The global water crisis: Frank Rijsberman, [cross-post]

Admin note:  This is my first attempt at a cross-post.  This time it’s with my Silicon Valley-based friend Saket Vora (his blog here).  Saket is a multi-talented electrical engineer (currently in Stanford’s Master’s program) and entrepreneur.  Some of his recent projects include the new Nano’s at Apple, UV water purification startup WaterPLUS, various startup projects at Stanford, finishing his master’s degree with coursework including engineering, finance, and business strategy, blogging prolifically, and keeping the pulse of global politics.  Before the winter holidays, we met up to hear the below talk.

On Dec. 4th, Frank Rijsberman of gave a talk about the global water crisis. Now a Program Director for water issues, Rijsberman has more than 15 years’ experience in water development, most recently being the former director of the International Water Management Institute based in Sri Lanka. He has also been a water resources engineer, co-founded a water consulting group, and built tools to analyze water usage. The talk began with a discussion how the water crisis affects us despite so many of the truly pressing problems happening on the other side of the globe, then moved into discussing the specific types of crises associated with water, and a more detailed look at water scarcity issues. Rijsberman then used four vignettes from Africa and south Asia to highlight the issues discussed before.

Rijsberman described how the water crisis is already relevant to Americans.  Approximately 3 billion people live in areas with poor drinking water.  Two-thirds of the world population is projected to be experiencing water scarcity by 2028.  Given the talk was at Stanford, he also highlighted the water shortage California is already experiencing.  Worldwide water-related diseases account for 82 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost.  DALYs is a metric that attempts to capture the health and economic burden of disease in a population. Many water-related diseases may not be fatal, but they can render a person unable to work and thus have severe economic impact to both a household and an economy. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 25 million of these DALYs and also for 769,000 child deaths per year from poor water quality.  Touching briefly on the future impact of climate change, he mentioned that the main problem with global warming will be increased variability of precipitation, leading to stronger wet seasons or longer droughts.  Paraphrasing another scientist he thus mentioned, “if climate change is all about energy, then climate adaptation will be all about water.”

The next major point was that the water crisis is about food, not drinking water.  Food requires approx 70X the volume of daily household needs.  As a rule of thumb, every calorie (kcal) of food produced requires one liter of water.  He cited ballpark figures we quickly jotted down:

Type of water use Amount (liters)
drinking daily use 2-5
household daily use 20-400
water to produce 1kg of grain 1,000 of ET (evapotranspiration)
water for a vegetarian’s daily food 2,600 of ET
water for a meat-eater’s daily food 5,400 of ET

Earlier this year, I measured my average water use and found it ranged from 100200 L/day. To illustrate the water intensity in making food products, Rijsberman described the water used to produce a can of Coca Cola.  The water in the cola drink is almost nothing compared to the water required to grow the corn for sugar, process the aluminum (extracting from bauxite ore, processing, and cleaning), and provide cooling for energy during manufacturing.

Removing another potential myth, Rijsberman described two types of water scarcity: physical and economic.  Physical water scarcity means there is no access to water.  Economic water scarcity means there is water nearby but people lack the infrastructure, governance, accountability, and economic systems to utilize the water sustainably.  Rijsberman showed several maps showing environmental water stress using the widely used Falkenmark indicator, which is a measure of renewable water resources per capita per year. Speaking to FR afterward, he said that basically there is no place in the world where physical scarcity is the primary problem.  (Even when river basins are drying up there may be other ways to capture available water, for instance through rainfall storage or groundwater access). The true problem is economic scarcity.

To again set the stage for the broad audience, he shared ballpark numbers for the cost of different types of water use.

product $/m^3 (1000L or 250 gal)
retail H2O (e.g., Dasani) <= 10,000
Bulk bottled H2O (5-gal tanks) 100-200
Tap 1-2 (CA 2006: $0.85)
Irrigation 0.01-0.02 (=$12-24 /AF or higher)

Note on conversions: 1 acre-foot (AF)=(42,560 ft^2)(ft)/(3.28 ft/m)^3=approx 1,206 m^3.  My friend David Zetland at Aguanomics showed me the handy “1-2-3-4” as another way to remember conversions, 1AF = approx 1,234 m^3.  1m^3=264 gal or approx 250 gal as FR ballparked.

Within the overall challenge of economic water scarcity, FR argued that there are 2 distinct crises: the service crisis and the resource crisis. The service crisis arises when a lack of infrastructure is unable to provide affordable drinking water to a population. This problem is exacerbated by the high capital cost of water purification and distribution systems needed to address the needs of growing populations. Urban areas are struggling to keep up with the influx of people from rural areas, and those who continue to reside in rural areas face distribution and transport difficulties. A variety of private enterprises have arisen to address this problem. Rijsberman highlighted the town of Afuaman, Ghana where WaterHealth International invested $50,000 for a facility that processes river water and purifies it with UV light. It sells 5 gallon jugs for $0.01/gal. In contrast, water tankered into the town is sold at $0.0375/gal and bottled water for $0.38/gal. There is an on-going debate about the role of these private water providers — should people be making profit on selling a fundamental life necessity like water, particularly to people who are among the poorest in the world? If so, where does one draw the line in terms of profit margins or costs to consumers?

The resource crisis was briefly touched upon, primarily highlighting the tensions that arise when attempting to partition a scarce resource between industrial, agricultural, and drinking needs in a community. Rijsberman discussed the idea of a ‘water footprint’, a measure analogous to a carbon footprint that tries to measure the total amount of water used to make goods available to people. has more on this measure, with case studies and region analysis. This served as a segue into a vignette about Godino village, Debra Zeit, Ethiopia. People in this rural community have been forced to resort to a rudimentary form of farming and living. A woman fills a 5 gallon tank with dirty water and treks miles back to her village. A farmer works with his bare hands to shape and irrigate his fields. IWMI has worked to install $50 treadle pumps that can boost a farmer’s annual income by $100-$200. Here’s the punchline: within a 30 minute drive of this setting, there is an enormous greenhouse facility on the scale of football fields. Constant temperature and computer-controlled watering. Dutch roses and flowers are grown then exported to the world’s largest flower auction. An oasis in the middle of hardship. We could sense a feeling of disgust in the audience, and questions of social justice and of resources misallocation quickly jumped to mind. But Rijsberman asked the audience a question: if you were a parent of a teenager looking for a job, what would you tell them? To stay on the meager family farm or to go work at the very greenhouse that is exacerbating the farm’s poor condition? No easy answers.

Rijsberman showed a vignette about wastewater in Hyderabad, India then moved to Q&A. He was asked what he thought about the privatization of water, to which he said it was the wrong question to ask. What’s important is the decentralization of the water distribution method so it remains local, and ensuring transparent and effective regulation of public/private enterprises. Involving the community when organizing and implementing water delivery projects is critical for impact. Sanitation is another issue that came up. It is very difficult to get people to pay for sanitation. Too often it comes down to a feeling that “it is someone else’s problem.” Rijsberman shows examples of wastewater being preferred (indeed, it costs more than clean water) for crop irrigation in parts of South Asia and Africa because the wasterwater contains nutrients for the crops. 90% of the vegetables in Africa and 26% of the vegetables in Pakistan are produced with wastewater. Of course, there are serious health risks that arise when using contaminated wastewater to grow vegetables, but one point is that if wastewater has real value, then can revenues from this value be used to then pay for sanitation?

Like many of the challenges facing international development and poverty, there is no silver bullet to solving the water crisis. There were questions regarding technological solutions to this, but technology alone can only do so much. Expanding the discussion beyond clean drinking water to address agriculture and food needs was particularly welcome, as was truly establishing how the global water crisis has real local impacts, no matter where you live. With globalization, people on opposite sides of the world can tangibly affect the daily lives and well-being of people (as seen with the Dutch flowers and water footprint). As we struggle to determine how to use the scarce resource that is water in the closed system that is our planet, a phrase by Rijsberman comes to mind: “Every drop of water has a purpose.”

For more about what Frank Rijsberman discussed at this talk, we encourage you to read a Boston Review article he wrote titled Every Last Drop.  For a good overview of global agricultural water challenges, we suggest the FAO’s 2007 “Water for food, Water for life” summary [pdf].



  1. great post guys,

    I think an interesting illustration of a growing recognition of water (as a resource) and the political power for those who control the service was the recent Bond movie where the maniacal scheme of the worlds evil geniuses was to get control of a large underground water supply! Quite a change from your everyday obtain nuclear weapons, build super soldiers, etc action plot lines.


  2. Andrew — Great post!

    The Bond film was inaccurate (as FR would say, water can/should be managed at the community level).

    Another good source of information? My blog, of course!



  3. Guys — thanks for the comments. Bond wasn’t on my list of must-watch films but this moved the needle a bit!

    Lately I’ve been watching episodes of BBC’s Blue Planet


  4. […] shall be very interested in the sessions on epidemics and pandemics, which includes speaker Dr Frank Rijsberman, who is responsible for the global public health initiative Predict and Prevent at, and […]


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