Monday, August 1, 2011

Water Crisis Offers Chance for Unity

Published: Saturday 30 July 2011
"While the risk of water wars has long made headlines, new research suggests that possible cooperation over shared resources would be a better, and more accurate, message."

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Professor Aaron Wolf speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
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As record-break­ing tem­per­a­ture highs and rapidly melt­ing ice caps fuel fears about im­pend­ing "water wars", some ex­perts in Wash­ing­ton say that the threat of full-blown con­flict is ex­ag­ger­ated, adding that ro­bust in­sti­tu­tions and solid treaties could trans­form water crises into in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion.
The planet is cur­rently home to 276 in­ter­na­tional river basins, which cover al­most a half of the earth's land sur­face and are home to 40 per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion.
Many of these basins cross bound­aries with no re­gard for the in­cen­di­ary pol­i­tics that di­vide na­tions, re­li­gions and peo­ples. In fact, a full 80 per­cent of the world's fresh water orig­i­nates in basins shared by two or more coun­tries.
How­ever, while the risk of water wars has long made head­lines, new re­search sug­gests that pos­si­ble co­op­er­a­tion over shared re­sources would be a bet­ter, and more ac­cu­rate, mes­sage.
"Those of us who work on is­sues of in­ter­na­tional water man­age­ment see only the bound­aries of wa­ter­sheds them­selves, we see the things that unite us, that bring us to­gether," Aaron Wolf, a pro­fes­sor of ge­og­ra­phy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ore­gon, told a panel at theWoodrow Wil­son In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Schol­ars in Wash­ing­ton on Thurs­day.
"We un­der­stand that every­thing - sur­face water, water quan­tity, water qual­ity, pop­u­la­tions that lives in the basin, the wildlife – is all con­nected to­gether," said Wolf, adding that his­tory of­fers very few ex­am­ples of de­clared armed hos­til­i­ties over water it­self, the only un­am­bigu­ous case being a con­flict al­most 4,500 years ago.
Much more preva­lent, Wolf ar­gues, has been the sign­ing of treaties on the issue of shared basins.
The Trans­bound­ary Fresh­wa­ter Dis­pute Data­base (TFDD), a pro­ject of Ore­gon State Uni­ver­sity's De­part­ment of Geo­sciences in part­ner­ship with the North­west Al­liance for Com­pu­ta­tion Sci­ence, car­ried out ex­ten­sive re­search into the his­tory of wa­ter-re­lated con­flict, ref­er­enc­ing over 3,600 in­ter­na­tional treaties signed be­tween the years 805-1997.
Rat­ing wa­ter-re­lated events be­tween the years 1948-2008, the data­base found only 21 cases of "ex­ten­sive mil­i­tary acts" com­pared to 682 in­stances of "mild ver­bal sup­port" for treaties. The same pe­riod also wit­nessed the sign­ing of 145 treaties on shared water re­sources.
Jim Dun­can, a con­sul­tant to the World Bank and co-au­thor of the Bank's 2010 re­port "Map­ping the Re­silience of In­ter­na­tional River Basins to Fu­ture Cli­mate Change-In­duced Water Vari­abil­ity", be­lieves that, though cli­mate fluc­tu­a­tions are con­tribut­ing to in­creas­ingly tense re­la­tion­ships in the hy­dropo­lit­i­cal sphere, the pos­si­bil­ity of open hos­til­i­ties or con­flict is di­rectly pro­por­tional to the abil­ity of in­sti­tu­tions to mit­i­gate those changes.
In fact, Wolfe claims, "The like­li­hood of con­flict rises as the rate of change within the basin ex­ceeds the in­sti­tu­tional ca­pac­ity to ab­sorb that change," adding that in­sti­tu­tions need to form and flex their mus­cles in order to stave off water cat­a­stro­phes; un­co­or­di­nated de­vel­op­ment, or major pro­jects in the ab­sence of treaties, were much more likely to cause con­flict than creep­ing cli­mate change.
How­ever, not every­one shares this op­ti­mism about mit­i­gat­ing water wars.
Matt Zent­ner, a hy­drol­o­gist at the U.S. De­part­ment of De­fence, said in Wash­ing­ton Thurs­day that 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple cur­rently lack ac­cess to safe water, 2.4 bil­lion peo­ple live in sit­u­a­tions of grossly in­ad­e­quate san­i­ta­tion and 5.7 bil­lion peo­ple a year per­ish from wa­ter-borne dis­eases.
The World Bank re­ported ear­lier this year that 2.8 bil­lion peo­ple live in areas of high "water stress", a num­ber that is ex­pected to hit 3.9 bil­lion – half the world's pop­u­la­tion – by 2030.
Every minute, 15 chil­dren die from un­safe drink­ing water, the bulk of them in the de­vel­op­ing world. Mean­while, 2,400 litres of fresh water are re­quired to pro­duce every sin­gle ham­burger, which are con­sumed at the rate of 75 per sec­ond, ac­cord­ing to Mc­Don­ald's.
Put an­other way, the av­er­age per­son liv­ing in arid lands on the con­ti­nent of Africa uses 10-40 litres of water a day, com­pared to the 300-600 litres guz­zled by Eu­ro­pean or North Amer­i­cans liv­ing in urban cen­tres.
These dra­matic in­equal­i­ties in ac­cess, ex­perts argue, can­not be main­tained with­out con­flict.
Ref­er­enc­ing a 2010 Sen­ate re­port pre­sented to the U.S. Com­mit­tee on For­eign Re­la­tions in Feb­ru­ary, the founder of Green Growth Lead­ers Erik Ras­mussen stressed in an ar­ti­cle last month that "[The] grow­ing water scarcity is a pri­mary dri­ver for in­se­cu­rity, in­sta­bil­ity and con­flicts and is cur­rently set­ting the stage for fu­ture water wars - un­less global ac­tion is taken."
Lit­tle-known facts about the sup­ply of fresh water in the world today ap­pear to ver­ify Ras­mussen's fears.
Ac­cord­ing to the U.N. Ed­u­ca­tional, Sci­en­tific and Cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion (UN­ESCO), only one per­cent of fresh water - less than 0.007 per­cent of all the water in the world - is eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble. Un­der­ground water ta­bles, or aquifers, take 1,400 years to be fully re­plen­ished. Given the mis­man­age­ment of water for agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion – ac­count­ing for 70 per­cent of all water with­drawals – an im­pend­ing cri­sis looks all the more likely.
Back in 2009, Colin Chartres, the di­rec­tor gen­eral of the In­ter­na­tional Water Man­age­ment In­sti­tute (IWMI), said that a "noth­ing short of a blue rev­o­lu­tion" would be nec­es­sary to meet the water chal­lenges of the 21st cen­tury. Ac­tions thus far have not met this call.
"The cur­rent state of af­fairs de­mands that we act now," Ras­mussen said. "We need a new way of think­ing about water. We need to stop de­plet­ing our water re­sources, and urge water con­ser­va­tion on a global scale."
"We need to en­sure 'more crop per drop', Ras­mussen added. "While many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries use pre­cious water to grow one tonne of rice per hectare, other coun­tries pro­duce five tonnes per hectare under sim­i­lar so­cial and water con­di­tions, but with bet­ter tech­nol­ogy and man­age­ment."
"Thus, if we be­have in­tel­li­gently, and col­lab­o­rate be­tween neigh­bours, be­tween neigh­bour­ing coun­tries, be­tween North and South, and in the global trad­ing sys­tem, we shall not 'run out of water'. If we do not, and 'busi­ness as usual' pre­vails, then water wars will ac­cel­er­ate," he con­cluded.

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