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Posted November 22, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Joel Brinkley: Water wars may be in our future

By Joel Brinkley

Get ready for the water wars.

Most of the world's population takes water for granted, just like air -- two life-sustaining substances. After all, the human body is nearly two-thirds water.

But a Hindustan Times blogger said that in India right now, as in so many other places around the globe, drinkable water has become such a "precious commodity" that it's dragging the world into "water wars to follow the ones for the control of fuel oil."

Climate change is drying up lakes and rivers almost everywhere. In Australia, for example, an unprecedented heat wave brought on massive wildfires and critical water shortages.

As water grows scarce, more and countries are building dams on rivers to hog most of the water for themselves, depriving the nations downstream. Already, Egypt had threatened to bomb the Grand Renaissance Dam upstream on the Nile River in Ethiopia.

And as the Earth's population crossed the 7 billion mark last year, more and more water sources are so polluted that drinking the water can kill you. No one's counting, but various government and private estimates indicate that worldwide, tens of thousands of children die each and every day from drinking contaminated water.

By most estimates, half the world's people live in places where clean water is not easily available. Bangalore, India, for example once had 400 lakes in its vicinity. Now, the New Indian Express newspaper wrote, only 40 are left, and all of them are polluted.

Hence the fights. One of the biggest areas of conflict is the India-Pakistan-China nexus. Multiple rivers intertwine the countries, and as water levels fall, all three are building dams to keep much of the water for themselves.

China has built more dams than any other nation, making numerous countries angry because Chinese rivers flow into more adjacent states than from any other state. And yet, even with 14 different downstream border states, China refuses to agree to any water treaties. Right now, China has approved plans to build 54 more dams on rivers, many of which serve as the lifeblood of neighboring states.

In China's north, "desertification" is turning vast areas into dust bowls. So the government is trying to divert 6 trillion gallons of water per year from the Yangtze River to reclaim the area, worrying people in other parts of China who rely on the Yangtze for their own water.

In Iran, farmers in one region destroyed a water-pump station that was carrying water away from their area to the city of Yazd. That started a fight with security forces, but the farmers are remaining on station to make sure the pump is not rebuilt.

A recent NASA study warned of an "alarming rate of decrease in total water storage" in Iraq's "Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India." The report warned that water scarcity could become another cause of conflict.

Egypt's military threats against Ethiopia begin to make sense when you realize that Egypt's 84 million people draw 95 percent of their water from the Nile River. A common saying is that without the Nile there is no Egypt.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently held a hearing on water shortages and other threats in Central Asia, and Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, a California Republican, warned of another potential conflict, quoting Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov: "Uzbekistan will even use weapons if necessary" against its northern neighbor Kazakhstan "to get the water passing through (Kyrgyzstan) territory that we intend to accumulate in reservoirs."

In Sri Lanka this month, the Daily News wrote: "We can live many days without food, but without water it is about three days." Still, "we can't seem to get the right water to the right people at the right time. ... More people have access to cell phones than safe water."

So where is all this water going? With ever-rising temperatures, more and more water evaporates and returns to the ground as rain. But most of it falls into the oceans. That's one reason sea levels are rising worldwide, threatening vast coastal areas.

But all of that leaves the world with an expensive but straightforward solution to the water-shortage problem everywhere. Build desalination plants, as Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia and other well-off, water-stressed states are already doing.

Soon enough, whichever country starts marketing these critically important plants worldwide will make a lot of money and grow to be seen as a savior for millions of the world's people.

Email: joel.brinkely@stanford.edu


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