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Erik Rasmussen

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Prepare for the Next Conflict: Water Wars

Posted: 04/12/11 12:11 PM ET

Every minute, 15 children die from drinking dirty water. Every time you eat a hamburger, you consume 2400 liters of the planet's fresh water resources -- that is the amount of water needed to produce one hamburger. Today poor people are dying from lack of water, while rich people are consuming enormous amounts of water. This water paradox illustrates that we are currently looking at a global water conflict in the making.

We are terrifyingly fast consuming one of the most important and perishable resources of the planet -- our water. Global water use has tripled over the last 50 years. The World Bank reports that 80 countries now have water shortages with more than 2.8 billion people living in areas of high water stress. This is expected to rise to 3.9 billion -- more than half of the world's population -- by 2030 in a 'business as usual'-scenario. The status as of today is sobering: the planet is facing a 'water bankruptcy' and we are facing a gloomy future where the fight for the 'blue gold' is king.

The growing water scarcity is a primary driver for insecurity, instability and conflicts and is currently setting the stage for future water wars -- unless global action is taken. This was the main message from a report released last month from the US Senate "Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan". The report warned of coming water wars in Central and South Asia due to water scarcity and predicted that it "will be felt all over the world".

A looming crisis
As little as 0.75 percent of the total water available on earth is accessible fresh water. These 0.75 percent are perhaps the world's most important resource. Our global economy, our industries and our everyday life runs on this water.

But fresh water is a finite and vulnerable resource. In some places, like parts of North America and Europe, water is plentiful, but in most parts of the world the water resources are under stress due to a growing imbalance between a mounting demand for water and shrinking water reserves. This means that large parts of the world are running out of water. Sana -- the capital of Yemen -- is likely to be the first capital city to completely run dry in a few years. A paper presented by the World Bank entitled "the Aftermath of Current Situation in the Absence of Work" concluded that Yemen will run out of water in the period between 2020-2050. Some 60 percent of China's 669 cities are already short of water and the current record drought in several of China's region is directly linked to their problems with water scarcity.

A decisive factor of the growing water crisis is poor resource management on a global scale; according to the UN, 70 percent of industrial wastes in developing countries are dumped untreated into waters where they pollute the usable water supply; poor drainage and irrigation practices have led to water logging and salinization of approx.10 percent of the world's irrigated lands according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO); more than 20 pct. of our food production is unsustainable, relying on over pumping of finite groundwater resources. For instance 175 million Indians are feed with grain produced with water from irrigation wells that will soon go dry. In large parts of India the water table is falling by about 4cm (1.6 inches) per year due to the intense water use. As these water tables fall, will drillers are forced to use modified oil drilling technology to reach fresh water, going as deep as 1000 meters in some locations.

Furthermore the water demand is increasing rapidly worldwide; Today we use 70 percent of the global water use to produce food. With the prospects of feeding 9 million people in 2050 (an additional 2.5 billion people from today) the industrial, individual and especially the water demands for agricultural purposes is expected escalate dramatically -- by 2050 we shall need 80 percent increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves putting even more pressure on the water resources. This vicious water cycle poses a great threat where a future of water shortage will also mean a future of food shortage. This is enhanced dramatically by a growing global 'water market'. We are seeing a new trend where farmers in California are selling their water instead of producing crops -- because they make more money selling water to the big cities. This meaning that demand for water in the cities is now draining the areas normally used to produce our food.

The interconnected epidemic
A very important factor of the growing water scarcity is climate change. Many leading organizations such as the UN and NASA agree that climate change is creating additional pressure on the scarce water supplies, due to changes in temperature that boost evaporation rates, altering rainfall patterns, and the melting of ice. They expect the global access to fresh water to be even more hampered by future changes in the climate. In 2007 this dangerous development led the IPCC to conclude that we are to expect an increased strain on water due to climate changes which alone represents a great threat to the world community: "Water and its availability and quality will be the main pressures on and issues for, societies and the environment under climate change".

A concrete example of the nexus between the water crisis and the climate epidemic is the melting of glaciers in Asia and South America. In both regions climate change is already causing major water shortages for millions of people whose supplies come from melting snow and glaciers. With higher temperatures and more rapid melting of ice, fewer water supplies are available to farms and cities. The past 30 years rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers -- which supply freshwater to a third of the world's population -- due to climate changes have already made fresh water a scarce in parts of Asia.

The worst water-effects of the climate change have yet to emerge. As the climate epidemic spreads and the global warming accelerates, 38 percent of the world's surface is expected to desertificate and dry out -- especially the subtropics and mid-latitudes, where much of the world's poorest populations live -- leading to a severe increase in the gap between supply and demand, to a vast inequality in access to water and thus an exacerbation of the water crisis.

The road to water wars
For years experts have set out warnings of how the earth will be affected by the water crises, with millions dying and increasing conflicts over dwindling resources. They have proclaimed -- in line with the report from the US Senate -- that the water scarcity is a security issue, and that it will yield political stress with a risk of international water wars. This has been reflected in the oft-repeated observation that water will likely replace oil as a future cause of war between nations.

Today the first glimpses of the coming water wars are emerging. Many countries in the Middle East, Africa, Central and South Asia -- e.g. Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Kenya, Egypt, and India -- are already feeling the direct consequences of the water scarcity -- with the competition for water leading to social unrest, conflict and migration. This month the escalating concerns about the possibility of water wars triggered calls by Zafar Adeel, chair of UN-Water, for the UN to promote "hydro-diplomacy" in the Middle East and North Africa in order to avoid or at least manage emerging tensions over access to water.

The gloomy outlook of our global fresh water resources points in the direction that the current conflicts and instability in these countries are only glimpses of the water wars expected to unfold in the future. Thus we need to address the water crisis that can quickly escalate and become a great humanitarian crisis and also a global safety problem.

A revolution
The current effort is nowhere near what is needed to deal with the water-challenge -- the world community has yet to find the solutions. Even though the 'water issue' is moving further up the agenda all over the globe: the US foreign assistance is investing massively in activities that promote water security, the European Commission is planning to present a "Blueprint for Safeguarding Europe's Water" in 2012 and the Chinese government plans to spend $600 billion over the next 10 years on measures to ensure adequate water supplies for the country. But it is not enough. The situation requires a response that goes far beyond regional and national initiatives -- we need a global water plan.

With the current state of affairs, correcting measures still can be taken to avoid the crisis to be worsening. But it demands that we act now. We need a new way of thinking about water. We need to stop depleting our water resources, and urge water conservation on a global scale. This calls for a global awareness that water is a very scarce and valuable natural resource and that we need to initiate fundamental technological and management changes, and combine this with international solidarity and cooperation.

In 2009, The International Water Management Institute called for a blue revolution as the only way to move forward: "We will need nothing less than a 'Blue Revolution', if we are to achieve food security and avert a serious water crisis in the future" said Dr. Colin Chartres, Director General of the International Water Management Institute. This meaning that we need ensure "more crop per drop": while many developing countries use precious water to grow 1 ton of rice per hectare, other countries produce 5 tons per hectare under similar social and water conditions, but with better technology and management. Thus, if we behave intelligently, and collaborate between neighbors, between neighboring countries, between North and South, and in the global trading system, we shall not 'run out of water'. If we do not, and "business as usual" prevails, then water wars will accelerate.