Friday, November 28, 2014
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The Battle for Water

NEW YORK – The sharpening international geopolitical competition over natural resources has turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. Transnational water resources have become an especially active source of competition and conflict, triggering a dam-building race and prompting growing calls for the United Nations to recognize water as a key security concern.

Water is different from other natural resources. After all, there are substitutes for many resources, including oil, but none for water. Similarly, countries can import fossil fuels, mineral ores, and resources from the biosphere like fish and timber; but they cannot import water, which is essentially local, on a large scale and on a prolonged – much less permanent – basis. Water is heavier than oil, making it very expensive to ship or transport across long distances even by pipeline (which would require large, energy-intensive pumps).

The paradox of water is that it sustains life but can also cause death when it becomes a carrier of deadly microbes or takes the form of a tsunami, flash flood, storm, or hurricane. Many of the greatest natural disasters of our time – including, for example, the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011 – have been water-related.

Global warming is set to put potable-water supplies under increasing strain – even as oceans rise and the intensity and frequency of storms and other extreme weather events increase. Rapid economic and demographic expansion has already turned adequate access to potable water into a major issue across large parts of the world. Lifestyle changes, for example, have spurred increasing per capita water consumption, with rising incomes promoting dietary change, for example, especially higher consumption of meat, production of which is ten times more water-intensive, on average, than plant-based calories and proteins.

Today, the earth’s human population totals slightly more than seven billion, but the livestock population at any given time numbers more than 150 billion. The direct ecological footprint of the livestock population is larger than that of the human population, with rapidly rising global meat consumption becoming a key driver of water stress by itself.

Political and economic water wars are already being waged in several regions, reflected in dam construction on international rivers and coercive diplomacy or other means to prevent such works. Consider, for example, the silent water war triggered by Ethiopia’s dam building on the Blue Nile, which has elicited Egyptian threats of covert or overt military reprisals.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned last year that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade in some regions. The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, has called for urgent action to prevent some countries battling severe water shortages from becoming failed states. The US State Department, for its part, has upgraded water to “a central US foreign policy concern.”

In many countries, inadequate local water availability is increasingly constraining decisions about where to set up new manufacturing facilities and energy plants. The World Bank estimates that such constraints are costing China 2.3% of GDP. China, however, is not yet in the category of water-stressed states. Those that are, stretching from South Korea and India to Egypt and Israel, are paying an even higher price for their water problems.

These countries already understand that water is a renewable but finite resource. Nature’s water-replenishment capacity is fixed, limiting the world’s usable freshwater resources to about 200,000 cubic kilometers. But the human population has almost doubled since 1970, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Major increases in water demand, however, are being driven not merely by economic and demographic growth, or by the additional energy, manufacturing, and food production to meet rising consumption levels, but also by the fact that the global population is getting fatter. The average body mass index (BMI) of humans has been increasing in the post-World War II period, but especially since the 1980’s, with the prevalence of obesity doubling in the past three decades.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. The issue thus is not just about how many mouths there are to feed, but also how much excess body fat there is on the planet. For example, a study published in the British journal BMC Public Health has found that if the rest of the world had the same average body mass index as the US, this would be the equivalent of adding almost one billion people to the global population, greatly exacerbating water stress.

With the era of cheap, bountiful water having been replaced by increasing supply and quality constraints, many investors are beginning to view water as the new oil. The dramatic rise of the bottled-water industry since the 1990’s attests to the increasing commodification of the world’s most critical resource. Not only are water shortages likely to intensify and spread, but consumers also will increasingly have to pay more for their water supply.

This double whammy can be mitigated only by innovative water management and conservation, and by developing nontraditional supply sources. As in the oil and gas sector – where tapping unconventional sources, such as shale and tar sands, has proved a game changer – the water sector must adopt all unconventional options, including recycling wastewater and desalinating ocean and brackish waters.

In short, we must focus on addressing our water-supply problems as if our lives depended on it. In fact, they do.

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    1. CommentedRavi Mantha

      There is only one major problem with water on this planet, an that is that it is too often under-priced or given away for free. the reality is that there is plenty of water for everyone...but it is not free. Water is always an energy problem. Given cheap energy, one can always desalinate from the ocean, as the Saudis do. Doomsayers including Mr. Chellaney argue that as the human population grows we will have water scarcity. The reality is that as the world gets richer, we will increasingly be able to afford more water. One small example : Leaky pipes in India waste 50% of water between reservoir and home. If water were priced correctly, the pipes would get fixed. One of the bigger exporters of fruits and vegetables is Israel (3.6% of GDP), which has very little water. This tells you that people can and will use water better if it is priced better.

        CommentedGary Tucker

        Using Israel as an example of purely a pricing mechanism to maximize water usage skips two important factors in the price of Israeli water. One is that it gets a huge percentage from the West Bank for which it pays vastly less than the local Palestinians. It also controls all the water in the West Bank. The second is the fact that Israel has never lived up to its water sharing agreement with the Kingdom of Jordan over the water rights of the Jordan River. For this it basically steals from its neighboring country for free and dares them to retaliate. It also has time and time again refused the damming of the Yarmouk River in Syria and Jordan. As an example of prudent and market driven fair usage of water for the world to emulate one must look further afield than Israel I am afraid.

    2. Commentedm r

      This article does not show the rigour we are used to from its author.
      Howsoever "miserably", 150bn livestock and just 7bn humans ARE living, so there can be no dire state of lack of water- these figure are even, within reason, interchangeable.
      The struggle for which the "humans" are to be and will be damned is the utter disrespect/ contempt for its quality- we are unconcerned, it is THE real life giver. A country/ society needs be judged by how well it cares (manages) for its water.
      In Author's country top quality water is contaminated no sooner it leaves and heads towards its users, whereas in Germany the water from the tap is better than the bottled. In deed, water awareness in Germany has become so acute that water companies are having to beg its customers to use more, since it is creating problems for the other side of the process- i.e., used water canalisation.
      In terms of economy, it is laughable to think that Israel with its desert farming is exporting water in form of agriculture and Germans with ample water, machines. This trend seems the norm- water deficient counties indirectly just exporting water.

    3. CommentedFrank O'Callaghan

      An important issue.
      The first priority should be to protect the current sources from the destruction brought on by short term stupidity such as fracking and pollution of the water table.
      Second should be social guarantees of adequate free rations of water per capita.
      Third should be a planning, including all of society, for new expansion in areas where there is water stress.

      The poor should not have to pay for the water crisis. A great deal can be done in conservation. collection, recycling and other low cost options. The decisions are being taken at a level where the reality of poverty is not experienced.

    4. CommentedLeo Arouet

      Es un buen artículo. De alguna manera el artículo ha olvidado un elemento importante: la contaminación de los ríos y aguas subterráneas como los colchones acuíferos por las diversas empresas e industrias que trabajan con materiales altamente tóxicos y perjudiciales. En China la contaminación del agua es extrema.

      En Suramérica, la situación no es diferente. Los recursos hídricos se están contaminando. Empresas como Barrick Gold o Yanacocha, aparte de estar llevándose los minerales en peso y casi gratis, están ensuciando y contaminando las aguas en los lugares donde se han establecido.

      Dicho esto, resalto la información expuesta, positiva y beneficiosa que ha impulsado y reanimado el debate sobre el agua.

    5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I very appreciated and important awareness raising article.
      Basically all factors threatening short or long term water supply originates from s single reason: modern humanity's lifestyle based on unnatural, excessive demand regardless of available resources.
      The constant quantitative growth economy, the constant brainwashing urging people to consume more, to eat and drink more, way above natural standards and necessities is the basis of all present and future crisis situations humanity is facing.
      This artificially inflated human system has already exhausted human resources, indicated by social inequality, rising unemployment, unsolvable debt burden, tensions and riots, and we are very close to experience significant natural resources shortage, including water as the article highlighted.
      There are no simple solutions, adjustments, we need to completely change our lifestyle and attitude to ourselves and the natural system.
      After all humanity is still part of the natural system and have to adapt to it as any other species in order to survive.
      We all need an urgent, global, integral education program helping people to understand what a natural, global and integral system means and how we could adapt to such a system.
      If mass media was changed in a way that instead of the incessant brainwashing urging people to consume 24/7, transparent and scientific education program would be broadcasted, helping people to settle into our world system harmoniously we would see results within weeks, even days.
      As soon as our artificial "Matrix" is switched off we could become free and more balanced almost immediately, capable of building a safe and predictable future not only for 7 billion but even double that amount.
      We have enough of everything, the question is how we use it (based on excessive demand or based on available resources and natural demand) and how we distribute it.

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