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The Emerging Water Wars

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Message Sam Vaknin
Growing up in Israel in the 1960's, we were always urged to conserve precious water. Rainfall was rare and meager, the sun scorching, our only sweet water lake under constant threat by the Syrians. Israelis were being shot at hauling water cisterns or irrigating their parched fields. Water was a matter of life and death - literally.

Drought often conspires with man-made disasters. Macedonia experienced its second worst dry spell during the civil strife of last year. Benighted Afghanistan is having one now - replete with locusts. Rapid, unsustainable urbanization, desertification, exploding populations, and economic growth, especially of water-intensive industries, such as microprocessor fabs - all contribute to the worst water crisis the world has ever known.

Governments reacted late, hesitantly, and haltingly. Water conservation, desalination, water rights exchanges, water pacts, private-public partnerships, and privatization of utilities (e.g., in Argentina and the UK) - may have been implemented too little, too late.

Rising incomes lead to the exertion of political pressure on the authorities by civic movements and NGO's to improve water quality and availability. But can the authorities help? According to the World Bank, close to $600 billion will be needed by 2010 just to augment existing reserves and to improve water grade levels.

The UNDP believes that half the population in Africa will be subject to wrenching water shortages in 25 years. The environmental research institute, Worldwatch, quoted by the BBC, recommends food imports as a way to economize on water.

It takes 1000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of the world's water - though only less than 30 percent in OECD countries. It takes more than the entire throughput of the Nile to grow the grain imported annually by Middle Eastern and North African countries alone. Some precipitation-poor countries even grow cotton and rice, both insatiable crops. By 2020, says the World Water Council, we will be short 17 percent of the water that would be needed to feed the population.

The USA withdraws one fifth of its total resources annually - proportionately, one half of Belgium's drawdown. But according to the OECD, Americans are the most profligate consumers of fresh water, more than double the OECD's average in the 1990's. Britain and Denmark have actually reduced their utilization by 20 percent between 1980 and 1996 - probably due to sharp and ominous drops in their water tables.

Stratfor, a strategic forecasting firm, reported on May 14, 2002 that Mexico and the USA are in the throes of a conflict over Mexico's "failure to live up to its water supply commitments under a 1944 treaty", which allocates water from the Colorado, Rio Concho, and Rio Grande among the two signatories.

Mexico seems to have accumulated a daunting debt of 1.5 million acre-feet between 1994-2002 - the result of a decade long drought. Each acre-foot is c. 1.2 million liters. Mexico's reservoirs are less than 25 percent full. Some of the water, though, has been used to transform its borderland into a major producer of fresh vegetables for the American market - at the expense of Texas farmers.

Faced with the worst drought in more than a century in some states, the Bush administration has announced on May 3, 2002 that it is considering sanctions, including, perhaps the suspension of water supplies from the Colorado to Mexico. Texas lawmakers demanded to re-open NAFTA and amend it punitively.

Mexico is a typical case. Only 9 percent of its streams and rivers are fit for drinking. Its underground water is almost equally polluted. Its infrastructure is crumbling, leading to severe seepage of more than two fifths of the water. Half of the rest evaporates in open canals.

Moreover, water is under-priced, thus encouraging wasteful consumption, mainly by farmers. Stratfor cites an estimate published in the May 5, 2002 issue Fort Worth Star-Telegram - more than $60 billion will be needed over the next decade to refurbish Mexico's urban and rural networks.

William K. Reilly, former administrator of the EPA, writing in the "ITT Industries Guidebook to Global Water Issues", mentions the human cost of water scarcity: a million dead children a year, a billion people without access to treated water, almost double this number without sanitation.

More than 11,000 people died in a cholera epidemic induced by polluted water in Latin America in the 1990's. Every year, according to the World Bank, the amount of water polluted equals the quantity of water consumed. In many parts of the world, notably in Africa, people walk for hours to obtain their contaminated daily water rations.

Water shortage hobbles industrial production in places as diverse as Sicily and Malaysia. The lower estuaries of the Yellow River - China's most important - are now dry two thirds of the year. The water table beneath China's fertile northern plane is falling by 1.5 meters a year.

The drought in Sri Lanka is so severe and so prolonged that the International Red Cross had to intervene and launch an appeal for emergency funds. The Mekong River, which flows from China to Vietnam, is being obstructed by 7 Chinese dams under construction. Once completed, its flow will be reduced by half.

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Sam Vaknin ( ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He served as a columnist for Global Politician, Central Europe Review, PopMatters, Bellaonline, and (more...)
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