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The Concern over Water - Global Water Shortages and Sustainability

Competition for increasingly scarce water supplies is fueling instability in regions around the globe, from Beijing to New Delhi, Ghana to Mozambique, Kuwait to Jordan, and even in the United States from Denver to Los Angeles and the 10 major U.S. cities that are running out of water.

Around the world, water as the key resource base for economic development, energy, and food security is the Achilles Heel that is already having devastating social and environmental sustainability affects, policy and governance problems, and creating a broad range of strategic concerns for overall sustainability as well as national and homeland security.

The 1967 Israeli war was over water, tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere is constantly heightened due to dwindling supplies of this resource. While some experts suggest that all-out war over water is unlikely, nuclear war over water between Pakistan and India has recently been suggested [by Pakistan] in order to get one country to discuss this critical issue. Transboundary water-sharing issues, terrorism, vulnerable supplies, climate change effects, food security resulting from water shortages, natural hazard effects, and a host of other problems relate directly to how people will deal with water crises and survive in the future. As water shortages become more acute, policy and governance issues will become ever more important, whether it be disputes in water in the southeastern and southwestern U.S., problems in Latin America and Africa, or tensions between Israel, Syria, Jordan and Palestine, water is at the heart of the problem and also the solution.

Regardless of the issue, the threats to social and environmental sustainability, as well as national security are very real and should be of grave concern. Not only will this issue affect the previous, but will have great bearing on economic development in every country and will affect global peace and security. The largest driver of this process is population growth and its subsequent effects on all sectors of the economy, industry, and society. On the other hand, climate change has been and always will be a threat. One need go no further back than the dust bowl in the U.S. during the 1930s. The process of climate change will forever remain a cyclic one, but with increasing populations around the globe, the threat is now much larger, especially when coupling climate change to extended droughts and dwindling water supplies within global aquifers. As an example, were the ‘Dust Bowl’ to occur today with over 100 countries depending on agricultural grains from the U.S. Midwest Farm Belt, catastrophic consequences relating to mass starvation, public health, and widespread mass disorder would result. Interdependent, yet dire consequences would also occur in world stock markets as food and energy prices soar to record levels never seen before. Combined with natural, technological and man-made or terrorist hazards we stand at the precipice of potential large-scale failure. Unlike the projections of some pundits, the solutions lie in the grasp of all stakeholders. Larger roles assumed by governments in an already critical area will only worsen the problem if they become too involved.

Water has long been a military target throughout history and will continue to be. In a more aware society, thanks to the Internet and related technologies, crucial resources such as water, power, and food will become the new capital of not only terrorists, but those who despise their own government’s policies and governance strategies in these areas.

Only a handful of countries do not experience water problems. For those countries that do, the problems are becoming greatly exacerbated with each passing day. Examples include:

  1. Kuwait, which is facing possible near term water shortages with supplies potentially only coming from that which has been stored for emergencies.
  2. China’s manufacturing plants are suffering from water shortages which may make it nearly impossible to maintain their predicted 7.5 – 8 percent GDP growth rate.
  3. The Middle East has long history of water issues dating back thousands of years. The 1967 war was fought over water. Current tensions are increasing as population increases with the Palestinian population expected to double over the next 10-15 years and the Middle East’s water supply expected to decrease by one half during the same period.
  4. Africa's water resources are disparately distributed throughout the continent. Droughts lasting up to five years are a common problem. Groundwater accounts for only 15 percent of the continent's water supply.  The country cannot effectively utilize its resources. Though approximately 4 trillion cubic meters of water is available every year, only about 4% of that is used.  Lack of access to water is a larger problem in Africa than anywhere else; of the 25 nations in the world with the greatest percentage of people lacking access to safe drinking water, 19 of these countries are in Africa.
  5. Latin American regions have severe water shortages including northern Mexico, northeastern Brazil, and southern Chile. As in most countries, precipitation is disparately distributed, which makes sustainable agriculture difficult. Where water is available, it is often unclean.  Human sewage, eutrophication, and industrial pollution cause severe water-quality problems that affect human health. Agriculture, mining, and industrial pollution are the primary polluters. In Colombia, the Medellín and the Bogotá rivers are so contaminated that they are almost completely out of dissolved oxygen, preventing aquatic life. Also, export agriculture is placing an increasing burden on water supplies.
  6. United States water supplies, particularly in the southwest and southeast are under increased pressure from population and cyclic climate change. Water levels in Lake Meade are currently near critical. The lake, backed behind Hoover Dam provides one-half of Los Angeles’s water supplies. Additionally, 10 major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles are running out of water.
  7. In almost all developed countries emerging contaminants from pharmaceuticals and personal care products that are excreted out of the body into waste water are becoming a serious health issue. The presence of drugs, personal care products and other substances we use every day at home, at work and on the farm, growth hormones used in agriculture and other industries are commonly referred to as “emerging contaminants” or CECs (contaminants of emerging concern). These water-quality contaminants are flushed into ground water from a variety of sources, most commonly from wastewater from sewage treatment plants, run-off from agricultural land uses, particularly from industrial scale livestock facilities, and discharge from individual septic systems. Conventional sewage treatment does not remove them consequently concentrations in major bodies of water are increasing. Health concerns are raised by the presence of two key contaminants, steroids and antibiotics. Studies of fish in streams contaminated by steroids have shown hormone disruption. And there is concern that too much exposure to antibiotics in water could lead to disease-resistant strains of bacteria making the population more vulnerable by reducing the effectiveness of the current class of drugs. This problem will likely continue to worsen as population increases.

The list above is a very long one and includes many other countries such as India, South Asia, Europe, and many more. Many of these have what is termed vulnerable water basins where water is shared between countries such as the Indus River Basin and systems shared by China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India; the Brahmaputra River flowing from Tibet through India and into Bangladesh and more. These systems provide water for millions of people. Increasing tensions between countries and political grievances and cultural differences heighten and threaten management capacity.

Couple these problems with large corporations such as S2C Global, Suez, Veolia, T. Boone Pickens, Coca-Cola, Vivendi, Dasanti, Nestle, Summit Global Management, and a great many more that are privatizing water around the globe for corporate profits and potential solutions to water sustainability and security become uncertain. It should be noted that privatization turns water, an essential common good, into a commodity to be owned, conveyed across borders, and sold for the highest profit. For the corporate "water elites," water fits into the vision of corporate-led global economic integration similar to iPads, smart phones, or intellectual property rights. Rather than water as a right, these type corporations, while recognizing access to safe water, place a high priority on the establishment and protection of the unfettered right of corporations to own and trade the world's water at their discretion. The World Bank, who helps countries build public water utilities, has recently been requiring conditions for specific types of water related privatization in about 60 percent of their bank loans. To date, most privatizations have occurred in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Considering the political consequences and status of the private citizen who will bear the brunt of such practices, policy and governance issues become entangled when privatization issues arise and banks require it for a loan. So, if a U.S. Department of State Official, congressional leader, or past President pushes private water partnerships, there could be cause for concern in regard to policy and governance solutions for sustainable water security.

Our goal at TinMore Institute's CFWS is to provide complete and accurate information about water, energy, and food security issues and potential solutions to these problems while remaining totally unbiased.

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