Coping with the curse of freshwater variability

Oxford scientists say that institutions, infrastructure and information are the key ingredients for coping with freshwater variability and enabling economic growth, in an article published in Science.

The authors, which include Prof Jim Hall, Prof David Grey and Dr Simon Dadson, say that a key challenge to achieving water security is managing the risks posed by variable and unpredictable freshwater resources. Building resilience to these risks requires a transformation in the way investments are made.

Extreme events such as floods and droughts are hard to predict and future changes in variability are highly uncertain. The article highlights three dimensions of freshwater variability: change within the year (seasonal and monthly), year-to-year, and the unpredictable timing and intensity of extremes. When these three dimensions combine the situation is “most challenging – a wicked combination of hydrology that confronts the world’s poorest people,” say the authors.

The article warns that the inability to cope with variability can place serious burdens on society and the economy. Extreme events such as droughts and floods have ripple effects through the economy. For example, floods in Thailand in 2011 caused $43 billion in losses. Meanwhile in Ethiopia economic growth is 38% less that what would be expected based on average rainfall, due to the country’s complex hydrology.

Countries can do very little about their natural endowment of water: when and where it rains and how much water evaporates, infiltrates into the ground, and runs into rivers and lakes. However for those countries burdened with highly variable hydrology, investment in water management can help buy their way out of water insecurity.

The study’s analysis shows that countries that have achieved economic growth, despite high variability in freshwater resources, have invested heavily to reduce risk. In river basins with complex hydrology where there has been low investment, the economy suffers.

Countries along river basins with less variability are more wealthy, even though investments have sometimes been quite modest. Where the hydrology is highly variable, additional investment is needed to transition from water-insecure to secure, but this is least affordable and hardest to deliver in the poorest countries. Climate change may increase variability further, making water security an even more distant goal for countries already underequipped to cope.

F2

 

The authors highlight “the three ‘I’s” as essential for adapting to freshwater variability: institutions and good governance (such as river basin organisations, legal systems, and water pricing), infrastructure (such as water storage, wastewater treatment, groundwater wells) and information (including monitoring, forecast and warning systems, and modelling tools).

Crucially, coping with variability involves a combination of institutions, infrastructure and information – rarely will they generate their full benefits alone.

The article calls for a new approach to investing in water security. A broader and longer-term vision is needed that looks beyond individual projects to the sequence of investments that can create a pathway to water security. Context also matters when it comes to what combination and sequence of investments are needed.

This new approach will focus on risks, trade-offs and uncertainties to enable decision-makers to choose between alternative investment pathways and build a more water secure future.

This research stems from the work of a global Task Force on Water Security and Sustainable Growth, an initiative of the Global Water Partnership and OECD, co-chaired by Oxford University’s Professor Jim Hall and Professor David Grey.

Reference

Hall, J.W., Grey, D., Garrick, D., Fung, F., Brown, C., Dadson, S.J. and Sadoff, C.W. (2014) Coping with the curse of freshwater variability. Science, 346(6208): 429-430.