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.

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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Water Risk in the Middle East

Water scarcity has become a hot topic within the last few years (we ran a feature on the the risk of water scarcity and its effect on businesses in our June 2009 issue). That risk, however, is far greater in certain areas of the world than others. On March 22nd, Maplecroft warned that Middle East and North African (MENA) countries top the list for extreme water security risks, which could lead to further increases in global oil prices and heightened political tensions in the future.

Maplecroft rated 18 countries at “extreme risk” with 15 of those located in the MENA region. Of the 12 organizations of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), six are rated as “high risk.”

“Water security has the potential to compound the already fragile state of societal affairs in some countries,” says Professor Alyson Warhurst, CEO of Maplecroft. “For example, in Egypt water security may intensify the on-going civil tensions. In turn it is not unrelated to food security, which leads to cost of living protests and in turn violent oppression in less democratic societies.”

The report states that technological innovations, such as the desalination of salt water, may alleviate some of these risks. Businesses that require intensive water use (food and beverage, semiconductor manufacturing, etc.) will also need to consider their impacts and analyze options for lessening their reliance on water, especially in regions already experiencing shortages.