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Article

Thomas Bernauer and Anna Kalbhenn

Freshwater is one of the most valuable natural resources on Earth. However, many of the more easily accessible freshwater resources at local and regional levels have suffered from overexploitation due to increasing population density, economic activity, and unsustainable water management practices. Sustainable management of domestic water resources is a challenging task mainly due to water allocation, pollution, and other problems on international rivers. Social science research has contributed in a variety of ways to identifying sources of international conflict and cooperation, water management options, and institutional solutions for achieving sustainable international water management. The scholarly literature has tackled a wide range of crucial questions arising from the politics of international freshwater resources, such as: whether there is sufficient evidence for the “water wars” claim—that is, whether water-related factors influence the probability of armed conflict; the determinants of international river basin cooperation, in terms of policy output and policy outcome or impact; how we can determine whether international water management efforts are successful in terms of solving problems that motivate cooperation; and the extent to which the literature offer insights into institutional design options that are effective in terms of problem solving. These studies have produced a considerable amount of policy-relevant analytical concepts and empirical findings. For example, fairness (equity) is one of the key concerns of all governments when they engage in international water cooperation, and integrated water resources management may look nice on paper but does usually not produce the desired results.

Article

Claudia Sadoff, David Grey, and Edoardo Borgomeo

Water security has emerged in the 21st century as a powerful construct to frame the water objectives and goals of human society and to support and guide local to global water policy and management. Water security can be described as the fundamental societal goal of water policy and management. This article reviews the concept of water security, explaining the differences between water security and other approaches used to conceptualize the water-related challenges facing society and ecosystems and describing some of the actions needed to achieve water security. Achieving water security requires addressing two fundamental challenges at all scales: enhancing water’s productive contributions to human and ecosystems’ well-being, livelihoods and development, and minimizing water’s destructive impacts on societies, economies, and ecosystems resulting, for example, from too much (flood), too little (drought) or poor quality (polluted) water.

Article

Water scarcity has long been recognized as a key issue challenging China’s water security and sustainable development. Economically, China’s water scarcity can be characterized by the uneven distribution of limited water resources across space and time in hydrological cycles that are inconsistent with the rising demand for a sufficient, stable water supply from rapid socioeconomic development coupled with a big, growing population. The limited water availability or scarcity has led to trade-offs in water use and management across sectors and space, while negatively affecting economic growth and the environment. Meanwhile, inefficiency and unsustainability prevail in China’s water use, attributable to government failure to account for the socioeconomic nature of water and its scarcity beyond hydrology. China’s water supply comes mainly from surface water and groundwater. The nontraditional sources, wastewater reclamation and reuse in particular, have been increasingly contributing to water supply but are less explored. Modern advancement in solar and nuclear power development may help improve the potential and competitiveness of seawater desalination as an alternative water source. Nonetheless, technological measures to augment water supply can only play a limited role in addressing water scarcity, highlighting the necessity and importance of nontechnological measures and “soft” approaches for managing water. Water conservation, including improving water use efficiency, particularly in the agriculture sector, represents a reasonable strategy that has much potential but requires careful policy design. China’s water management has started to pay greater attention to market-based approaches, such as tradable water rights and water pricing, accompanied by management reforms. In the past, these approaches have largely been treated as command-and-control tools for regulation rather than as economic instruments following economic design principles. While progress has been made in promoting the market-based approaches, the institutional aspect needs to be further improved to create supporting and enabling conditions. For water markets, developing regulations and institutions, combined with clearly defining water use rights, is needed to facilitate market trading of water rights. For water pricing, appropriate design based on the full cost of water supply needs to be strengthened, and policy implementation must be enforced. An integrated approach is particularly relevant and greatly needed for China’s water management. This approach emphasizes integration and holistic consideration of water in relation to other resource management, development opportunities, and other policies across scales and sectors to achieve synergy, cost-effectiveness, multiple benefits, and eventually economic efficiency. Integrated water management has been increasingly applied, as exemplified by a national policy initiative to promote urban water resilience and sustainability. While economics can play a critical role in helping evaluate and compare alternative measures or design scenarios and in identifying multiple benefits, there is a need for economic or social cost–benefit analysis of China’s water policy or management that incorporates nonmarket costs and benefits.

Article

The importance of groundwater has become particularly evident in the late 20th and early 21st centuries due to its increased use in many human activities. In this time frame, vertical wells have emerged as the most common, effective, and controlled system for obtaining water from aquifers, replacing other techniques such as drains and spring catchments. One negative effect of well abstraction is the generation of an inverted, conically shaped depression around the well, which grows as water is pumped and can negatively affect water quantity and quality in the aquifer. An increase in the abstraction rate of a specific well or, as is more common, an uncontrolled increase of the number of active wells in an area, could lead to overexploitation of the aquifer’s long-term groundwater reserves and, in some specific contexts, impact water quality. Major examples can be observed in arid or semi-arid coastal areas around the world that experience a high volume of tourism, where aquifers hydraulically connected with the sea are overexploited. In most of these areas, an excessive abstraction rate causes seawater to penetrate the inland part of the aquifer. This is known as marine intrusion. Another typical example of undesirable groundwater management can be found in many areas of intensive agricultural production. Excessive use of fertilizer is associated with an increase in the concentration of nitrogen solutions in groundwater and soils. In these farming areas, well design and controlled abstraction rates are critical in preventing penetrative depression cones, which ultimately affect water quality. To prevent any negative effects, several methods for aquifer management can be used. One common method is to set specific abstraction rules according to the hydrogeological characteristics of the aquifer, such as flow and chemical parameters, and its relationship with other water masses. These management plans are usually governed by national water agencies with support from, or in coordination with, private citizens. Transboundary or international aquifers require more complex management strategies, demanding a multidisciplinary approach, including legal, political, economic, and environmental action and, of course, a precise hydrogeological understanding of the effects of current and future usage.