Water Resource Stress: Global Economic-Ecological Factor for the 21st Century


more than 1 billion people already face fresh water scarcity;
figure expected to double in 20 years’ time

Water is one of the “fundamental building-blocks of life”, as is often said in science, in biology classrooms, in medicine, theology, environmental policy debates, and in cosmology and space exploration. It is also a commodity whose economic reality is increasingly defined by chronic scarcity and often intensely uneven distribution.

One of the most vital problems regarding the global water supply is the fact that we are already over-exploiting it, draining vital fluvial systems and ancient underground aquifers that cannot be replenished. This, coupled with the population boom and increasing industrialization, urbanization and consumerization of emerging economies, means global scarcity is fast becoming the rule.

Population, Migration & Conflict

  In highly populated regions with little or highly-variable rainfall, irrigation and industrial uses are putting unsustainable pressures on the supply of safe drinking water. At least 1 billion people worldwide currently suffer the perils and hardships of a lack of clean drinkable water. Experts calculate that by the year 2025, some 1.8 billion people will be living in regions with “absolute scarcity” of water resources, meaning they will be unable to meet demand for drinking water, irrigation or industry. The result is likely to be widespread economic chaos, famine, migration, and conflict, if no remedies are put in place ahead of time.

The first and most obvious result of such shortages is mass migration, the other is the spread of water-borne bacteria and infectious diseases. The human body can only survive a few days without hydration, so “absolute scarcity” has 3 key effects:

  1. MASS MIGRATION: those who suffer the most extreme scarcity must move in search of survival;
  2. DISEASE: water that carries toxins, disease and even raw sewage is a last resort, but becomes a tempting resource, and so disease takes root and spreads among afflicted and displaced populations;
  3. COLLAPSE OF THE FOOD SUPPLY: extreme drought and desertification often follow a period of intense or prolonged degradation of agricultural water resources…

In such situations, the problem is massive and severe enough to generate real political instability and be a security concern for national governments. This means law, treaty and military power come into play, and economic crisis can rapidly evolve, or degenerate, into armed conflict. Some researchers downplay the reality of “water wars”, but then-secretary-general of the UN, Kofi Annan, has warned of the risk to international and even global peace and stability from conflicts tied to water scarcity. And, even those who call water wars a “hydro-myth” do so saying that in the last half century there have only been 37 water-related armed conflicts. 157 treaties have been signed in that same period, to deal with this vital issue, but one shudders to think how many wars would demonstrate the risk is no longer a mere “myth”.

Dams, Irrigation & the Environment

  Competition by nations for fresh water is intense, and major dam projects are an example: the Nile River basin (including the Blue and White branches of the river upstream) is managed by 10 major dams, with 6 more under construction, across Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Egypt. Uganda has dammed the White Nile at its source at the edge of Lake Victoria, and Ethiopia has dammed the Blue Nile at its source, to prevent much-needed water from flowing out of the country before it can be diverted and exploited.

Egypt’s downstream exploitation of the overtapped river means the Nile delta is often underserved and the river has failed to reach the sea for some period during some recent years. But, without these dam projects, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, would be severely inhibited in terms of economic development. In fact, it is highly possible that failure to manage these resources for economic benefit could destabilize several countries in the region. In this light, the intense competition between human civilization and the natural environment becomes evident.

Major dam projects, long thought to be the supreme solution to water-related economic problems, tend to have devastating negative effects on local ecosystems. In the most catastrophic case to date, diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers of central Asia has led to the loss of 80% of the water of the Aral Sea, which they feed into and which was, when the project began, the world’s fourth largest sea. The Aral is now split in two, and while some reports suggest there may be some recovery in the smaller, northern section, in Kazakhstan, the overall volume may be continuing to decrease as environmental factors create an atmosphere entirely hostile to the sort of ecosystems that once flourished across this area the size of Ireland.

The Uzbek government has been criticized for not taking any serious measures to restore the water lost across the majority of the Aral basin. The US Bureau of Reclamation, created to prepare and oversea major public works projects, has recognized that the massive hydroelectric dams of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, like Hoover Dam, Glen Canyon and Grand Coulee, will likely never recover the costs of construction and operation, even as it has recognized the nearly incalculable toll these great feats of engineering have taken on the environment.

India’s Andhra Pradesh is home to a grass-roots movement organizing to oppose the near comprehensive damming, containment and diversion of major rivers, including the Krishna, the Godavari, and the Ganges. The projects, as planned, appear likely to leave the poorest and least capable of dealing with scarcity without their most basic resource, in a nation of 1.1 billion people, whose megacities are already overtaxed in all major resource areas.

There is even an “Inter-State Water Dispute Tribunal” that deals with situations where one Indian state plans a dam, reservoir or irrigation project which may negatively impact another state. Police from Maharashtra reportedly attacked demonstrators from Andhra Pradesh when they assembled to complain that a Maharashtra irrigation project would rob citizens of neighboring Andhra Pradesh of much-needed water from the Godavari River. Sandra Postel, of the Global Water Policy Project, writes that 25% of India’s food supply depends on an unsustainable use of water.

When underground aquifers dry up and farmers are unable to replace that resource, she predicts a kind of rural anarchy, where the entire fabric of agricultural society is likely to come undone. Postel also comments, as a fundamental socio-economic example, that Sumerian civilization collapsed when increased soil-salinity resulting from irrigation practices could not be reversed.

The Sumerians, the first culture to organize their society around irrigation, were forced to abandon the “fertile crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates of ancient Mesopotamia, and move north.

Competing Interests, Threats Posed

At present, water is no longer just a “building-block” for life to exist, or the primary ingredient in biological organisms like human beings; it is also a fundamental tool in industrial production and in enhancing agricultural output. As arable land is shifted from food-production to fuel-production, it is also becoming a means of making combustible fuels, further distancing the quantity of fresh water available from our capacity to exploit it efficiently.

Technology is partly to do with this: desalinization plants are expensive and have not been a comfortable means of producing massive quantities of drinkable water, though desperately poor, unstable and extremely dry places, like Yemen, have turned to desalinization as an option to prevent further economic decay from chronic drought. But it is also a matter of human priorities: do we place conservation of the water supply above consumer principles? Do we legislate conservation? Do we ration water-supplies to industry, agribusiness, small independent farmers, hotels and luxury resorts, or to individuals? Who gives up convenience and ease of use first?

The biomass-fuel boom, increasingly invading the renewable resources calendar and causing nations like Brazil to devote huge swaths of arable and semi-arable land to cultivating grains whose sole purpose is to produce the necessary ingredients for bio-fuels, puts cars and people in competition for water. Food supplies come under threat, as cultivated farmland is turned from food-production to fuel-production.

Chronic water shortages mean cities as well as individuals have a harder time achieving high levels of regular hygiene, and assigning existing (and dwindling) water supplies to such diverse and competing interests means one or more of those interests must be shut out. Will personal water use take a backseat to agricultural use and food-production? Will hospitals be able to afford the amounts of water needed to maintain safe levels of hygiene and prevent the spread of disease from contaminated materials? Will suppliers price water out of the range of many individuals, families and even municipailities, as happened in Bolivia a few years ago? Will the exploding demand for water be too tempting financially to permit sound regulation with human interest in mind to trump commercial interests?

Chronic scarcity could lead to industry failing to meet its needs, economic slow-downs, inconvenience at the consumer level across the world, cost-of-living price jumps, and social and international competition for water resources. In the worst cases, severe economic disorder and armed conflict could arise if increasingly scarce water resources are not distributed in the most efficient and intelligent way possible, with a mind to conservation and a goal of optimizing water exploitation.

Introductory Conclusions

Global water use is not going to be able to keep expanding at the rate demand is growing presently. A global policy procedure, based on sound, scientific evidence, democratic standards, economic imperatives and ecological research, needs to be implemented. Water can not be commoditized solely according to market forces without causing widespread suffering and ecological degradation.

Commercial considerations aside, the era of cheap, clean water is likely behind us. Paying less than the high biological value of water implies, within the context of an advanced, post-industrial society, means water resources are undervalued and consumed in excess. But, the great humanitarian and civic challenge of this process will be to ensure that water is treated as a basic right for all human beings. This may in fact be the most fundamental challenge facing global society today: bringing to life an elastic system for funding, organizing and maintaining fair and sustainable water-distribution, globally, without degrading the environment, and without disrupting the commercial and economic patterns that operate within free societies.

Failure to achieve these multiple goals could lead to a multi-level collapse of the global water supply along with the environmental degradation that accompanies over-consumption of water resources. Rivers, lakes, and even seas, may disappear, their unique ecosystems dying out, and dependent agricultural zones failing, if political and technological innovation does not keep pace with booming hydrological demand.

– – –

Originally published 14 August 2007, for Sentido.tv — now CafeSentido.com
Republished 19 September 2007, as part of The Hot Spring’s water scarcity report

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