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May 13, 1999

The ReSource Institute for Low Entropy Systems
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The Global Water Crisis

Water as an environmental topic is a bit like climate change. Until you reach for your winter coat on a grey August day in New York City, you will not believe things are as bad as they say. Same goes with water. When you turn on the spigot and hear the pipes clank but see no water, only then will your concern be palpable. Addressing the coming water crisis before the spigot runs dry is one of the world's great challenges in the next century. Sandra Postel warns that "Time is of the essence" in her forthcoming book "Pillar of Sand," which gives a thorough look at the global water situation through the lens of irrigation. Postel is Director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts. A veteran water watcher, she can hear the clock ticking when the rest of us hear only the sweet sound of a spring rain. She is warning us about the global water crisis poised to strike the world, entering first through the agriculture portal.

Globally, fresh water is abundant; it just is not always accessible to households, industry, or farmers. Where it is accessible, it is either being polluted or drawn down to shockingly depleted reservoirs. Agriculture accounts for two-thirds of global water use. Most of the water used in agriculture comes from either rivers or groundwater wells and is used to irrigate crops. Every year, humans draw from these sources the equivalent of five times the annual flow of the Mississippi river for use on 16% of the world's cropland and every year there is less water to tap. Irrigation brings with it mounting problems; such as waterlogged and salinized soils, shrinking and contaminated aquifers, the destruction of aquatic habitat, and large refugee populations pushed off their land by dams. Increasing water needs and degraded environmental conditions, coupled with the fact that the average efficiency of the irrigation systems used in the world today is at a dismal 40%, has put the examination of modern irrigation front and center. Many people believe the appropriate course of action is to use water in agriculture more productively. Some go as far as to bring poverty and ecology issues to the table, a much needed but surprising orientation from the researchers, policymakers, and bankers that replaced "culture" in agriculture with "business." Things must be bad.

A conservative estimate of the number of people living in counties with "absolute water scarcity" by 2025 is one billion. Countries such as China, India, Mexico, and Nigeria do not have sufficient annual water resources to meet reasonable per capita water needs for their rapidly expanding populations. Water scarcity means women spend more of their time finding and carrying water, farmer's lose their land, infant mortality climbs, and public health suffers. Ecologically it is devastating. Human induced water scarcity is a death knell for biodiversity. In southeastern Arizona, Sierra Vista and neighboring communities along the San Pedro River are pumping so much water from the aquifer that supplies the river it is expected that parts of the San Pedro will be dry within the next ten years. As a refuge in the Sonoran desert for four million migratory birds heading south before the North American winter sets in, the San Pedro's demise will profoundly impact bird populations. There is no place else to go in this desert country except to the grave. Three thousand miles away in India, the Indus River feeds the worlds fifth largest mangrove. Mangroves are to coastal ecosystems what the beating heart is to humans. Overpumping for irrigation in the Indus Delta is drying-up the mangrove, completely cutting off its water supply in the dry season.

Water scarcity leads to declining water quality and pollution and has an especially adverse impact on poor people. Rural economies usually bow to the needs of cities and so when the availability of water gets tight, we can expect rural (read small) farmers to lose their water so that city-dwellers can flush their toilets and run their factories. Disease and death climb as water quality and quantity decline. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reports that 40,000 children worldwide are dying daily from hunger or disease caused by lack of water or contaminated water. Keep in mind, 40,000 children are dying every day before the predicted water scarcity problems climax. Forty per cent of people living in Africa are already at risk of death or disease from water scarcity or contamination. The kind of food poor people eat also is effected by the availability of water. People below the poverty line in Asia spend approximately 60% of their total income on cereals (which provide over 72% of their total nutrients). It has been estimated that over 80% of the total increase in cereal production in Asia since the 1960s has been from irrigated land. What will they eat when the water that feeds the green revolution dries up?

Water, like money, flows to the rich. And water, like borders, will increasingly start wars. In the mid-1980s, US government intelligence services estimated that there were at least 10 places in the world where war could break out over shared water resources. The situation is only getting worse in places like the Middle East and North Africa. Ethiopia controls 80% of the Nile's flow, yet almost the entire population of Egypt depends on it's water. Nearly all of Egypt's cropland is irrigated yet no formal protocol exists among Nile River riparians for sharing water. Turkey controls the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates. Iraq and Syria are downstream. In 1983 Turkey initiated the South East Anatolia Development Project, known by its Turkish acronym GAP. When completed, the GAP project will consist of 21 dams, including the massive Ataturk Dam, and cost over US $21 billion. When Turkey filled the gigantic reservoir of the Ataturk Dam in 1990, they completely stopped the flow of the Euphrates for one month. Iraq and Syria are outraged by Turkey's water hoarding. Syria's support for the Marxist Kurdish Party (PKK), which is waging an independence campaign against the Turkish government, has no small part in its escalating water disputes with Turkey.

Big dams and diversion canals are the workhorses of modern irrigation schemes. The water they deliver is heavily subsidized by government and flows first to large landowners. It follows the same logic as trickle down capitalism; and like its brethren, leaves a trickle that hardly parches a poor man's thirst let alone waters his crops. Irrigation isn't cheap. It costs between $1,500 and $10,000 per hectare, depending on where and how the water is being delivered. The World Bank has provided the greatest single source of funds for large dam construction with US$50 billion (1992 dollars) for construction of more than 500 large dams (large in this context means taller than a four story building). Dams are not environmentally friendly, no matter how much ballyhoo you hear about "clean" hydropower or flood control. A 1990 internal survey of World Bank hydroelectric dam projects (dams are often multi-purpose, so hydroelectric dams often provide irrigation water) showed that 58% were planned and built without any consideration of downstream impacts, even when these impacts could be predicted to cause massive coastal erosion, pollution and other problems. As water scarcity threatens food production, human health, and economic welfare, even more pressure will be put on developing mega-projects that transfer water from wet regions to arid ones.

Sandra Postel counsels that "We need to double water productivity -- get twice as much benefit from each liter of water we remove from rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers - if we are to have any hope of fulfilling the water requirements of 8 billion people and protecting the natural ecosystems on which economies and life itself depend." Irrigation, she says, must become "leaner and smarter." Finding solutions with farmers rather than with engineers is a place to start. It means rolling up one's pant legs and stepping into the rice field to talk to farmers. Postel suggests several permutations irrigation could take to become more efficient. Moving from large, public irrigation projects to more flexible, knowledge-based small scale efforts is a critical step on the path. Everyone involved, from finance to harvest, has a role in the transition. Access to credit, markets, and information will decide cultivation methods, crops, and scale. Opening that access is the role of politicians and policymakers. Reducing water lost to evaporation and seepage, capturing more fresh water before it flows into salt sinks, using salt resistant and less thirsty crops, and improving soil conditions must involve not only engineers and scientists but also farmers and rural communities. Designing irrigation systems to make them cost effective and efficient is the work of engineers that have discarded their well-worn ecological and social blinders. The consumer's job is to consume less grain-intensive and more water efficient food. Pork, for instance, will not be on the menu.

In twenty-five years we might be identifying countries not as "developed" or less-developed," but as "upstream" or "downstream" countries. "Water rich" will soon carry more cache and economic clout than "oil rich." But before we change the text in the political science books and hunker down for the 21st century's water wars, we can do something about water scarcity and flaring tempers. The first step is to acknowledge that clean water is more than a commodity resource. It is a fundamental component to human and ecological health. When push comes to shove, water's role in commerce -- its use in industry and agriculture -- must bow to meeting people's basic needs and maintaining ecological integrity. Environmental devastation, it should be remembered, is a serious public health problem. Water wars can be avoided with a resource management strategy based on preventive diplomacy, both at local and national levels, implemented in tandem with enforceable water agreements. Since water recognizes no borders, these agreements should be linked treaties with regional and international mechanisms to enforce them. Add to this strengthened International law and courts with the authority to settle water disputes and prosecute rogue water nations. And finally, the implementation of an international Code of Conduct for water use. The Code of Conduct would not only carry with it rules, but practical technical and management alternatives to address the water crisis and international financing to back-up its recommendations. The world cannot afford to wait to hear the clank of the empty pipe before shifting gears to conserve, protect, and better distribute its fresh water resources.

Laura Orlando

ReSource Musings Archive


Pillar of Sand. Sandra Postel. W.W. Norton and Company. 1999

Water in Crisis. Peter Gleick. Oxford University Press 1993

The Trouble With Dams. Robert S. Devine. Atlantic Monthly, August 1995

Water Wars. Joyce R. Starr. Foreign Policy 82 (Spring): 17-36.

Cadillac Desert. Marc Reisner. Penguin 1986

Soil & Civilization. Edward Hyams. Harper Colophon. 1952

International Rivers Network, 1847 Berkeley Way Berkeley, CA 94703 USA
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