Water Scarcity Risk: Not Just a Local Political Issue

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There are few issues as politically charged as water, not only because people’s survival depends on it, but also because it is a critical component of so many industries. Agriculture, food and beverage manufacturers, refineries, paper and pulp companies, electronics manufacturers, mining operations and power plants—are of these rely on a continuous and reliable water supply.

When companies move into markets with weak infrastructure or questionable rule of law, drawing on these resources can quickly bring them into conflict with local citizens and, sometimes, the host government. Because of its vital importance, however, water scarcity has become much more than a local issue for businesses.

Water shortages can lead to conflict as competition grows for diminishing resources, as any scarce resource on which people depend is likely to become political at some point in time. One scenario that repeatedly unfolds is as follows: A mining operation depletes local water resources or has a tailings dam accident that contaminates a local river, a protest ensues and the host government intervenes in the project. Hydroelectric power projects can create a number of similar political risks and some different ones, including relocation of local villages.

In recent years, however, awareness has grown about how water scarcity risk affects political risk at the national and international levels, requiring a different type of analysis. The depletion of rivers, lakes and streams has led to more dependence on below-ground water. More than two-thirds of groundwater used around the world is for irrigating crops, and the rest of below-ground water is used to supply cities’ drinking water. For centuries, below-ground water supplies served as a backup to carry regions and countries through droughts and warm winters that lacked enough snowmelt to replenish rivers and streams. Now, the world’s largest underground water reserves in Africa, Eurasia and the Americas are under stress, with many of them being drawn down at unsustainable rates. Nearly two billion people rely on groundwater that is considered under threat.

What makes the problem particularly difficult to solve in the emerging markets is that small, often subsistence, farmers are doing the drilling for water. The U.S. military called climate change, including reduced access to water, a “threat multiplier,” potentially threatening the stability of governments, increasing inter-state conflict, and contributing to extremist ideologies and terrorism.

It is always difficult to establish causality with something as complex as politics, but there certainly is circumstantial evidence that water scarcity was a factor in the Syrian uprisings that led to the country’s civil war. In Yemen, some hydrologists warn the country may be the first to actually run out of usable water within a decade, and combatants are making a bad situation even worse by using water and food as weapons against opposing villages. In Sudan, desertification and water scarcity have been cited as having a strong link to the Darfur conflict.

Since water does not respect political borders, the conflicts can become international.  One of the most high-profile disputes has been Ethiopia’s damming of the Nile River for hydroelectric power, potentially threatening Egypt’s ancient water source. In 2013, Egypt’s then-president said he did not want war but he would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered by the dam. Fortunately, in 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed an agreement allowing dam construction, provided that it did not cause “significant harm” to downstream countries. But the studies into how much harm it could do have not even been completed yet, and the dammed water could be diverted to uses other than power. Thus, the political risk surrounding the Nile River is far from over. Since 1975, Turkey’s construction of dams for irrigation and power have cut water flow into Syria by 40% and into Iraq by 80%, setting off disputes there.

Companies are accustomed to building water into their business plans in developing countries. Environmental impact assessments and proactive community relations programs can bring potential problems to the surface before they start, helping companies manage water in an environmentally and socially prudent manner. The geopolitical risks around water scarcity can be more difficult to manage, however. In this area, companies should consider building water scarcity into their political risk management and forecasting frameworks, factoring it in when making investment and supply chain decisions. If governments cannot find ways of sharing this limited resource, political violence risk may become even more of a factor for international businesses to consider.

This article previously appeared on Zurichna.com.

Planning for Extreme Floods

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Companies in the United States should begin preparing now for climate change, which is predicted to cause extreme weather conditions, according to FM Global’s report, The Impact of Climate Change on Extreme Precipitation and Flooding. As the climate warms, areas that are dry will become drier and moist areas will see higher precipitation. The characteristics of precipitation will also change. “We feel cli­mate change not so much through subtle changes in the mean, but through changes in the extremes,” MIT Prof. Kerry Emanuel said in the report.

While the overall amount of precipitation might remain the same, it will become less frequent but more intense. A specific region of the country that has historically seen 10 inches of rain each May might see the same volume that month, for example, but those 10 inches may occur in a much shorter period of time, increasing the risk of flooding, according to the study.

By the end of the century, as temperatures rise, it is possible for precipitation to change by 8%, which could exacerbate wildfires in some areas and flooding in others. The danger is that, because these extreme events are infrequent, they lack urgency, so planning can easily be put off. Risk managers are advised to check their facility’s resilience in terms of the building’s ability to withstand flooding, focusing on 500-year flood levels rather than 100-year.

Extreme wet or dry conditions can affect a company’s buildings, machinery, data centers, transportation networks, supply chains, people and sales. Organizations should focus on water management—diverting water from property, optimizing drainage and protecting water supplies, and they should consider new weather extremes when managing supply chains.

Flood hazard mapping is increasingly proving helpful as understanding of water risk is improving, Louis Gritzo, vice president and manager of research with FM Global, wrote in “Mitigating Evolving Water Threats,” from this month’s Risk Management Magazine. Advances in technology have led to improvements in weather satellites, geospatial data acquisition and physical model development, making old models obsolete. Anyone working with information from a flood map that is more than 15 years old should consider an update, he wrote.

Those with a flood map should make sure it includes potential coastal flooding areas as well as river flooding, also taking into account the local topography of coastal locations. “Areas along the coast that are surrounded by hills and mountains will likely experience far more wind-blown water (storm surge), as the local terrain directs more water in spaces between steeper slopes,” Gritzo wrote.

California’s New Localized Water Controls a Step Forward

With higher levels of rain and snowfall over the winter, California’s water situation has eased in some areas, prompting the state to initiate new water conservation rules, adopted on May 18 and in effect June 1 through January 2017. The regulations give control over water usage to local communities, which means more restrictions in some areas than in others. In Northern California, winter precipitation has filled some reservoirs, while drought conditions persist in Southern California.

The previous rule—enacted in April 2015 by Gov. Jerry Brown, who issued an Executive Order mandating a 25% reduction of urban water usage from 2013 levels over a nine-month period—saw a savings of about 424 billion gallons. That followed a failed year-long effort to achieve a voluntary 20% reduction in water usage, with statewide conservation results averaging between just 7% and 12%.

The State Water Resources Control Board explained that the new approach replaces the percentage reduction-based water conservation standard with a localized approach. The emergency regulation requires that urban water suppliers ensure that at least a three year supply of water would be available to their customers in case of drought conditions. Suppliers that would face shortages under three additional dry years are now required to meet a conservation standard equal to the amount of a shortage. A water agency that projects it would have a 10% supply shortfall, for example, would have a mandatory conservation standard of 10%. The regulation also makes previously passed water-wasting rules permanent, including no hosing of sidewalks, washing cars without a hose nozzle, or watering lawns within 48 hours of measurable rainfall.

“El Nino didn’t save us, but this winter gave us some relief,” Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said in a statement. “It’s a reprieve though, not a hall pass, for much if not all of California. We need to keep conserving, and work on more efficient practices, like keeping lawns on a water diet or transitioning away from them. We don’t want to cry wolf, but we can’t put our heads in the sand either.”

Will Sarni, director and practice leader of water strategy at Deloitte, agrees with the direction the state is taking on conservation.

While it may appear that restrictions are being eased, which could send the message that things are going back to business as usual, “It’s not business as usual, but local entities are being given more control,” Sarni said. “My view is that water is ultimately a local issue, so providing greater flexibility and decision-making at the local level that aligns with an overall strategy within the state, or nation, makes sense.”

The model of local management actions that roll up to a regional entity have successfully been adopted in other parts of the country, he said, explaining that states do work together. One example is the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is an entity that has a say in how water is managed in the Delaware River. Other examples include the Great Lakes Commission and the Colorado River Compact. “So cooperating on water is actually more common than not,” Sarni said.

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Drought 2

Massive Wildfires Ravage Alberta, Canada

oil sands, Canada
Wildfires have shut down tar sand operations north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada

Drought conditions in 2015 left Alberta, Canada, parched. Combined with recent winds and high temperatures, this has led to a massive, intense wildfire in the oil city of Fort McMurray, forcing evacuation of more than 80,000 people, and burning about 1,500 homes. Authorities said there have been no known casualties from the blaze, but that fatalities were reported in at least one vehicle crash along the evacuation route.

On Tuesday, the municipality of Wood Buffalo announced mandatory evacuations and closed all southbound routes. Residents fled to safer ground north of the of the area, where they spent Wednesday night in arenas, hockey rinks and oil work camps that often ran short of supplies, Reuters reports.

The fire is now five times its initial size and spreading south, taking it farther away from the massive tar sands area. Shell Nexen, Suncor and other oil sands operators have curtailed or shut down operations to protect pipelines and help evacuate employees and nearby residents, according to the Washington Post.

The wildfires in Canada illustrate a continuing trend of increasingly severe wildfires that in the United States caused a record 10.1 million acres to be burned in 2015, surpassing the previous high of 9.8 million acres in 2006, Mark Crawford reported in last month’s issue of Risk Management. It was the fourth year in the past decade in which more than nine million acres burned. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the 2015 wildfire season was the costliest on record, with more than $2 billion spent fighting fires.

Environmental scientists at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences said in 2013 that rising temperatures could lengthen wildfire seasons, increasing burn areas and smoke from fires.

Meanwhile, current weather reports for Alberta have raised hopes, as the forecast calls for cooler temperatures and possible rain.

Alberta hotspots