Water politics rising to top of global agenda


WORLD VIEW:THE POLITICS of water will loom large in international affairs this century.

This is emerging under the influence of climate change, unequal access to water between richer and poorer peoples, intensifying agricultural and industrial use and transboundary conflicts.

Looking at world politics through the lens of water provides many insights on these issues.

According to statistics provided for the annual World Water Week conference in Stockholm last month, 97 per cent of the Earth’s supply is salt water and, of the remaining 3 per cent, some 70 per cent is frozen in the polar icecaps.

The other 30 per cent is mostly present as soil moisture or stored in underground aquifers, so less than 1 per cent of the world’s fresh water is readily accessible for direct human use. This is clearly a precious resource, essential to life and capable of being wasted or used creatively to improve the human condition.

At present 70 per cent is used in agriculture, 20 per cent in industry and 10 per cent domestically.

The impact of human-induced climate change and global warming is evident from statistics showing that the number of great inland flood catastrophes was twice as large per decade between 1996 and 2005 as between 1950 and 1980, and economic losses were five times as great.

Almost two billion people were affected by natural disasters in the last decade of the 20th century, 86 per cent of them by floods and droughts. By 2030, 47 per cent of the world’s population will be living in areas of water stress. The number of climate refugees could reach 330 million this century if current warming trends are not reversed.

That these would be overwhelmingly poorer people emphasises the effects of inequality and power relations on access to the world’s water. A child born in the developed world consumes 30 to 50 times more water than one in the developing world.

Other figures show one billion of the world’s seven billion people suffer from hunger, another one billion are underfed, while in the richer world 1.5 billion are overweight and up to one-third of the food and water is wasted.

Poorer people are far less responsible for climate change than those in the richer world, yet have to bear most of the consequences.

This inequality gives rise to the demand for climate justice articulated by the Mary Robinson Foundation based in Dublin and devoted to that cause.

One of its basic calls is that the “benefits and burdens associated with climate change and its resolution must be fairly allocated. This involves acceptance of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in relation to reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Those who have most responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and most capacity to act must cut emissions first.”

Intensifying agricultural and industrial use of water is also a serious issue. In key parts of India, China, north Africa and the US, groundwater is being pumped out of the aquifers to produce crops faster than it can be replenished. Deeper extraction only delays the end of those resources.

This also affects the global hydrologic cycle, in that so much water is being drawn from below ground that it is estimated to be adding about 25 per cent of the world’s annual sea level rise through evaporation and precipitation. The eventual exhaustion of this water source will affect billions of people, most of them poor, unless current trends are reversed.

It is also worth noting that 10 times more water is used to produce meat than cereals. So the aspiration to generalise the rich world’s diet to everyone and feed an additional three billion people by 2050 would require an extraordinary three times as much of the present global water use in irrigation. That seems unattainable – and unsustainable.

A US national intelligence estimate on global water security, released last March, teases out some of the geopolitical issues for US foreign policy in five major findings highly relevant for the rest of the world as well.

Over the next 10 years, water problems will contribute to instability in states important to US security, it finds. Water shortages, poor water quality and floods, by themselves, are unlikely to result in state failure, but when combined with poverty, the results could be social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions.

Water-related state-on-state conflict is unlikely during the next 10 years, but the depletion of groundwater in some agricultural areas will pose a risk to national and global food markets.

Water shortages and pollution probably will harm the economic performance of important trading partners, especially those relying on hydrolic energy.

India-Pakistan-Bangladesh, Israel-Palestine, Egypt-Ethiopia and China-Indochina are but some of the regions most prone to water-based transboundary conflict.

The report is nevertheless confident that improved water management (pricing, allocations and “virtual water” trade) and investments in agriculture, power, and water treatment will afford the best solutions for water problems.

Technology can certainly supply alternatives, but can it overcome the many obstacles thrown up by short-term profitability in time to avoid ecological disaster?

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