Forests, FAO HQ will host a special celebration in recognition of ‘Forests and Water’. During the event the Land and Water Division will present ‘Forests and Water in Practice’ with examples of watershed management dealing with changes in rural production processes in a framework of market-driven agricultural development.

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Watch the webcast LIVE: Monday 21 March 2016 – 12PM CET >>

 

New NASA data show how the world is running out of water

The world’s largest underground aquifers – a source of fresh water for hundreds of millions of people — are being depleted at alarming rates, according to new NASA satellite data that provides the most detailed picture yet of vital water reserves hidden under the Earth’s surface.

Twenty-one of the world’s 37 largest aquifers — in locations from India and China to the United States and France — have passed their sustainability tipping points, meaning more water was removed than replaced during the decade-long study period, researchers announced Tuesday. Thirteen aquifers declined at rates that put them into the most troubled category. The researchers said this indicated a long-term problem that’s likely to worsen as reliance on aquifers grows.

Scientists had long suspected that humans were taxing the world’s underground water supply, but the NASA data was the first detailed assessment to demonstrate that major aquifers were indeed struggling to keep pace with demands from agriculture, growing populations, and industries such as mining.

“The situation is quite critical,” said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and principal investigator of the University of California Irvine-led studies.

Underground aquifers supply 35 percent of the water used by humans worldwide. Demand is even greater in times of drought. Rain-starved California is currently tapping aquifers for 60 percent of its water use as its rivers and above-ground reservoirs dry up, a steep increase from the usual 40 percent. Some expect water from aquifers will account for virtually every drop of the state’s fresh water supply by year end

The aquifers under the most stress are in poor, densely populated regions, such as northwest India, Pakistan and North Africa, where alternatives are limited and water shortages could quickly lead to instability.

The researchers used NASA’s GRACE satellites to take precise measurements of the world’s groundwater aquifers. The satellites detected subtle changes in the Earth’s gravitational pull, noting where the heavier weight of water exerted a greater pull on the orbiting spacecraft. Slight changes in aquifer water levels were charted over a decade, from 2003 to 2013.

“This has really been our first chance to see how these large reservoirs change over time,” said Gordon Grant, a research hydrologist at Oregon State University, who was not involved in the studies.

But the NASA satellites could not measure the total capacity of the aquifers. The size of these tucked-away water supplies remains something of a mystery. Still, the satellite data indicated that some aquifers may be much smaller than previously believed, and most estimates of aquifer reserves have “uncertainty ranges across orders of magnitude,” according to the research.

Aquifers can take thousands of years to fill up and only slowly recharge with water from snowmelt and rains. Now, as drilling for water has taken off across the globe, the hidden water reservoirs are being stressed.

“The water table is dropping all over the world,” Famiglietti said. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”

The health of the world’s aquifers varied widely, mostly dependent on how they were used. In Australia, for example, the Canning Basin in the country’s western end had the third-highest rate of depletion in the world. But the Great Artesian Basin to the east was among the healthiest.

The difference, the studies found, is likely attributable to heavy gold and iron ore mining and oil and gas exploration near the Canning Basin. Those are water-intensive activities.

The world’s most stressed aquifer — defined as suffering rapid depletion with little or no sign of recharging — was the Arabian Aquifer, a water source used by more than 60 million people. That was followed by the Indus Basin in India and Pakistan, then the Murzuk-Djado Basin in Libya and Niger.

California’s Central Valley Aquifer was the most troubled in the United States. It is being drained to irrigate farm fields, where drought has led to an explosion in the number of water wells being drilled. California only last year passed its first extensive groundwater regulations. But the new law could take two decades to take full effect.

Also running a negative balance was the Atlantic and Gulf Coastal Plains Aquifer, which stretches across the southeast coast and Florida. But three other aquifers in the middle of the country appeared to be in relatively good shape.

Some groundwater filters back down to aquifers, such as with field irrigation. But most of it is lost to evaporation or ends up being deposited in oceans, making it harder to use. A 2012 study by Japanese researchers attributed up to 40 percent of the observed sea-level rise in recent decades to groundwater that had been pumped out, used by humans and ended up in the ocean.

Famiglietti said problems with groundwater are exacerbated by global warming, which has caused the regions closest to the equator to get drier and more extreme latitudes to experience wetter and heavier rains. A self-reinforcing cycle begins. People living in mid-range latitudes not only pump more water from aquifers to contend with drier conditions, but that water — once removed from the ground — also then evaporates and gets recirculated to areas far north and south.

The studies were published Tuesday in the Water Resources Research journal.

Famiglietti said he hoped the findings would spur discussion and further research into how much groundwater is left.

“We need to get our heads together on how we manage groundwater,” he said, “because we’re running out of it.” More

 

 

The World’s Most Hostile International Water Basins

At the launch of A New Climate for Peace, a new report on climate-fragility risks produced for the G7 by a consortium of international partners including the Wilson Center, USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator Christian Holmes called water a common denominator for climate risk.

“How you manage your water programs…has a huge amount to do with how you mitigate the prospect for increased fragility,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the obvious that’s so easy to miss, and I think that the obvious on water as it relates to economic development is, essentially, the question of sustainable water supply.”

One of the most striking infographics from A New Climate for Peace touches on that question of supply. Using data from Oregon State University’s Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database and adapted from a graphic that originally appeared in Popular Sciencelast year, the map shows the world’s most active – and tension-filled – international water basins.

Water is a common denominator for climate risk

The Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database measures not only the frequency of hostile events in a basin, but cooperative ones as well, each on a sliding scale. Hostile events range from declarations of war (zero recorded from 1990 to 2008, the period of time encompassed by the graphic) to leaders using “language of discord.” Cooperative events range from “mild verbal support” to “voluntary unification into a single country.”

The total number of events is indicated by shades of blue – the darker the blue, the more transboundary events, both positive and negative. This is essentially the “hot list” of international water basins – which regions have the most official and unofficial chatter over water.

Circles superimposed on the basins represent the total number of hostile events. As the description text points out, however, “circle size does not automatically translate into conflict danger.” In some places, transboundary institutions and diplomatic frameworks allow different actors to work through their differences. Cooperative hostility, if you will. In the Danube River Basin, for example, the high number of “hostile” events is mitigated by strong cooperative incentives associated with European integration. Likewise in North America, where Canada, the United States, and Mexico share several basins with a high number of hostile events, there is little chance of violent conflict.

Water basins in South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa are major hotspots with a high number of hostile events and weaker institutional frameworks to mitigate them. The Indus, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Salween, Tigris-Euphrates, and Jordan basins witness a very high number of interactions, suggesting at least that continued dialogue could be a way forward to mitigate the risk of violent conflict or fragility. The Nile Basin has less activity reflecting the stalled negotiations between the basin’s 10 member states to replace colonial-era water agreements. The Mekong Basin, where the largest member, China, does not participate as a full member of the Mekong River Commission, shows less activity as well.

The map does a great job illustrating why it can be difficult to answer the question, where is the highest risk of water-related violence? Tensions between states and other freshwater basin actors isn’t necessarily a sign of impending violence if there’s a framework to resolve them. Likewise, lack of communication over a major natural resource can be a bad sign for cooperation when the resource in question is the Nile. More

More infographics from ‘A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks’ are available on NewClimateforPeace.org.

 

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan sign accord on Nile dam

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have agreed on a preliminary deal on a controversial dam project that Cairo feared would reduce its share of vital waters from the Nile river.

The leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan all gathered in Khartoum on Monday to sign the agreement of principles on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project.

“I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people,” Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said at the signing ceremony.

We have chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development.

We have chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt's President

Egypt, heavily reliant on the Nile for agriculture and drinking water, feared that the dam would decrease its water supply.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that “this is a framework agreement and it will be completed”.

“We have chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development.”

Sisi said the final accord will “achieve benefits and development for Ethiopia without harming Egypt and Sudan’s interests”.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir hailed the deal as “historic”.

The agreement is made up of 10 principles, Egypt’s Water Resources Minister Hussam al-Maghazi told the AFP news agency.

The countries agreed on the “fair use of waters and not to damage the interests of other states by using the waters”.

They also agreed to establish “a mechanism for solving disputes as they occur”, Maghazi said.

He gave no details as to when the final agreement would be signed.

Sudan’s deputy water resources minister, Saif al-Din Hamed, said the signing of the agreement “will not stop the current construction and building” of the dam in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia began diverting the Blue Nile in May 2013 to build the 6,000 MW dam, which will be Africa’s largest when completed in 2017.

Ethiopian officials have said the project to construct the 1,780-metre-long and 145-metre high dam will cost more than $4bn. More

 

 

The Guardian view on food security: if the dreamers lose, we face a nightmare

By the time nations once again get round a table in Paris in December to discuss climate change, hunger should be on the menu. Researchers have just warned that a new and aggressive strain of yellow rust fungus is now a threat to Britain’s wheat harvest.

Another team has calculated that average yields of wheat per field, which only two decades ago were rising rapidly, are now down 2.5%, and barley by 3.8%. In each case, the scientists identify climate change as a contributing factor. Global warming has barely begun but climate scientists have been warning about the consequences for food security for 30 years.

The two latest bits of research into wheat yields are not isolated indicators of tomorrow’s troubles. The big heat has yet to arrive. It will be catastrophic. Another group has studied the consequences for harvests of extremes of heat and calculated that for each 1C notch in the thermometer, global wheat yields could fall by 6%. Some latitudes will benefit, but overall, world harvests could fall. This is very bad news: wheat is one of the world’s staples, and the world’s largest source of vegetable protein. There are other factors at play in the fields. Within a decade, 2.9 billion people in 48 nations will experience chronic water scarcity, another research team warns.

Agriculture consumes 70% of the world water supplies and action is needed “to pre-empt looming conflicts born of desperation”. Separately, US geologists have used historical analyses to work out what modern agriculture does to topsoil. When European settlers took the plough to the American heartlands, erosion accelerated one hundred-fold. At peak, an inch of soil was lost every 25 years. Before the Europeans, wind and water erosion took 2,500 years to remove the same thin layer. Because of erosion, overgrazing and drought, the planet’s farmland is being degraded at a catastrophic rate. An estimated 10m hectares are now abandoned each year; something the size of a family farm every minute. And as the food supply is threatened, demand will accelerate. There will be many more hungry people at the table.

In the last year, researchers re-examined UN population projections and decided that the global numbers may not peak at 9 billion. By 2100, the world could be home to 12 billion and still rising. By 2100, according to business-as-usual climate projections, temperatures will have risen by 4C and sea levels by a metre or so. So land that is ever less productive will be expected to deliver vastly more food at ever greater cost in fossil fuel energy to feed increasingly conflict-torn nation states.

Solutions exist but none are easy. All will require a generous adjustment between the haves and the have-nots and sustained global cooperation. That sounds like a dream, but the alternative is a nightmare. The enduring lesson of history is that drought and famine feed conflict, and conflict breeds more privation, and despair. Come December, each aspect of the climate challenge will have become more pressing, and more complex. Everything should be on the table in Paris except perhaps, symbolically, lunch. More

 

Starved for Energy, Pakistan Braces for a Water Crisis

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Energy-starved Pakistanis, their economy battered by chronic fuel and electricity shortages, may soon have to contend with a new resource crisis: major water shortages, the Pakistani government warned this week.

A combination of global climate change and local waste and mismanagement have led to an alarmingly rapid depletion of Pakistan’s water supply, said the minister for water and energy, Khawaja Muhammad Asif.

“Under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country,” Mr. Asif said in an interview, echoing a warning that he first issued at a news conference in Lahore this week.

The prospect of a major water crisis in Pakistan, even if several years distant, offers a stark reminder of a growing challenge in other poor and densely populated countries that are vulnerable to global climate change.

In Pakistan, it poses a further challenge to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government has come under sharp criticism for failing to end the country’s electricity crisis. In some rural areas, heavy rationing has meant that as little as four hours of electricity a day is available.

In the interview, Mr. Asif said the government had started to bring the electricity crisis under control, and predicted a return to a normal supply by 2017. But energy experts are less confident that such a turnaround is possible, given how long and complex the problem has proved to be.

Now the country’s water supply looms as a resource challenge, intensified by Pakistan’s enduring infrastructure and management problems.

Agriculture is a cornerstone of the Pakistani economy. The 2,000-mile-long Indus River, which rises in the Himalayas and spans the country, feeds a vast network of irrigation canals that line fields producing wheat, vegetables and cotton, all major sources of foreign currency. In the north, hydroelectric power stations are a cornerstone of the creaking power system.

A combination of melting glaciers, decreasing rainfall and chronic mismanagement by successive governments has put that water supply in danger, experts say.

In a report published in 2013, the Asian Development Bank described Pakistan as one of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, with a water availability of 1,000 cubic meters per person per year — a fivefold drop since independence in 1947, and about the same level as drought-stricken Ethiopia.

“It is a very serious situation,” said Pervaiz Amir, country director for the Pakistan Water Partnership. “I feel it is going to be more serious than the recent oil shortages.”

Shortages of resources have climbed to the top of the political agenda in recent years. Fuel shortages last month, for which government officials blamed mismanagement by the national oil company, caused lengthy lines outside fuel stations that embarrassed the government at a time of low global oil prices.

Mr. Sharif’s government was already grappling with the seemingly intractable electricity crisis, which regularly causes blackouts of 10 hours a day even in major cities. And Mr. Sharif has been visibly distracted by grueling political duels, with the opposition politician Imran Khan, who accuses him of stealing the 2013 election, and with powerful military leaders who have undermined his authority in key areas.

Mr. Asif, the water and energy minister, said the government had started to turn the corner. But he acknowledged that the country’s resource problems were, to a large degree, endemic. “There is a national habit of extravagance,” he said, noting that it extended across resource areas, whether gas, electricity or water.

“I will be very careful not to use the word ‘drought,’ but we are water stressed right now, and slowly, we are moving to be a water-starved country,” he said.

Evidence of chronic water shortages have been painfully evident in some parts of Pakistan in recent years. A drought caused by erratic rainfall in Tharparkar, a desert area in southern Sindh Province, caused a humanitarian emergency in the region last year.

“The frequency of monsoon rains has decreased but their intensity has increased,” said Mr. Amir of the Pakistan Water Partnership. “That means more water stress, particularly in winters.”

Water is also tied to nationalist, even jihadist, politics in Pakistan. For years, religious conservatives and Islamist militants have accused rival India, where the Indus River system rises, of constricting Pakistan’s water supply.

Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the militant group that carried out the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India, Lashkar-e-Taiba, regularly rails against Indian “water terrorism” during public rallies.

Mr. Asif said that contrary to such claims, India was not building reservoirs on rivers that flow into Pakistan. “We will never let it happen,” he said, citing the Indus Water Treaty, an agreement between the two countries that was brokered by the World Bank and signed in the 1960s.

One major culprit in Pakistan’s looming water crisis, experts say, is the country’s inadequate water storage facilities. In India, about one-third of the water supply is stored in reservoirs, compared with just 9 percent in Pakistan, Mr. Amir said.

“We built our last dam 46 years ago,” he said. “India has built 4,000 dams, with another 150 in the pipeline.”

Experts say the country’s chaotic policies are hurting its image in the eyes of Western donors who could help alleviate the mounting resource crises.

“The biggest looming crisis is of governance, not water — which could make this country unlivable in the next few years,” said Arshad H. Abbasi, a water and energy expert with the Sustainable Development and Policy Institute, a research group based in Islamabad. More