Water, Water (Not) Everywhere: the Imperative of Increasing Water Use Efficiency

August 18, 2016


A view of Tajikistan’s Eastern Pamir Mountains. Annual renewable freshwater levels in Central Asia are expected to diminish to 1,700 m3 per capita per year by 2030 - an internationally recognized level for water stress.

Damon Lynch/shutterstock

  • Nearly 1.6 billion people live in countries with physical water scarcity – a figure that may double in the coming two decades.
  • As the potential for developing new sources of water diminishes, making more efficient use of water becomes essential to meeting future demand.
  • The World Bank works with countries around the world to help ensure water resources remain secure through water efficiency measures, including improved agricultural practices.

Today, nearly 1.6 billion people live in countries with physical water scarcity – a figure that may double in just two decades.

As economies and populations grow, their demand for water also grows. Water is not only essential for human life, it is a vital factor for production - meaning that diminishing water supplies can translate into lower economic growth. A recent assessment, “High and Dry: Climate Change, Water and the Economy”, a report by the Water Global Practice of the World Bank, found that some regions could see their growth rates decline by as much as 6% of GDP by 2050 due to water-related losses in various sectors. 

Climate change is also expected to magnify the depth of water scarcity, especially in regions which already suffer from water scarcity.

Water scarcity is one of the topics on the priority list of the High Level Panel on Water (HLPW), which was convened by the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the World Bank Group, Jim Yong Kim. The objective of the High Level Panel is to mobilize effective action to accelerate the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 6, which focuses on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

" The Central Asia Water & Energy Program (CAWEP) promotes energy and water security throughout the region "

The Government of Tajikistan, whose President is one of the 10 Heads of State and Government forming the HLPW, hosted the High Level Symposium on SDG 6 and Targets: Ensuring that No One is Left Behind in Access to Water and Sanitation on August 9-11 in Dushanbe. The Symposium, which was attended by representatives of more than 90 countries, provided an opportunity for experts and practitioners to discuss global water challenges that will affect the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

As part of this event, the World Bank Water Global Practice organized a Thematic Session on Increasing Water Use Efficiencybringing its global experience working with countries to address this issue at the local, national, and regional level. The session discussed the challenges as well as a number of solutions to effectively implement Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6.4, which aims to ‘substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity, and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.’

The session highlighted global water scarcity trends and the risks to economic growth, as well as country specific challenges of uneven geographic distribution of water resources versus population such as in Bolivia. The presenters underlined that strong political will and sustained commitment at the highest level are prerequisites for changing behaviors that can ultimately improve the efficiency and sustainability of water usage in the long term.

There are various options for addressing this challenge: increasing the supply of usable water - including through desalination, storage and water reuse; improving allocation according to economic, social, and environmental criteria; and improving water use efficiency and water productivity - an important tool where much gain is still to be made.

As the potential for developing new sources of water diminishes, more efficient use of water becomes critically important to meeting future demand. Policy interventions can incentivize users to adopt more efficient technologies through mechanisms such as pricing, quotas, and water markets.

The World Bank has been working with countries throughout the world to help address challenges posed by changes in water supply and shifts in demands for this supply. This experience was presented and discussed during the Thematic Session.

In the 1990’s, the World Bank supported Mexico through a successful multi-stage reform to improve water use efficiency and financial self-sufficiency of farmers through the creation of Water User Associations (WUA). By progressively transferring irrigation assets and responsibility to WUAs, the irrigation sector in Mexico transformed – leading to increased agricultural productivity and a continuous cycle of modernization. Less than a decade after the first phase of these reforms took root, more than 80% of the WUAs reported improvements in water supply service. The World Bank also supported the Irrigation Transfer Management program in the Philippines, which helped boost agriculture yields there by up to 6% and reduce technical inefficiencies.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the World Bank worked with the authorities to improve the supply network and service quality; this led to a significant expansion of network coverage as well as a reduction of non-revenue water by over 30% as well as of overall energy use, GHG emissions and chemical pollution.

The Thematic Session also discussed the way in which the eleven riparian countries of the Nile Basin with support of the Nile Basin Initiative have carried out a joint assessment of water use trends and identification of interventions needed to prevent the looming situation in which demand outstrips supplies. For the Nile Basin, it has been calculated that the deficit could grow to over 50% of available water supply by 2050.

Given the history of effective interventions, experts at the World Bank in coordination with other development partners are looking to replicate these successes in other parts of the world, including Central Asia - where water resources are increasingly under pressure.

Growing populations, climate change, and economic development are all putting additional stress on the countries around this region. Although annual water availability per person stands at 2,500 m3 across the region today, this level is expected to fall to 1,700 m3 per capita per year by 2030 - an internationally recognized level for water stress.

The diversion of water to irrigate the vast agricultural fields in the region has contributed to severe environmental and health problems in the Aral Sea basin.  Irrigation methods, such as pumping, are highly inefficient across the region - often dropping below 30% - and put significant economic strain on local economies.

Because of the high costs of pumped irrigation, maintaining rural livelihoods through public support for irrigation comes at a high cost to national budgets, emphasizing the need to find solutions for increasing irrigation efficiency and water productivity across the region.

The World Bank managed Central Asia Water & Energy Program (CAWEP) aims to address these challenges through the promotion of energy and water security by leveraging the benefits of enhanced cooperation in the region. CAEWDP also provided significant support for the organization of the High Level Symposium on SDG 6 and Targets and the Thematic Session on Increasing Water Use Efficiency that was organized by the Water Global Practice.