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World Water Wars: Next Mega Conflict or Next Big Scare Story?

Without Water There Is No Life On Earth - Juhanson
People can adapt without their earth-changing oil, plastic, gravel; but without water, there is no life. Concerted action is the next world challenge ahead.

Water as liquid, ice, vapour and steam occupies 71% of the earth’s surface. Virtually all forms of life depend on it. Every cultural, historical and human landscape is locked into it, either plentifully or in shortage. The earth’s entire economy is finally balanced on H20’s continuing supply: it’s essential in everything from manufacturing to power generation and cooling, food preparation, sewerage and agriculture.

History shows that whenever there is a shortage of an in-demand commodity, first the price goes up. Then the conflicts to own it start. That is the doomsday scenario occupying scientists, some politicians, and film-makers.

Demand Outstrips Supply

While mankind debates global warming, man’s destruction of his habitat and all the politically controversial measures to redress the balance, there is growing consensus round the notion that in the next three decades, parts of the world are facing a potentially devastating shortage of sufficient clean water and hygienic waste disposal

Amikam Nachmani, writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in March 1994, argued it is a growing problem because renewable water supplies are declining. He reckoned by 2025 the average net water resources in the Middle East are expected to be under 700 cubic meters per person a year, less than half now. Almost everywhere, growth in global population and development have depleted reserves.

Even if the world grows more food to feed more people, agriculture requires more water. Nachmani estimates agriculture absorbs 73% of the world’s fresh water. More transport, more houses, more technology – all have an insatiable appetite for water, with the added danger that the water available is deteriorating in quality.

Some estimates assume three and a half billion people live with less than 50 litres a day, which is less than a seventh what the average US citizen consumes daily. Where there is famine and drought, relief is frequently provided from existing food stocks, and there may be as little as 50 days of grain stocks currently available in the world. Eventually there is a hope that fresh crops will be grown, assuming time, expertise, no further disaster and water will allow. However, disasters like volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, winds and drastically changing temperatures can only exacerbate the problems.

There are already water conflicts around the world: India and its neighbours, Israel and its neighbours, Egypt/Ethiopia, Turkey/Syria, Turkey/Iraq. Scotland has more than it needs, while England may face shortages ahead. Enterprising Scottish people are already offering to sell water south of the border.

Man’s Ingenuity

Building canals and dams have been favoured ways of harnessing water and the energy from it since Roman times. Egypt’s Aswan Dams across the Nile started in the early 1900s and completed in 1970, have controlled the annual Nile flooding of the rich agricultural lands that gave ancient Egypt its wealth and power. Water storage for agriculture and hydroelectric power have been created. There are silt,nutrient, fishing problems down-steam and numbers of archaeological monuments were submerged.

In China, the Three Gorges Dam, finished in 2008, is currently the world’s largest electricity generating plant. The Chinese regard it as an engineering, political, social and economic success. However, it too flooded historic sites, increased landslide risk and displaced 1.3 million people from their homes.

North Wales has the Llyn Celyn reservoir built between1960-65, to supply the English city of Liverpool. Its construction meant the permanent submerging of Capel Celyn village and all its homes. Giant dams like the USA’s Hoover (formerly Boulder) Dam in Arizona/Nevada create massive reservoirs to store water and harness hydroelectric power.

Yet there is both a high price to pay in terms of what is lost in creating dams, energy spent constructing massive engineering projects, environmental damage, use of gravel and water for cement and a real limit on what man can actually achieve. Water is notoriously difficult to move great distances and is prone to evaporation en route. The polar ice caps are not viable water sources after being towed any distance. Cloud-seeding is not yet much more than an idea.

In a time of economic restriction, the commitment and political will for huge new schemes may not be forthcoming. Tapping water from rivers and drilling deeper wells in dry areas are all tried. Many scientists believe the answer is desalination plants. Recycling of waste-water is well advanced in the west. Use of chemicals and pesticides in farming, the deforestation of huge areas of the earth have had impacts on the ecological balance, but have not increased finite availability of fresh water.

The Global Policy Forum publishes journals highlighting the realities of global water shortage. An Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) paper points out that when water is scarce, political, socio-economic and cultural factors fuel tensions, while international cooperation on rivers, basins and other sources can help diminish tension as they build trust and confidence as well as facilitating development.

To recognise a looming problem, to debate it and set up studies does not address it. The hope is that man’s inventiveness will solve it before it’s too late.

First published on Suite 101, 14th June 2010.

Photo: Without Water There Is No Life On Earth – Juhanson

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