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H2O: the new CO2

January 20, 2010

The WWF predicts that by 2025 two-thirds of the world’s population could be facing severe water shortages.  For conservationists, a significant knock-on effect is the continued decline in the fortunes of freshwater species (which are more at risk than species of any other habitat).  While the fate of the Yangtze River dolphin  (see ‘Last Chance to See’) cannot be pinned exclusively on China’s demand for water for agriculture and drinking, it was nonetheless a victim of vigorous and competing interests along the great waterway – from the disorientating noises produced by increased motorboat traffic to unsustainable fishing practices.

While we don’t really talk about carbon ‘wars’, this term is by contrast often used when the struggle for water is discussed: our thirst for it makes it more of a matter for national security than competition for fossil fuels.

Hosny Khordagui, director of the water governance programme in Arab states with the U.N. Development Programme, recently warned that shortages in Yemen could lead to increased migration to urban areas and a subsequent increase in crime and violence, which would provide a fruitful recruiting ground for the extremist organisations active in that country (since then, the attempted bomb attack by a Yemen-trained man on flight to Detroit over Christmas has provided a sharp reminder of Al-Quaeda’s activities there).

In another continent, meanwhile, Scientific American reported on tensions in Peru.  What was once a harsh desert is now the hub of Peru’s export agriculture businesses.  Demand for irrigation is draining the aquifer, leading to the diversion of water from the highlands – which means less for that area’s subsistence farming llama herders. 

But is there a tendency to be too alarmist?  As Jack Schafer points out on the Washington Post’s online magazine Slate, there has been no formal declaration of war over water in the last fifty years.  India and Pakistan, which one would imagine don’t need much of an excuse to go to war with each other, have come to an arrangement over water via a World Bank-brokered agreement.  The escape valve easing the pressures that could lead to conflict seems to be that a country without enough water for all its agricultural needs will import food from a country that does.  So essentially the solution lies in trade and international agreements.  This suggests that it’s the natural distribution of water that’s the problem, rather than any shortage.  Indeed, in the Peruvian case, officials point to the fact that two-thirds of the country’s population lives on the dry western side of the Andes, where less than 2% of the country’s water flows.

As Jeffrey Sachs pointed out in The Guardian last spring, there is no one fix or even cause of water shortage.  The solutions will have to be found on different levels, from easily-replicable piped water projects in African villages to global efforts to mitigate the worst consequences of our changing climate.

In the meantime water footprints could be the new carbon footprints in the coming decade.


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