Monday, September 18, 2006

Hard Rain Journal 9-18-06: Update on Sustainability -- There is Peril Ahead, Whether Water is Privatized, Militarized or Simply Ignored for Too Long

Hard Rain Journal 9-18-06: Update on Sustainability -- There is Peril Ahead, Whether Water is Privatized, Militarized or Simply Ignored for Too Long

By Richard Power

Reuters has released a features package on the world's water resources.

The six pieces in the package contain important data and vital insights, but also reveal a disturbing nonchalance and naivety on the part of some experts.

In this posting, I will provide some analysis, with excerpts from and links to each of the five pieces.

First, here is some nitty gritty from the Factbox:

One billion people, about a sixth of humanity, lack access to safe drinking water, according to U.N. data. And one in three people live in regions with water scarcity....
Agriculture absorbs 74 percent of all water taken by humans from rivers, lakes, aquifers and wetlands against 18 percent for industry and 8 percent for municipalities. Demand for water is rocketing with a rising population.
In many places, 30-40 percent or more of water is lost because of leaks in pipes and canals and illegal tapping.
Governments set a Millennium Goal in 2000 of halving the proportion of people with no access to safe drinking water by 2015. The goal is within reach, according to a 2006 U.N. review, but the world is lagging in a linked goal of better sanitation.
Achieving the 2015 drinking water goal will require $10-$30 billion extra a year on top of amounts already spent.
The amount of water needed for crop production will rise 60-90 percent by 2050, to 11,000-13,500 cubic km from 7,200 cubic km today, depending on factors including population growth and crop yields, according to the IWMI report....
Industry can often cut its water demand by 40-90 percent, given proper incentives, according to U.N. data.
Water everywhere, but not clean enough to drink, Reuters, 9-18-06

Next, in his interview with Frank Rijsberman, the Dutch director general of the U.N.-backed International Water Management Institute, which issued an assessment of world water resources in late August based on the work of 700 researchers, Alister Doyle, Reuters Environment Correspondent, gets some answers on where we are and what needs to be done:

Q. What are your main findings?
A. Our results show that a third of the world population is facing water scarcity. There's two types of problem: about a quarter of the world's population lives in areas with physical water scarcity -- in places like the United States, Australia -- and more than a billion people live in areas where water is available but not fully exploited. In sub-Saharan Africa the water is in the rivers but there are no dams or pumps to use it.
Q. Can the problems be solved?
A. The positive message is that we can increase what we call the productivity of water. We will simply have to make do with less, get more out of the water we do have. That can mean growing drought-resistant varieties of crops, having better policies in government. While it currently takes about 2,000 litres of water to produce a kilo of rice it's possible to drive it down to about 500 litres a kilo. That's the challenge....
Q. What will it cost to sort out the world's water problems?
A. It will take more human ingenuity and creativity, some courageous politicians, some investments in research, different types of investments. It doesn't even have to cost that much more -- it's just doing the smart thing.

Two other pieces, one on desertification in southern Hungary, and the other on the threat to wetlands, sanctuaries, etc., underscore the sweeping, global nature of water-related problems:

The sandy soil around Morahalom in southern Hungary is getting alarmingly dry, and experts and locals warn that a large area of the region risks turning into desert...."When the strong winds come in the spring ... then everything becomes grey ... and it creates a horrible storm of dust, like in the desert," says Morahalom's Deputy Mayor Laszlo Csanyi, a potato and pepper farmer. Hungary's case illustrates the dangers of a global problem of creeping desertification. Experts say deserts are spreading because of degradation of soil in dryland areas, mainly due to a rising human population....
"We have serious reasons to suppose that a change has started which could have catastrophic consequences," said Csatari.
Csatari said the main reason was global climate change, which has led to warmer and more extreme weather.
Another reason for the soil degradation is human activity....
Andras Gergely, Hungary region battles advancing sand dunes, floods, Reuters, 9-18-06

Delicate wetlands, coasts and wildlife sanctuaries could be ravaged as part of a struggle to stretch the world's water supplies, with the worst damage foreseen in poor countries. Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said precious ecosystems like the Okavango Delta in Botswana -- the planet's largest inland delta, which hosts a diversity of fish, game and birds -- may be targeted as a fresh water source if scarcity becomes acute.....
Steiner, a former World Conservation Union chief, said the drying out of the Aral Sea during the Soviet era showed how devastating bad water management can be. "Once you affect certain elements of the hydrological cycle, that can destroy the basis on which the whole biodiversity of an area is premised," he said.
"There simply is no life where there is no water."
Laura MacInnis, Eco-paradises in crossfire of water scarcity fight, Reuters, 9-18-06

Another piece in the Reuters package looks at the vital issue of water resources management from an investment perspective:

Investors who have seen energy prices rocket due to scarce supplies are starting to wager that forecasted shortages will cause the value of water to skyrocket, offering big gains to companies active in the sector.
Unlike globally traded commodities like oil, gold or wheat, water tends to be priced locally by authorities who provide it as a public good, generally drawing from nearby sources such as lakes or river basins....
In the absence of a futures market in water, speculators have bought shares in utilities and water-related companies such as Waste Management , ITT Corp. , American States Water and Suez , expecting them to profit from intensified efforts to tackle water scarcity....
Without substantial changes, he said "hot spots" for water scarcity -- including parts of the United States, Spain, China, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Namibia, Botswana, and elsewhere -- will stretch existing water resources to the limit.
Investors bet on rising costs for scarce water, Reuters, 9-18-06

The specter of world water management becoming primarily an opportunity for corporations rather than an imperative for governments should be of profound concern. Will it be enlightened business leaders or predatory corporatists who take hold of this new "market"? Care to wager a bet? Only healthy democratic institutions and fierce, independent news organizations can ensure that the answer to this vital question is the right one. We're all in trouble.

But the final piece in the package, Doyle's "Water Wars' loom?" cites two sources, Rijsberman of the IWMI (the subject of the interview already quoted) and Professor Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University:

"The simple explanation is that water is simply too important to fight over," said Aaron Wolf, a professor at Oregon State University. "Nations often go to the brink of war over water and then resolve their differences."
Since the war between Lagash and Umma, recorded on a stone carving showing vultures flying off with the heads of defeated Umma warriors, no wars have been fought and 3,600 international water treaties have been signed, he said...
"I don't really expect wars over water because ... the benefits of collaboration are so great," said Frank Rijsberman, head of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI)....
In the five decades to 1999, Wolf's research ( indicates there have been no wars and just 37 military acts over water between states -- 30 of them involving Israel and its neighbours....
But those predicting future "water wars" should also consider another problem: how do you secure victory?
"If you conquer territory to gain control over a river you still have to provide water to people living there," said Anders Jaegerskog of the Stockholm International Water Institute. "It's very difficult to imagine how you win a water war."
Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent, "Water Wars" loom? But none in past 4,500 years, Reuters, 9-18-06

The Pollyanna-like remarks of Wolf and Rijsberman do not take into account several, unprecedented factors: over-population, the climate crisis, the global arms trade, the rise of predatory global corporations and the geopolitical instability brought about when a superpower regime such as Bush-Cheney not only disregards international law but its own country's constitution as well.

No, Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

And the question of how to "secure victory" in a water war is not an issue that invalidates the concerns of those "predicting water wars," as Jaegerskog seems to imply. Rather, it is one of the great concerns that motivates those warning of the potential for water wars. Because the answer to the question is simple -- ethnic cleaning, at best, or genocide as a "final solution."

Those who scoff as such concerns should look deeper into the world's current conflicts. One way or another, many of them, if not most of them, boil down to sustainability issues.

However, the voice of enlightened mind does break through elsewhere in Doyle's article:

"Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2001. The English word "rival" even comes from the Latin "rivalis" meaning "someone sharing a river".


Hard Rain Journal 8-18-06: Water, Water Nowhere, & Only A Few Drops to Sell --- An Update on the Water Aspect of the Global Sustainability Crisis

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Words of Power #25: Lost Symbols, Part II -- The Rainbow Serpent Hisses, Lessons about Sustainability & Survival from Darfur, Senegal and Ecuador

Words of Power #20: Cusco, Kyoto and The Yellow Sand Storm

Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: For more information, go to

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