Global Policy Forum

The Water Problem


By Zulfiquer Ahmed Amin*

Daily Star
October 8, 2007

Water means life for the human body, and is the lifeline for any civilization to take root and flourish. All known civilizations grew around a water source to support life, and to give life to its economy. With change in time, the economic role of water has changed, taking a different but vital facet. But its role in sustaining life, for which there is no substitute, has remained, and turned out to be indispensable because of higher demand from the growing population across the globe. Arising from the binding need for water, Dhaka, our capital developed, along the Buriganga, Egypt along the Nile, Mesopotamia along the Euphrates and Tigris, London along the Thames, large cities in India along the Ganges, and so on.

In economic terms, any commodity, though crucial for life and existence, supplied in abundance loses its value, as is the case with air, without which humans cannot survive, the unlimited availability of which has moderated its explicit importance. As long as human population was limited, the abundant supply of natural water had masked its apparent importance, but the progressive growth of population around the world gradually unveiling the demand side increase, with no change in supply, is making water gradually scarcer, and exposing its value in reality.

Despite the fact that more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface is covered with water, 97.5 percent of this is salty, leaving only 2.5 percent as fresh water. Adding to the paradox, only a tiny fraction of the total fresh water resources is available for human use. About 70 percent of the fresh water on the planet is locked up as ice at the poles, and most of the remainder is retained as soil moisture or deposited in deep underground aquifers that are inaccessible to humans. In the final tally, less than one percent of all the fresh water on earth is technologically and economically accessible for human use.

The UN estimates that people need a minimum of 50 liters of water a day for drinking, washing, cooking and sanitation. Seventy percent of the water used worldwide is for agriculture. Much more will be needed if we are to feed the world's growing population -- predicted to rise from about six billion today to 8.9 billion by 2050. Therefore, if we go on as we are, millions more will go to bed hungry and thirsty each night than do so already. Today, one person in five across the world has no access to safe drinking water, and one in two lacks safe sanitation. Today, and every day, more than 30,000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday, killed either by hunger or by easily-preventable diseases, and adequate safe water is key to good health and a proper diet.

There are several reasons for the water crisis. One is the rise in population and the desire for better living standards. Another is the inefficiency in the way we use much of the water. When a person needs 4 to 5 gallons of water per day to survive, the average American uses 100 to 176 gallons of water each day. The amount of water needed to grow our food is staggering. To grow a kg. of rice takes between 2000 and 5000 liters, 20,000 liters to fill a kg. jar of coffee, up to 4000 liters to grow the fodder that will deliver a liter of cow's milk, 5000 liters for a kg. of cheese; and up to 11,000 liters to make a quarter-pound hamburger. Irrigation causes wastage on a prodigal scale, with the water trickling away or simply evaporating before it can do any good, and pollution is making more of the water that is available to us unfit for use. Water withdrawals for irrigation represent 66 % of the total withdrawals and up to 90 % in arid regions, the other 34 % being used by domestic households (10 %), industry (20 %), or evaporated from reservoirs (4 %) (Shiklomanov, 1999). As groundwater is exploited, water tables in parts of China, India, West Asia, the former Soviet Union and the western United States are dropping -- in India by as much as 3m a year in 1999.

While the world's population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources has grown six-fold. Within the next fifty years, the world population will increase by another 40 to 50 %. This population growth -- coupled with industrialisation and urbanisation -- will result in an increasing demand for water and will have serious consequences on the environment. The emerging water crisis endangers every aspect of human society -- economic, social, ecological, and political. A United Nations report predicts that access to water may be the single biggest cause of conflict and war in Africa in the next 25 years. Such wars are most likely to be in regions where rivers or lakes are shared by more than one country.

There is already fierce national competition over water for irrigation and power generation -- most notably in the Nile river basin. Cairo warned in 1991 that it was ready to use force to protect its access to waters of the Nile, which also runs through Ethiopia and Sudan. Water is the most precious resource in the Middle East, more important even than oil. Competition for water from the river Jordan was a major cause of the 1967 war. As populations increase, water becomes scarcer, aggravating regional tensions. The Lebanese have long accused Israel of manipulation of the waters of the River Litani, and Syria accuses it of being reluctant to withdraw from the banks of the Sea of Galilee, the source of up to 30% of Israel's water.

Israelis in the West Bank use four times as much water as their Palestinian neighbours. India has been in dispute with Pakistan over the Indus and with Bangladesh over the Ganges. Over 260 river basins are shared by two or more countries. As the resource is becoming scarce, tensions among different users may intensify, both at the national and international level. In the absence of strong institutions and agreements, changes within a basin can lead to trans-boundary tensions.

The world's supply of fresh water is running out. For much of the world, atlases no longer tell the truth. Today, dozens of the planet's greatest rivers run dry long before they reach the sea. They include the Nile in Egypt, the Yellow River in China, the Indus in Pakistan, the Rio Grande and Colorado in the US, the ancient Oxus that once poured into the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Murray in Australia and the Jordan in the Middle East, which are emptied before they can even reach the countries that bear their names. The dire state of such rivers is the most visible sign of a profound crisis in how the world uses its water -- a crisis that reflects water's new place as one of the most important and threatened commodities. Unless a timely measure is taken, a global crisis is imminent, leading to a situation that could herald a world in which wars will be fought for dominance over water.

About the author: Dr Zulfiquer Ahmed Amin is a physician, specialist in Public Health Administration and Health Economics.

More Information on the UN Security Council
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