Interbasin Water Transfers and Water Scarcity in a Changing World: A Solution or a Pipedream?

by Jamie Pittock; Jian-hua Meng; Martin Geiger

Jan 1, 2009
The world is increasingly forced to face the challenge of how to ensure access to adequate water resources for expanding populations and economies, whilst maintaining healthy freshwater ecosystems and the vital services they provide. Now the growing impacts of climate change are exacerbating the problem of water scarcity in key regions of the world. One popular way for governments to distribute water more evenly across the landscape is to transfer it from areas with perceived surpluses, to those with shortages.

While there is a long history of water transfers from ancient times, as many societies reach the limits of locally renewable water supplies increasingly large quantities of water are being moved over long distances, from one river basin to another. Since the beginning of dam building that marked the last half of the 1900s more that 364 large-scale interbasin water transfer schemes (IBTs) have been established that transfer around 400 km³ of water per year (Shiklomanov 1999). IBTs are now widely touted as the quick fix solution to meeting escalating water demands. One estimate suggests that the total number of largescale water transfer schemes may rise to between 760 and 1 240 by 2020 to transfer up to 800 km³ of water per year (Shiklomanov 1999).

The wide range of IBT projects in place, or proposed, has provoked the preparation of this review, including seven case studies from around the globe. It builds on previous assessments and examines the costs and benefits of large scale IBTs. This report assesses related, emerging issues in sustaining water resources and ecosystems, namely the virtual water trade, expanding use of desalination, and climate change adaptation. It is based on WWF's 2007 publication "Pipedreams? Interbasin water transfers and water shortages".

The report concludes that while IBTs can potentially solve water supply issues in regions of water shortage - they come with significant costs. Large scale IBTs are typically very high cost, and thus economically risky, and they usually also come with significant social and environmental costs; usually for both the river basin providing and the river basin receiving the water.

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