NEW YORK – Many conflicts are caused or inflamed by water scarcity. The conflicts from Chad to Darfur, Sudan, to the Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, to Somalia and its pirates, and across to Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, lie in a great arc of arid lands where water scarcity is leading to failed crops, dying livestock, extreme poverty, and desperation.
Extremist groups like the Taliban find ample recruitment possibilities in such impoverished communities. Governments lose their legitimacy when they cannot guarantee their populations’ most basic needs: safe drinking water, staple food crops, and fodder and water for the animal herds on which communities depend for their meager livelihoods.
Politicians, diplomats, and generals in conflict-ridden countries typically treat these crises as they would any other political or military challenge. They mobilize armies, organize political factions, combat warlords, or try to grapple with religious extremism.
But these responses overlook the underlying challenge of helping communities meet their urgent needs for water, food, and livelihoods. As a result, the United States and Europe often spend tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to send troops or bombers to quell uprisings or target “failed states,” but do not send one-tenth or even one-hundredth of that amount to address the underlying crises of water scarcity and under-development.
Water problems will not go away by themselves. On the contrary, they will worsen unless we, as a global community, respond. A series of recent studies shows how fragile the water balance is for many impoverished and unstable parts of the world. The United Nations agency UNESCO recently issued The UN World Water Development Report 2009 ; the World Bank issued powerful studies on India ( India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future ) and Pakistan ( Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry ); and the Asia Society issued an overview of Asia’s water crises ( Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future ).
These reports tell a similar story. Water supplies are increasingly under stress in large parts of the world, especially in the world’s arid regions. Rapidly intensifying water scarcity reflects bulging populations, depletion of groundwater, waste and pollution, and the enormous and increasingly dire effects of manmade climate change.
The consequences are harrowing: drought and famine, loss of livelihood, the spread of water-borne diseases, forced migrations, and even open conflict. Practical solutions will include many components, including better water management, improved technologies to increase the efficiency of water use, and new investments undertaken jointly by governments, the business sector, and civic organizations.
I have seen such solutions in the Millennium Villages in rural Africa, a project in which my colleagues and I are working with poor communities, governments, and businesses to find practical solutions to the challenges of extreme rural poverty. In Senegal, for example, a world-leading pipe manufacturer, JM Eagle, donated more than 100 kilometers of piping to enable an impoverished community to join forces with the government water agency PEPAM to bring safe water to tens of thousands of people. The overall project is so cost effective, replicable, and sustainable that JM Eagle and other corporate partners will now undertake similar efforts elsewhere in Africa.
But future water stresses will be widespread, including both rich and poor countries. The US, for example, encouraged a population boom in its arid southwestern states in recent decades, despite water scarcity that climate change is likely to intensify. Australia, too, is grappling with serious droughts in the agricultural heartland of the Murray-Darling River basin. The Mediterranean Basin, including Southern Europe and North Africa is also likely to experience serious drying as a result of climate change.
However, the precise nature of the water crisis will vary, with different pressure points in different regions. For example, Pakistan, an already arid country, will suffer under the pressures of a rapidly rising population, which has grown from 42 million in 1950 to 184 million in 2010, and may increase further to 335 million in 2050, according to the UN’s “medium” scenario. Even worse, farmers are now relying on groundwater that is being depleted by over-pumping. Moreover, the Himalayan glaciers that feed Pakistan’s rivers may melt by 2050, owing to global warming.
Solutions will have to be found at all “scales,” meaning that we will need water solutions within individual communities (as in the piped-water project in Senegal), along the length of a river (even as it crosses national boundaries), and globally, for example, to head off the worst effects of global climate change. Lasting solutions will require partnerships between government, business, and civil society, which can be hard to negotiate and manage, since these different sectors of society often have little or no experience in dealing with each other and may mistrust each other considerably.
Most governments are poorly equipped to deal with serious water challenges. Water ministries are typically staffed with engineers and generalist civil servants. Yet lasting solutions to water challenges require a broad range of expert knowledge about climate, ecology, farming, population, engineering, economics, community politics, and local cultures. Government officials also need the skill and flexibility to work with local communities, private businesses, international organizations, and potential donors.
A crucial next step is to bring together scientific, political, and business leaders from societies that share the problems of water scarcity – for example, Sudan, Pakistan, the US, Australia, Spain, and Mexico – to brainstorm about creative approaches to overcoming them. Such a gathering would enable information-sharing, which could save lives and economies. It would also underscore a basic truth: the common challenge of sustainable development should unify a world divided by income, religion, and geography.