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World Economic Forum Ranks Water Crises as Top Global Risk

More than nuclear weapons or a global disease pandemic, impairments to water supplies and punishing cycles of flood, drought, and water pollution are now viewed by heads of state, nonprofit leaders, and chief executives as the most serious threat to business and society.

For the first time, water crises took the top spot in the World Economic Forum’s tenth global risk report, an annual survey of nearly 900 leaders in politics, business, and civic life about the world’s most critical issues. Water ranked third a year ago.

The report measured 28 risks on two dimensions: the likelihood of occurring within 10 years, and impact, which is a measure of devastation. Water ranked eighth for likelihood and first for impact. It was one of four risks — along with interstate conflict, the failure to adapt to climate change, and chronic unemployment — that were deemed highly likely and highly devastating.

Water’s ascent reflects a remarkable shift in thinking among the members of the World Economic Forum, the Geneva-based think tank known for its yearly meeting in the Swiss Alps that draws the elite of wealth, business savvy, and political power. Water’s top ranking also reflects the growing recognition among world leaders that diminishing supplies of reliable, clean water, if not well managed, will be a significant impediment to health and wealth for the poor and for the richest economies and largest cities.

Residents of California (GDP $US 2 trillion) and Sao Paulo (population 12 million) felt the first tremors of such disruptions during dreadful droughts in 2014. The 2.5 billion people without toilet facilities that protect them from disease and personal danger feel the stress every day.

“So much of life is affected by what happens with water,” said Bob Sandford, chair of the Canadian Partnership Initiative, which helps governments connect the science of water with public policy. “We didn’t realize until recently how much our economy and society relied on hydrologic stability.”

Water Rises in the Ranks

A decade ago, the global risks report was dominated by financial worries and macroeconomic concerns: the pace of China’s growth, sharp swings in stock and bond prices, and roller-coaster oil markets. Water merited little attention and climate change, pushed aside as a “still emerging” threat, was the only risk out of 120 in the 2006 report that was deemed too distant for a rigorous statistical analysis.

Image courtesy of the World Economic Forum Water crises ranked as the top risk for impact, according to the World Economic Forum’s survey of nearly 900 global leaders in business, academia, and government. Click image to enlarge.

 

 

Today, the script is flipped. Respondents to the 2015 survey viewed social and environmental risks as the gravest threats to the planet’s 7 billion people. Experts offered several explanations for the new direction.

Howard Kunreuther, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who served as an academic advisor in the development of the report, said that the large number of weather disasters in the last decade has captured the attention of government officials. Floods in Pakistan’s Indus River Basin in 2010, for instance, displaced 20 million people, caused at least $US 43 billion in economic damages, and killed 2,000 people.

“Events that used to be extreme are more likely today,” Kunreuther told Circle of Blue. The risk increases as global temperatures rise, with climate change expected to cut water availability in Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and the American Southwest while also increasing the number of severe rainstorms. Engulfing rains or deep droughts could slash crop yields by 25 percent by mid-century, according to worst-case projections cited by the United Nations climate panel.

A second factor is also responsible for water’s rise in the risk rankings, argued Giulio Boccaletti, global director for water at the Nature Conservancy and a member of the World Economic Forum’s global agenda council on water. An evolution in the balance of world power may explain a greater emphasis on water, he said.

“The types of countries that are more vulnerable to water crises are becoming more important in global politics as the center of gravity moves from the United States and Europe to China and India,” Boccaletti told Circle of Blue.

Photo © Aaron Jaffe / Circle of Blue Most of China’s fresh water is in its wet south. Much of its energy production, urban development, and agriculture is in the dry north. One solution to the geographical mismatch, in a nation that has been building immense public works projects for centuries, is to transport was from the south to the north. The $US 81 billion South-North Water Transfer Project is in operation. The middle canal, under construction in 2010, opened late in 2014. Click image to enlarge.

In China and India, there is a much closer connection between infrastructure development, water resources, and economic growth, he added. Home to more than one-third of the world’s people, the two countries have severe mismatches between water availability and water demands. Both nations rely on unsustainable supplies of groundwater in their prime food-growing regions, suffer from polluted rivers, and have hydropower ambitions that can be wrecked by Mother Nature. As many as 30,000 people were killed and 10 hydropower stations were destroyed in a vicious June 2013 flood in Uttarakhand, an Indian state at the foot of the Himalayas.

A Broader Look at Water

Water rose as a global priority in the 2015 report, and it also acquired a new designation. The report reclassified water from an environmental risk to a societal risk, an acknowledgment that nearly all human activity — from growing wheat and catching fish, to preventing child-killing bacterial diseases and powering industries and communities — has water at its base.

“That’s big,” said Sandford about the reclassification. “I agree with the change. Water is environmental but it transcends that category. People are being devastated by these events of flood and drought. How you manage these impacts becomes an important political question.”

California is in the fourth year of a dire drought that is the worst in its recorded history. The dry weather is prompting policy changes and infrastructure investments in water conservation and transport, and testing a modern democracy’s capacity to cope with an ecological emergency. Click image to enlarge.

The world is not doing enough, the report asserts. Though the problems of floods, drought, and inadequate water supplies that were projected more than two decades ago have come true, little is being done to address them effectively. Leaders are especially ill-prepared for widespread social instability, the risk perceived to be the most interconnected, according to the report. Those connections were most visible in the Arab Spring uprisings, which began in 2010 with turmoil in the public square over food prices and resulted in the toppling of governments. A 12-year drought in Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin, which crippled the largest rice industry in the southern hemisphere, contributed to shortages of grain and escalating food prices that year.

Not all agree with the assessment that the response is lagging. The report is too pessimistic in its assertion that little progress has been made to address water issues, Boccaletti said, pointing out the report’s discussion of Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin as one example of an effective solution.

The Murray-Darling is Australia’s most important river basin, providing water for two million people and 40 percent of the country’s agriculture. The long drought, which ended late in the 2000s, forced water managers to completely rework the system for allocating water to farmers, cities, and ecosystems. Less water would be available for farmers and more would be set aside to maintain the health of the river. What was needed was a credible idea of how much water would be available in the future.

Out of the crisis came the world’s most advanced system for analyzing the water flows in a river basin. Leaders committed money and made politically difficult decisions to throw out longstanding management practices in favor of decisions based on data and scientific merit.

The global risks report, Boccaletti said, is evidence that leaders elsewhere may be at a similar stage – ready to consider seriously the idea of water.

“What this report says is that leaders now recognize that they need to take care of water,” Boccaletti said. “It’s an opening to engage. We’re not necessarily ready to solve all problems. But politically we’re at a stage to have a conversation about sustainable development, to have a discussion about water and development.”

Source: Circle of Blue


 

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No Easy Answers When Disposing of Oil and Gas Wastewater

We all want easy answers. And often times the harder the question, the easier we want the answer to be.

Increased natural gas use, for example, can help decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as it has a lower carbon content compared to coal or oil. Natural gas also can help transition our energy mix to more renewable energy sources. This is because properly designed, gas-fired generation can respond quickly to pick up the slack if the wind suddenly dies or clouds unexpectedly roll in. But, these benefits mean nothing if the communities where gas is produced suffer air and water pollution, or if methane – a powerful global warming pollutant that is the primary ingredient in natural gas – is allowed to leak into the atmosphere unchecked.

We all should be worried about global warming and the role that sloppy oil and gas production and distribution practices contribute to the problem. But communities where oil and gas development is taking place are also worried about how oil and gas drilling is impacting their water supplies. This is a key issue and one aspect of the groundwater contamination concerns, rightfully gaining attention in these communities, is how and where toxic wastewater is disposed of that is produced along with oil and gas. But here, too, the answers don’t come easy.

The basic regulatory framework

More than 25 percent of the country’s approximately 700,000 injection wells handle produced water from oil and gas operations. The quantities are huge – at least 2 billion gallons per day. And this fluid is not harmless. Produced water from oil and gas operations is usually much saltier than sea water (it will kill plants and can ruin soil) and is often laced with heavy metals and radionuclides that are naturally present in the formation being drilled.  In addition, this produced water can contain hundreds of toxic chemicals – anti-freeze to name just one example.  The current standard practice for addressing this potential environmental hazard is through injection of the water into geologic formations suited to permanent disposal.

The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act gave the EPA oversight of underground wells injected with chemical-laden fluids for disposal and other purposes. In most cases, EPA delegates the authority to state agencies, but in some states, such as Pennsylvania, EPA regulates the wells itself.

EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) program generally has received high marks. In fact, many environmental advocates believe it is important to expand the program to include hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, which was largely excluded from UIC regulation by the “Halliburton loophole” passed by Congress in 2005.

Challenges with existing methods

For all its high marks, the UIC program also has its problems. For starters, it is uncertain whether all states are following EPA’s definition of “Underground Source of Drinking Water”– the water that is supposed to be protected.

Leaks sometimes occur from storage tanks at UIC wells.

Other challenges include: inadequate investigations in some jurisdictions of the surrounding disposal area to make sure no unplugged wells or natural faults allow wastewater to migrate into water supplies; not always assuring that pressures during injection are held low enough to avoid breaks in caprock that protect aquifers;  failing to make sure that injection is always limited to permitted intervals;  and responding to the  increasing number of small and medium size earthquakes that are linked to injections.

Underfunding of regulatory programs compounds the problem, making it harder to provide the public with assurance that their water quality is protected from oil and gas development.

Wastewater Recycling: Buyer Beware

Recycling oil and gas wastewater for reuse in hydraulic fracturing operations is on the rise. The challenge, however, is that recycling requires storage and transport, and almost always requires some sort of treatment. How new residual waste streams are dealt with that carry far more toxic and concentrated substances than the water treated is a major environmental concern as companies jump on the recycling trend. Growing interest in the Appalachian Basin to treat oil and gas wastewater and discharge it into surface streams has heightened attention on these matters. Right now, these discharges are subject to EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), but as EPA recently noted in its Preliminary 2014 Effluent Guidelines Program Plan, “current regulations may not provide adequate controls for oil and gas extraction wastewaters.”

Recycling wastewater does reduce the need for freshwater and reduce the volumes that need to be disposed, but it can make disposal much more challenging – particularly when we don’t know enough about the treatment process and resulting waste products.

Diligent oversight needed

Permanent storage using underground injection wells remains by far the most common disposal method. At this point, it also appears to be the least risky, not to be confused with “unrisky”.

But there are things that can be done right now to help us begin to minimize these risks, such as updating requirements for the installation and maintenance of pits and tanks, assessing risks posed by new forms of transport and adopting appropriate risk controls, and doubling down on efforts to identify and remediate leaks and spills.

Bottom-line: none of this is simple. And questions about management of this produced water from drilling operations further demonstrates why we need to stay vigilant in better understanding the environmental impacts of oil and gas development. Having worked most of my career on these issues, it is clear to me that incremental but near-constant improvements are essential to minimize risks and protect communities.

Source: The Energy Collective