Water: the New Oil? Chatham House Event

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The NFU’s Water Resources and Flood Management Advisors Paul Hammett and Mhari Barnes recently attended a Chatham House conference on ‘Water 2019: the New Oil?’.

Flood management policy advisor Dr Mhari Barnes writes: “The conference had some great, diverse speakers from the manager of the European Investment Bank to a representative from UNESCO. The conference theme addressed the potential for water to be the next global conflict with different speakers arguing for and against this perspective. One speaker explained that water fundamentally could not be the new oil due to the fact that it is irreplaceable. Across the world water is considered both enemy and friend – sometimes simultaneously. This has never been more apparent in the UK than in 2019 when farmers in Norfolk struggled with water scarcity while the neighbouring county of Lincolnshire was dealing with devastating flooding a mere 53 miles away (as the crow flies) which saw risk management authorities pumping 8 million m3 of fresh water into the sea!

One of the main problems when it comes to water is that it is ‘cheap’… until there isn’t any! But this has led to investors struggling to see what their returns would be if they were to invest in new water infrastructure. This is not just a UK problem but a global one. A speaker from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs explained how they have overcome this problem. The Dutch government has set up the ‘blue bank’ for water infrastructure and maintenance spending which includes everything from flood defences, dredging to coastal dykes.

A recent scientific study has predicted a 4 degrees Celsius rise in global air temperature due to climatic change. This will further increase the pressure on water as a resource but also managing flood risk due to the associated sea level rise from melting ice sheets. Some parts of the UK, where we have some of the most fertile agricultural land sits at, or below, sea level. This is a huge consideration for us as a sector going forward. How can we prevent, protect and adapt to the increasing flood risk and water resource pressures associated with climate change?

The conference also acknowledged the elephant in the room that is population growth. Not only do future water resource and risk issues have to deal with the impacts of climate change but we have a growing global population that continually adds pressure to water resources, energy and food security. In the discussion, one speaker stated that ‘water is a factor of security similar to energy; both are used as a weapon and can result in conflict’.

Water for energy was also discussed in the form of Hydro-Electric Power. Various examples were given where countries have gone into partnership to not only provide power but also reserve water as a resource. One example is Brazil and Panama where 300,000 acres of forest have been removed in order to create a dam to provide much needed electricity for a growing South American population. However, there are emerging geopolitical issues with water and dams where gradients exist for Hydro-Electric Power are beneficial and make hydrological sense but can lead to poor political relations e.g. Israel pump water up to 1200m above-sea-level to allow Jordan to grow tomatoes in what would be considered a desert. This seems absurd but it keeps political peace between the two countries. However, in some parts of the world water is not considered strategic for international relations.

Throughout the first session and the discussions around water being considered as ‘the new oil’ there were three main themes that came through in the presentations. These were: misuse, misunderstanding and education.

The second part of the day focussed on water governance. As the speakers were from a range of countries this sparked a really interesting discussion and provided an insight into how other governments control this essential commodity. The need for investment into water management was apparent in the presentations. There was also consideration of the essential nature of relationships in order to achieve good water governance. To work, this needs the active involvement of stakeholders, civil society and government (local and national). One example that was given in the presentations was South Korea’s water nexus which includes – water, land, people and food. They believe that all water is already committed to a purpose within the nexus. Therefore, if you overuse or consumptively use in one aspect of the nexus it will take away from another leading to detrimental impacts.

The third session focussed on urbanisation and agriculture. The key message I took home from this session was that no matter what you do in agriculture when it comes to water management; cities hold the key as they make up 80% of consumers. A speaker from Relief International summed up the day nicely for me as this is something that I constantly hear from members when it comes to flood risk management; ‘lack of maintenance is the biggest burden to global water issues. Technology doesn’t and can’t replace good governance.’

Water resources advisor, Paul Hammett writes: “The last theme for the day was the future role of technology and how it can be utilised to improve our governance of water. The water industry is quite conservative so technology takes a long term to emerge.

I was encouraged to hear ideas around managing ‘too much and not enough’ water through capture, recharge and reuse - ideas that we are also developing in the NFU.

We are getting better all the time at monitoring, measuring and water accounting all aided by remote sensing, smart meters, mobile communications and telemetry. Gadgets should help us to better manage erratic demand for water that is so common in agriculture and which is very difficult to plan for.

But it’s all about using the appropriate technology for the local situation. For example, it’s pointless installing a high-tech irrigation pump if it’s impossible to service it in the field.

In my view, technological advances will help, but they won’t trump or replace good governance

And the importance of institutions working at right level.

Which brings us back to operating at the local level, and the need to find the best fit of technology and government for the locality. After all, whilst oil has the same degree of use wherever we are in the world, the use and value of water is very local.”

In reflecting on the event Paul and Mhari stated that “Overall the event inspired us and brought a whole different perspective as to how we as specialists look at water as a risk and a resource and how other societies, sectors and scientists view the commodity that is essential to our food production and moreover, our lives”.

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