The Coming Water Crisis

By Habib Siddiqui

Water CrisisNearly 71% of our earth is covered with water of which only 2.5% is fresh water, and the remainder 97.5% is salt water. Of this fresh water, nearly 70% (or 1.75% of total water) is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland. The remainder 0.75% of the total water is perhaps the world’s most important resource that is found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, underground aquifers and other sources.

Water demand is increasing rapidly worldwide. Of the fresh water consumed by humans, nearly 70%is used to produce food. In Asia, e.g., 86% of total water withdrawal is in the agriculture sector. Freshwater is also consumed for household, municipal and industrial uses. As the world population rises, while water consumption per capita increases with urbanization and the rapid development of manufacturing industries, the freshwater supplies are increasingly becoming smaller with contaminated lakes, rivers, groundwater aquifers and reservoirs.

Large parts of the world are running out of water. 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 and 2050. Sana – the capital of Yemen – is likely to be the first capital city to completely run dry in a few years. In parts of Pakistan and India, groundwater levels are falling so rapidly that from 10% to 20% of agricultural production is under threat. Some 60% 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. In northern China, rivers now run dry in their lower reaches for much of the year. The Yellow River, the so-called birthplace of Chinese civilization, is so polluted it can no longer supply drinking water.

The division of the river basin water has created friction among the countries of South Asia and among their states and provinces. The Indus River Basin has been an area of conflict between India and Pakistan for about four decades. Spanning 1,800 miles, the river and its tributaries together make up one of the largest irrigation canals in the world. Dams and canals built in order to provide hydropower and irrigation have dried up stretches of the Indus River. India and Bangladesh have also dispute over the Ganges/Padma and Teesta Rivers water and India is resorting to water theft there as well. Nepal and Bangladesh are also victims of India’s water thievery. India had a dispute with Bangladesh over Farakka Barrage, with Nepal over Mahakali River and with Pakistan over 1960 Indus Water Treaty. As I have noted elsewhere, the damns and barrages built inside India on many of the common rivers have made navigation inside Bangladesh during the dry seasons almost impossible.

India is busy building dams on all rivers flowing into Pakistan from occupied Kashmir to regain control of water of western rivers in violation of Indus Water Treaty. This is being done to render Pakistan’s link-canal system redundant, destroy agriculture of Pakistan which is its mainstay, and turn Pakistan into a desert. India has plans to construct 62 dams/hydro-electric units on the Chenab and Jhelum Rivers, which would render these rivers dry by 2014. Using its clout in Afghanistan, India has succeeded in convincing Karzai regime to build a dam on River Kabul and set up Kama Hydroelectric Project She has offered technical assistance for the proposed project, which will have serious repercussions on the water flow in the Indus River.

China has built some 20 dams on the eight great Tibetan rivers while some 40 more are planned or proposed for construction in coming years. China also admitted that she is building a dam on the Yarlung Zangbo River, which will rise to 3,260 meters, thus making it the highest dam in the world. The river originates in Tibet but then flows into India and Bangladesh where it is called Brahmaputra and Jamuna, respectively, and is a major water source for millions of people. Recently, the Chinese government has taken on a grand, ambitious and $62 billion expensive project called the South-North Water Diversion Project to divert at least six trillion gallons of water each year hundreds of miles from the other great Chinese river, the Yangtze, to slake the thirst of the north China plain and its 440 million people.

Ethiopia is building three dams, two of them large and one controversial, for environmental reasons. Of these, the Great Millennium Dam, along the Nile River about 25 miles from the Sudan border, will cost nearly $5 billion. The dam will section off a larger portion of the Nile than is used now by Ethiopia and will have a devastating effect on Egypt. The new Egyptian government has instructed its military to prepare for any eventuality regarding a crucial water dispute with neighbouring Ethiopia.

Violent incidents over wells and springs take place periodically in Yemen, and the long-running civil war in Darfur owes partly to the chronic scarcity of water in western Sudan. The Six-day War in the Middle East in 1967 similarly was partly prompted by Jordan’s proposal to divert the Jordan River in response to Israel’s siphoning off of water from the Sea of Galilee all the way to the Negev Desert. And water remains a divisive issue between Israel and its neighbours to this day. Israel extracts about 65% of the upper Jordan, leaving the occupied West Bank dependent on a brackish trickle and a mountain aquifer, access to which Israel also controls. In 2004 the average Israeli had a daily allowance of 290 litres of domestic water, while the average Palestinian is less than 70.

International river basins extend across the borders of 145 countries, and some rivers flow through several countries. The Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi are each shared among 9 to 11 countries, and 19 countries share the Danube basin. The 1569 mile long Ganges/Padma River is shared by both India and Bangladesh. The longer Brahmaputra River is shared between China, India and Bangladesh. Adding to the complications is the fact that some countries, especially in Africa and South Asia, rely on several rivers, e.g., 22 rise in Guinea. Some 280 aquifers also cross borders. Consider also the fact that many of Bangladesh’s 250 rivers originate from the Himalayas and run through India before flushing out to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. Bangladeshi scientists estimated that even a 10 to 20% reduction in the water flow to the country could dry out great areas for much of the year.

As global food prices rise and exporters reduce shipments of commodities, countries that rely on imported grain are panicking. Countries like South Korea, China and India have descended on fertile plains across the African continent, acquiring huge tracts of land to produce wheat, rice and corn for consumption back home. These land grabs shrink the food supply in famine-prone African nations and anger local farmers, who see their governments selling their ancestral lands to foreigners. The land grabs to the south also pose a grave threat to Africa’s newest democracy, Egypt, in her ability to put bread on the table because all of her grain is either imported or produced with water from the Nile River, which flows north through Ethiopia and Sudan before reaching Egypt.

The Nile Waters Agreement, which Egypt and Sudan signed in 1959, gave Egypt 75% of the river’s flow, 25% to Sudan and none to Ethiopia. This situation is changing abruptly as wealthy foreign governments and international agri-businesses snatch up large swaths of arable land along the Upper Nile. While these deals are typically described as land acquisitions, they are also, in effect, water acquisitions.

Just as wars over oil played a major role in 20th-century history, there is growing evidence that many 21st century conflicts will be fought over water. In “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” journalist Steven Solomon argues that water is surpassing oil as the world’s scarcest critical resource.

From Turkey, the southern bastion of NATO, down to South Africa, and from China and Indonesia in the east to Mauritania in the west, most of the countries of Asia and Africa are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra millions born each year, not to mention agriculture, the main cause of depleting water resources in the region. According to Solomon, our world is divided into water haves and have-nots. China, Egypt and Pakistan are just a few countries facing critical water issues in the 21st century.

Water is irreplaceable and its use in the past century grew twice as fast as world population. Solomon writes, “We’re going to have to find a way to use the existing water resources in a far, far more productive manner than we ever did before because there’s simply not enough.” That control and manipulation of water resources should be a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history is hardly surprising. Water has always been man’s most indispensable natural resource, and one endowed with special, seemingly magical powers of physical transformation derived from its unique thermodynamic properties and extraordinary roles in earth’s geological and biological processes.

Through the centuries, societies have struggled politically, militarily, and economically to control the world’s water wealth: to erect cities around it, to transport goods upon it, to harness its latent energy in various forms, to utilize it as a vital input of agriculture and industry, and to extract political advantage from it. Solomon says: “Every era has been shaped by its response to the great water challenge of its time. And so it is unfolding on an epic scale today. An impending global crisis of freshwater scarcity is fast emerging as a defining fulcrum of world politics and human civilization. For the first time in history, modern society’s unquenchable thirst, industrial technological capabilities, and sheer population growth from 6 to 9 billion is significantly outstripping the sustainable supply of fresh, clean water available from nature using current practices and technologies.”

Freshwater is an Achilles’ heel of fast-growing giants China and India, which both face imminent tipping points from unsustainable water practices that will determine whether they lose their ability to feed themselves and cause their industrial expansions to prematurely sputter. “The lesson of history is that in the tumultuous adjustment that surely lies ahead, those societies that find the most innovative responses to the crisis are most likely to come out as winners, while the others will fall behind. Civilization will be shaped as well by water’s inextricable, deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change… By grasping the lessons of water’s pivotal role on our destiny, we will be better prepared to cope with the crisis about to engulf us all,” writes Solomon.

But has our generation grasped those lessons that are so critical for our survival? Basic human needs for water should be fully acknowledged as a top international priority. Basic ecosystem water needs should be identified and met. Our irrigation systems remain very inefficient, wasting as much as 60% of the total water pumped before it reaches the intended crop. If need be, we also have to alter our food habits into growing crops that require less water. Water conservation through better planning, management, and technologies offers great promise to minimizing water usage in household, agricultural and industrial sectors. As noted by Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute and the author of “World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse,” for the sake of peace and future development cooperation, the nations of the Nile River Basin should come together to ban land grabs by foreign governments and agri-business firms. Since there is no precedent for this, international help in negotiating such a ban would likely be necessary to make it a reality. Finally, serious water-related conflicts should be resolved through formal negotiations.

Sadly, few agreements have been reached about how the water should be shared; most of those agreements are seen as unjust: upstream countries believe that they should control the flow of the rivers, taking what they like, if they can get away with it. Thus, it is not too surprising to hear India’s whining about Chinese thievery of Brahmaputra water, while she herself is stealing water from Bangladesh on some other rivers that originate from India.

In his lecture at the Geneva conference on Environment and Quality of Life in June 1994, Adel Darwish said, “International law is not clear on the right of upstream countries to control either surface or groundwater.” It is also not clear on the shared watercourses, rivers or cross border aquifers. That situation, regrettably, has not improved an iota.

The non-clarity of international law remains a matter of grave concern. There are few, if any, precedents that the UN international law commission or the International court of justice could be cited to establish some rules to arbitrate on water sharing; but so far no country has volunteered to do so.

If we want to avoid wars of the future, culminating from water, international laws must be formulated that pledge survival of the lower riparian, downstream countries through an equitable share of the common water. Dams and barrages that can alter the vital ecosystem and take away the means of livelihood of the affected people should also be banned on common international rivers. No people should ever have to live with the curse of the dams and barrages like the Farakka (and the proposed Tipaimukh Dam) that kills people!



Dr. Habib Siddiqui has authored nine books. His book: “Democracy, Politics and Terrorism – America’s Quest for Security in the Age of Insecurity” is available at Amazon.com.


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