Growing up in Israel in the 1960s, we were always urged to conserve precious water. Rainfall was rare and meager, the sun scorching, our only sweet water lake under constant threat by the Syrians. Israelis were being shot at hauling water cisterns or irrigating their parched fields. Water was a matter of life and death - literally.
Governments reacted late, hesitantly, and haltingly. Water conservation, desalination, water rights exchanges, water pacts, private-public partnerships, and privatization of utilities (e.g., in Argentina and the U.K.) - may have been implemented too little, too late.
600 billion to fix
Rising incomes lead to the exertion of political pressure on the authorities by civic movements and NGO's to improve water quality and availability. But can the authorities help? According to the World Bank, close to USD 600 billion will be needed by 2010 just to augment existing reserves and to improve water grade levels.
The UNDP believes that half the population in Africa will be subject to wrenching water shortages in 25 years. The environmental research institute Worldwatch, quoted by the BBC, recommends food imports as a way to economize on water.
It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of the world's water - though only less than 30 percent in OECD countries. It takes more than the entire throughput of the Nile to grow the grain imported annually by Middle Eastern and North African countries alone. Some precipitation-poor countries even grow cotton and rice, both insatiable crops. By 2020, says the World Water Council, we will be short 17 percent of the water that would be needed to feed the population.
William K. Reilly, former administrator of the EPA, describes the human cost of water scarcity: a million dead children a year, a billion people without access to treated water, almost double this number without sanitation.
More than 11,000 people died in a cholera epidemic induced by polluted water in Latin America in the 1990s. Every year, according to the World Bank, the amount of water polluted equals the quantity of water consumed. In many parts of the world, notably in Africa, people walk for hours to obtain their contaminated daily water rations.
Turkey, Syria and Iraq: Water wars?
A long running dispute is simmering between India and Bangladesh regarding this dwindling lifeline, recent progress in negotiations notwithstanding. This is reminiscent of a low intensity conflict that has been brewing along the banks of the Nile between an assertive Egypt and the encroaching Sudan and Ethiopia since the Nile Basin Initiative has been signed in 1993.
Turkey is constructing more than two dozen dams on the Tigris and Euphrates within the Southeastern Anatolia Project. Once completed, Turkey would have the option to deprive both Syria and Iraq of their main sources of water, though it vowed not to do so. In a cynical twist, it offers to sell them water from its Manavgat river. Iraq's own rivers have shriveled by half. Still, this is the less virulent and violent of the water conflicts in the Middle East.
Israel controls Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). It is the source of one third of its water consumption. The rest it pumps from rivers in the region, to the vocal dismay of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Despite decades of indoctrination, Israelis are water-guzzlers. They quaff 4-6 times the water consumption of their Palestinian and Arab neighbors.
Nor are these phenomena confined to the poor precincts of our planet. The people of Catalonia in Spain are thirsty. They contemplate diverting water from the river Rhone in France to Barcelona. A five years old government plan to redistribute water from rain-drenched regions to the arid 60 percent of Spain meets with stiff domestic resistance. The Ogallala aquifer in the U.S., its largest, has been depleted to near oblivion. The BBC estimates that it lost the equivalent of 18 Colorado rivers by 2000.
Control of water sources has always served as geopolitical leverage. In Central Asia, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan often get their way by threatening to throttle their richer neighbors, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - and by actually cutting them off from the nourishing rivers that traverse their territories. This extortion resulted in inordinately cheap supplies of gas, coal, and agricultural products.
Can water problems be solved?
"Water stress" is already on the world's agenda at least as firmly as global warming. The Hague Ministerial Declaration released on March 2000 identified seven "water-related challenges." This led to the establishment of the World Water Assessment Program and UNESCO's "From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential," which "addresses more specifically the challenge of sharing water resources primarily from the point of view of governments, and develops decision-making and conflict prevention tools for the future."
As water become more scarce, market solutions are bound to emerge. Water is heavily subsidized and, as a direct result, atrociously wasted. More realistic pricing would do wonders on the demand side. Water rights are already traded electronically in the U.S. Private utilities and water markets are the next logical step.
Water recycling is another feasible alternative. Despite unmanageable financial problems and laughable prices, the municipality of Moscow maintains enormous treatment plants and re-uses most of its water.
Wars are the outcomes of cultures and mores. Not every casus belli leads to belligerence. Not every conflict, however severe, ends in battle. Mankind has invented numerous other conflict-resolution mechanisms. There is no reason to assume that water would cause more warfare than oil or national pride. But water scarcity sure causes dislocation, ethnic tension, impoverishment, social anomy, and a host of other ills. It is in fending off these pernicious, all-pervasive, and slow-acting social processes that we should concentrate our efforts.
Adapted from a longer article. Reprinted by permission. Sam Vaknin is the author of "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East." He served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline, and eBookWeb, as a United Press International Senior Business Correspondent, and as editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101. Until recently, he served as Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia. Visit Vaknin's website at http://samvak.tripod.com