“I’d kill for a drink of water,” could be a military call-to-arms soon, as the planet’s most essential commodity is swallowed, evaporated, polluted, and utilized at unsustainable levels.
Earth contains a finite, unchanging amount of H2O. Usage has escalated dangerously, due to human population explosion (1.65 billion - 9 billion from 1900-2025) and the myriad cubic-acres of water demanded in mining, industry, agriculture, and recreation. One ton of wheat requires one thousand tons of water; watering the world’s golf courses requires 2.5 billion gallons per day, and 650 gallons only gets you either a pound of rice or one cotton shirt.)
Global warming also dwindles our freshwater: glaciers are vanishing, lakes, rivers, and aquifers are shriveling. Lake Chad has 95% of volume in the last 50 years. Lake Meade (water source for Las Vegas) could be dry n a decade. The Yellow River in China often fails to reach the ocean.
The Population Institute warns that the demand for fresh water already exceeds the supply by 17%. By 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, claims the OECD.
Will armies battle each other, as the cry for “blue gold” gets furious? Will “water wars” be as prevalent as conflict for the “black gold” of oil? Two documentary films have wetted public interest - Blue Gold: World Water Wars, and Last Call at the Oasis, and a dystopia novel - The Water Wars - warns of its imminence.
North Yemen vs. South Yemen - Hydrologists predict that the capital - Sana’a - of this impoverished area could run out of water by 2025, as private wells and aquifers dry up. (Primary usage? 40% of water is used by farmers of khat, an addictive stimulant plant that’s the drug-of-choice for Somalia pirates, plus it’s suspected that it’s marketing is partly controlled by al-Qaeda.) The unstable region contains many armed operatives, several linked to al-Qaeda, who could mobilize to gain control of the dwindling water supply.
Egypt vs. Ethiopia - The Nile River is the life-blood of Egypt, with the vast majority of its 83 million population residing near its banks. But who does the water belong to? The Nile originates 4,000+ miles away, and travels through nine nations before it becomes “Egyptian.” Sources suggest that two ex-presidents, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, both threatened to blow up dam projects in Ethiopia. Tensions were renewed in 2011 when Ethiopia declared its intention to build the `Great Millennium Dam` - one of the biggest in Africa. An Al Jazeera report speculates that today’s unpopular Egyptian military might seek to distract its disgruntled citizenry by engaging in a conflict with the upstream competitor.
India vs. China - China has already constructed 10 dams on the 2,900 kilometer long Brahmaputra River, and another 18 are in progress. Repercussions in lower riparian NorthEast India and Bangladesh could be catastrophic. China is probably intent on damming 8-10 great rivers that flow from the Tibetan plateau, the world’s largest water tank. China seeks to nourish its drought-stricken central and eastern provinces; it’s expecting 25% water shortage by 2030. “Over 6,000 lakes in China are now dry. The Yellow River basin in the north is 30 per cent dead,” Sandeep Waslekar, president of Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group,told India Today.
Burkina Faso vs. Ghana - The Volta River flows from Burkina Faso (formerly named Upper Volta) to Ghana, with the two nations squabbling over how to share it. Ghana depends on the river to generate its huge hydroelectric Akosombo Dam that accounts for 80% of the nation’s electricity; this power is crucial in expanding the nation’s industry. Burkina Faso is damming upriver, to acquire irrigation water to combat the Sahel’s desertification. The region’s inhabitants suffer abysmal poverty, with 31% living on less than $1 per day. Exacerbating the problem is an estimate that the Volta Basin population will increase 80% in the next 25 years, while rainfall declines due to climate change that is making the region hotter and drier.
Thailand vs. Laos vs. Vietnam vs. Cambodia vs. China - Downriver Southeast Asian nations are irritated by their huge northern neighbor, due to eight massive Chinese dams built, or under construction, on the Upper Mekong. The SE Asian nations are also suspicious of each other, for the same reason. Voice of America reports that “41 large dams could be put on the Mekong and its tributaries by 2015, and 71 by 2030, with Laos following a development model similar to China.” Hydrodams are viewed in the region as key energy sources to power economic growth. There’s also mounting concern in the region about potential environmental damage to agriculture and fisheries.
India vs. Pakistan - Water from Kashmir is a major dispute in the decades-long animosity between the two largest subcontinental. The Indus Water Treaty (1960) divided six rivers - the Indus, the Jhelum and Chenab were given to Pakistan, while the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi were declared Indian. Semi-arid, drought-stricken, water-stressed Pakistan presently claims that India is illegally diverting river water to itself, via an upstream dam. 92% of Pakistan is is dependent on the Indus River system, and more than half the population is employed in agriculture.
Turkey vs. Syria vs. Iraq vs. Iran - The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are still being argued over, 4,500 years after Sumer. Dams and irrigation in Turkey, Syria, and Iran are troubling downstream Iraq, which is threatened by desertification. Iraq utilized the rivers to build its Fertile Crescent “cradle of civilization” but Syria and Turkey have emerged as dominating rivals for Iraq’s historical claim. Evaporation, sewage, and pesticide pollution have further water-stressed Iraq. Iraq and Syria nearly battled in 1975 when Syria filled Lake Assad behind its impressive Ath Thawrah Dam, reducing Euphrates flow, but today, Turkey is undoubtedly the most feared and vilified, because 98% of the Euphrates originates there. Turkey reportedly uncovered a Syrian plot to blow up the massive, mile-long Ataturk Dam, after it was completed in 1992.
Central Asia, i.e., Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan Conflicts in this dry region over water use from the Syr Daria and Amu Daria rivers have escalated since their freedom following glasnost in 1991. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan want more water for their water-gluttonous crops of cotton, wheat and rice, while upstream, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan seek to extract hydropower. Rising populations in the region also demand more farmland. A report by the International Crises Group indicates that “the countries are now consuming 1.5 times what they should.” A sixth “stan” - Afghanistan, downstream on the Amu Daria - is is also demanding a fair water share.
Israel vs. Palestine - The Mountain Aquifer, which lies under both Israel and the West Bank, is the only water resource for the Palestinians, but is controlled by Israel, for “security reasons.” Observers note that Israel grants only 20% of the water to the West Bank, utilizing the remainder for their own purposes. Israeli monopolization of the aquifer would be jeopardized, of course, if Palestine was ever fully autonomous. Not unrelated, Ariel Sharon has said has said that the 1967 conflict with Syria, whereby the Golan Heights was obtained, wasn’t entirely about “security.” What was the real cause? 15% of Israel’s water now flows from the Golan.
Are parched throats, saber-rattling, and dead bodies inevitable in a water-desperate future? Diplomacy is obviously needed to avert the conflicts. Emerging technology can also be of great assistance - it can help quench humanity’s need for more H20 with innovations in filtration, irrigation, desalinization, and recycling.
Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Interim Managing Director and Fundraiser. He was IEET’s Managing Director on January-October in 2012, and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.
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