by Martin Khor
ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento
September 29, 2010
While climate change has captured the headlines, many countries are running
out of freshwater supplies, threatening human health and causing conflicts
Water should be at the top of the global and national
In recent years, climate change seems to have elbowed out other
environmental issues to become the No. 1 global problem. But the alarming
problems of water - increasing scarcity, lack of access to drinking water
and sanitation, pollution, flooding - are equally important and an even
more immediate threat.
On 28 July, the UN General Assembly in a historic decision recognized the
right to water and sanitation as a human right. This is a fitting
recognition of the crucial importance of water to the survival of
individuals and the basis for development of nations and indeed the world.
The extensive floods in Pakistan is also a current reminder of two things:
the devastating impact of climate change on rainfall and the flow of water
quantities; and the importance of properly managing water drainage,
especially in the major rivers and waterways.
The increasing shortage of water in many countries has become a crisis.
decade ago, it was predicted that a third of the world’s population would be
facing water scarcity by 2025. But this threshold has already been reached.
Two billion people live in countries that are water-stressed and by 2025,
two-thirds of the world population may suffer water stress, unless current
Even more dramatic, it is predicted that wars will be fought over water this
century, just as wars were and are still being fought over control of oil
these past decades.
“The global population tripled in the 20th century but water consumption
went up sevenfold," noted Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians and an
expert on the global water crisis in her book Blue Covenant.
“By 2050, after we add another 3 billion to the population, humans will need
an 80% increase in water supplies just to feed ourselves. No one knows where
this water is going to come from.”
Loss of water supplies
There is a rapidly growing demand for freshwater but its supply is limited
Water supply is affected by the loss of watersheds due to deforestation and
soil erosion in hills and mountains. There is also a severe depletion of
valuable groundwater resources as water is taken up for agriculture and
industry, and is being dug from deeper and deeper sources.
Mining of groundwater has caused the water-table to drop in parts of many
countries including India and China, West Asia, Russia and the United
Agriculture uses 70% of water because industrial agriculture requires large
amounts of water. It takes 3 cubic meters of water to produce a kilo of
cereals, and 15 cubic meters of water to produce a kilo of beef because of
the grain fed to the cows.
A lot of surface water is also polluted and thus not available for human
use, or if it is used, the polluted water causes health problems. Five
million people die from water-borne diseases annually.
Water supplies are also being affected by climate change.
Global warming is
causing an 'accelerated'
melting of the glaciers and there will be less
glaciers in the future.
For example, the Himalayan glaciers feed many of the great rivers in India,
China and Southeast Asia,
“The full scale glacier shrinkage in the plateau
regions will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe,” according to Yao Tandong of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The acute water problems facing Yemen are described in the London-based
Guardian on Feb 27.
The country’s capital Sana’a is predicted to run out of water in 2017 as
four times as much water is taken out of its river basin as falls into it
each year. Of the country’s 21 main water aquifers, 19 are no longer being
replenished after a drought and increased demand.
The water situation is so serious the government has considered moving the
capital as well as desalinating coastal seawater and pumping it 2,000 meters
uphill to Sana’a.
Conflict over water supplies
Water scarcity has also become a reason for conflict.
This is especially
when a source of water such as a major river serves more than one country.
The country or countries that have the upper reaches of the river can affect
the volume of water flowing into the countries at the lower parts of the
In Africa, about 50 rivers are each shared by two or more countries.
According to an issue of Population Reports, access to water from the Nile,
Zambezi, Niger, and Volta river basins in particular has the potential to
It also describes how the
Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia is beset by
international conflicts over water among Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan,
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan which all depend for their survival
on the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers.
The Middle East has been running out of water. In that situation the grounds
for conflict have increased. In his recent book Water, Steven Solomon
describes the growing tension over the sharing of water resources of the
Nile especially between Egypt and Ethiopia.
In the Jordan River basin, writes Solomon,
“in one of the world’s political
hot spots, Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians contest to control
and divide the scarce resources of a region that long ago ran out of enough
freshwater for everyone.”
There can also be similar competition for water within a country, for
example between states that share the same river.
According to Population Reports, in the western US, farmers who want more
irrigation water face off against urban areas that demand more water for
households and other municipal uses.
In India, Karnataka state was in a water dispute with Andhra Pradesh over
the height of a dam on the Krishna River, which could affect the amount of
water available for use by both states.
Private vs. Public control over water systems
Another issue is the fight over the systems for owning and distributing the
scarce water resources. In her book, Maude Barlow describes the recent
privatize water, which until recently was under direct control
of government authorities.
Privatization was first carried out in Western countries and then spread to
developing countries through
World Bank loans and projects.
This has led to adverse effects on people’s access to water, according to
Barlow, who also documents the fight by citizen groups in many countries to
make water a public good, and to make access to water a human right.
Water as a top priority issue
All the above issues should be taken with the same seriousness as climate
change, because water is about the most important item needed by everyone,
and its scarcity affects both human health and geo-politics.
As Solomon puts it:
“An explosive new political fault line is erupting
across the global landscape between the water Haves and water Have Nots…
Simply, water is surpassing oil itself as the world’s scarcest critical
“Just as oil conflicts were central to the 20th century history, the
struggle over freshwater is set to shape a new turning point in the world
order and the destiny of civilization.”
Thus, water must be recognized as a crisis issue and solutions to the crisis
should be at the top of the global and national agendas.
It is thus timely that
the United Nations General Assembly, the world’s top policy
forum, has adopted the resolution that the right to water and sanitation is
a human right.
Operationalizing this right so that all human beings have
access to water, and that all countries have the capacity to obtain, manage
and wisely use water resources, is an imperative.