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By Peter Neill, IWC for the Australian Water Partnership (AWP)

In this series, I’ve been addressing the recognition of the global water crisis, its relationship to the effects of climate change, and its implications for the future provision of water as the most valuable commodity and for worldwide health and security. I’ve suggested water as an alternative to coal, oil, and gas as a standard around which we calculate the value and organize our communities, economies, and international relationships. It may seem a drastic idea, but if you take some time to think it through, you may discover a compelling logic, a recalculation of value, a strategy for action toward a realizable future using existing technology and re-allocated financial assets.

How would it work? Let me give you an example of a planning initiative that speaks to the why and how. The Nile River Basin comprises 3 million square kilometers along a 6,695-kilometer course starting at the headwater in Rwanda and Burundi, support millions in ten riparian nations along the watershed, and descending to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. The river’s erratic flow, and the associated activities supported by that flow has been severely impacted by climate change factors: temperature rise, persistent droughts, extreme weather, flooding, and the inevitable social-economic consequence in terms of energy and food production, health and sanitation, employment, poverty, and regional security.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), in cooperation with the Nile Basin Initiative, with support by the Swedish International Development Agency, retained the Danish Hydraulic Institute (DHI), to gather all available data regarding all activities and needs throughout the watershed, to generate from that data a complex hydraulic model through which to model climate change projected effects, growing demand, and multiple requirements for water resources throughout the entire basin over time.

The DHI, a non-profit consulting firm chartered by the Danish Government, has developed proprietary software capacity that can assimilate massive amounts of data and make it adaptable for testing impacts of projected future conditions and scenarios. It is an astonishing planning tool. The Nile model includes rainfall, runoff, lakes, reservoirs, dams, wetlands, and irrigation water demands. The projections applied cover two 30-year periods: from 2020 to 2049 and from 2079 to 2099. Comparing the changing capacity with population growth, rural and urban shifts, agricultural and manufacturing needs revealed not just what amount of water might be available, but also how what is available can be efficiently and effectively managed. From this information, very specifically located in a place, a region, a settlement, or a nation, decision-makers were provided with informed conditions on which they could evaluate and place water-dependent uses, target limited financial resources, and understand the management practices and professions for which to train personnel to operate the system in the future.

Please take a moment to think about the implications of this, not only for the Nile River but also for all the other multi-state and trans-national watersheds around the world that could benefit from a similar understanding of the hydraulic reality on which their future viability will depend. For such a system to work requires local knowledge, communication, cooperation, implementation, evaluation, and further planning and action – all bringing together managers from nations sometimes antagonistic over other issues, but understanding that without such an agreement and collaborative action, the absence of adequate water supply at any point along the line will lead to deprivation and unrest.

Apply this methodology to any waterway you know and you immediately see how decisions made up-stream or down, indifferent to conditions down-stream or up, are the instigators of competition and conflict that most often does not serve anyone well.

The Nile Initiative is just one amazing example of planning with water. If nations can find consensus and compromise around water as an egalitarian human right, what else might they find possible through this first success? What other agreement might be found through the understanding and experience derived from one system that unites us all?

If you think about your own water usage, you can begin to understand what I mean. Whether or not you draw your water from a well or a municipal system, picture in your mind how that water flows through your home, what it provides, and where might be the places or behaviors where the value of that water is lost. Showers, toilet flushes, food preparation, car washes, lawn, and garden irrigation – these represent the major functions of water in the home. For how long do you or your children shower? How many times a day do you flush the toilets? Do you leave the water on when you brush your teeth or wash your dishes? These are all typical points where each of us loses the value of water down the drain, rarely recycled, mostly wasted.

If you take this one phenomenon, add to it theft of water or inaccurate metering, or free use for fire-fighting and other civic necessities, the Danish Hydraulic Institute totals for USD 14 billion lost by water users, managers, and utilities each year due to non-revenue water.

To understand water use, the Hydraulic Institute conducts water audits, identifying and analyzing the various stages along the distribution chain. The process examines water supplies, owned and imported, to calculate total system input. Against this is measured water supplied and exported, consumption authorized and unauthorized, billed and unbilled consumption, apparent and real losses to construct a balance sheet that reveals revenue water minus non-revenue water showing either surplus or deficit derived from the existing system.

These analyses can reveal weaknesses and inefficiencies along the way, and can also reveal strategies for repair, modification, and increased economies to make the system better. Localized pressure tests and flow meters can point to very specific, reparable problems, reduce leaks and blow-outs, and also reduce maintenance costs and failure rates, diverting funds to up-grades and replacements. Similar tests can discover areas of deteriorated pipe, broken connections, malfunctioning valves, and pumps, and failed or tampered meters. In its entirety, the water audit gives a real-time picture of a system that may have been constructed decades previous, sporadically maintained or improved, and in need of a major overhaul or modernization. Finally, this information can provide the data required to make management and financial decisions, accurately predict and allocate budgets over time, and provide a schematic for capital improvement, investment in new technologies, a model for a better system with far greater efficiency and return, and dramatically reduced waste of the most valuable commodity on earth. All this, from a reasonable evaluation of usage in the home or along the path of distribution.

Earlier I had described a much larger audit of the 3 million square km area of the Nile River basin. Beyond scale, what actually is the difference between that endeavor and what we might do at home, a key place where a change in behavior results in a shift in the data set, representing both baseline information but also measure of resultant improvements? What you do each day with your water is part of an enormous hydraulic reality by which precious water moves through a global natural, financial, and political system of distribution and re-distribution, through cycles and conveyors and upwellings that too often corrupt or poison the water consumed. Removing any water from that system, even a single drop, denigrates it and denies it for the future.

If we can understand the peculiarities of our plumbing and habits at home, then we can fix them. The same holds true for a municipal water system. And the same holds true for a watershed. And the same holds true for the ocean, the greatest water system on earth. If we can understand how our patterns of water use and waste are connected, perhaps now we can look at solutions evident and possible through planning with water.

Peter Neill is Founder and Director of the World Ocean Observatory. The Australian Water Partnership (AWP) is an Australian Government development initiative enhancing the sustainable management of water across the Indo-Pacific.

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