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10 Global Water Wars Facts - WMNews Ep. 56

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Sean Harris. It can be described as the most important resource on Earth, but with supply dwindling on some parts of the planet it’s also providing inspiration for conflict in the 21st century. Welcome to WatchMojo News, the weekly series from where we break down news stories that might be on your radar. In this instalment, we’re counting down 10 crucial facts you should know about the Global Water Wars.

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10 Global Water Wars Facts - WMNews Ep. 56

#10: What Does the Term ‘Water War’ Mean?
The Situation

Basic science says it’s imperative for humankind to have regular access to clean water in order to survive. But, clean water is becoming increasingly difficult to find in some parts of the world, which provokes political tension and can ignite a so-called ‘water war’. Experts and analysts remain skeptical that problems over water will bring about a ‘world war’, but there is evidence that regional conflicts are rising, and that they will continue to increase unless the situation changes. As leading hydrologist James Famiglietti observes, in terms of the world water supply, ‘we are standing on a precipice.’

#9: Who Controls the Water?
The Governments

For areas less directly affected by shortages, it can be easy to take water for granted. However, when, in 2008, investment-banking leader Goldman Sachs referred to water as ‘the petroleum for the next century’, they underlined a financially clinical nature to its regulation and distribution. It might be assumed that local governments control water supply, and in many cases that remains true, but there is an increasing trend for local authorities to sell off water utilities. The big businesses stumping up the cash are now known as ‘water barons’, as the industry becomes increasingly privatized.

#8: Which Areas Are at the Greatest Risk?
The Nations

North Africa, South Asia and the Middle East are considered the most likely areas to experience severe shortages over the coming decades, making them most susceptible to ‘water wars’. As an example, according to The Guardian newspaper, between the years 2003 and 2010, Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran jointly lost over 35 cubic miles of stored freshwater along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, mostly due to poor past-management, and overuse. Famiglietti says that ‘middle latitude’ regions do, and will, struggle most; he says, ‘arid and semi-arid parts of the world… are getting drier’ while ‘countries at northern latitudes and in the tropics are getting wetter.’

#7: How Will Water Be Used as a Tool?
The Control

As water becomes a rarer commodity, it inevitably becomes more valuable, particularly if privatization increases. To that end, a recent American intelligence investigation has identified water as a future tool for political leverage, wielded especially between nations, states and territories that have a shared water source. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI, report predicts states will ‘support major water projects to obtain regional influence’, and that upstream nations may ‘impede or cut off downstream flow.’ Even more concerning though, is the suggestion that ‘water terrorism’ will naturally follow, with physical infrastructure and dams becoming major targets for attacks that could affect millions of lives.

#6: What Is the Impact of Climate Change?
The Droughts

While water disputes have occurred throughout history, the modern day situation is greatly intensified by the ever-present threat of climate change. In the areas most under threat, droughts are happening more often, they’re lasting longer, carrying greater severity, and they prompt increasingly desperate drilling for groundwater. The scramble for water leaves thousands of families displaced and angry, breeding a section of society, which analysts believe, is more likely to enter into a dispute, or be swayed by rebel mentalities.

#5: How Important Is Desalination?
The Technology

Desalination is the process by which salt is removed from water to create a fresh, drinkable supply; moving forward, the technique could become crucial. Also used to purify waste water, desalination allows humankind to turn to the oceans in order to quench its increasing thirst, especially as demand for freshwater is said to be rising by over 160 billion gallons a year. Despite initial concerns regarding high-energy use, desalination techniques are now being adopted the world over. In some places, such as Britain, plants are built largely as a precautionary measure, but in Saudi Arabia and the US, the world’s two most prominent users, the reliance on desalinated water is growing. China is expected to emerge as a desalination leader within the next decade, though. A country which holds around one fifth of the world’s population but just 7% of its freshwater, China aims to quadruple its seawater desalination by 2020, producing 3.6 billion liters a day.

#4: What Is the Current State of Drinkable Water?
The Resource

Current statistics are a source for major concern. According to the Water Project, one in nine people worldwide do not have access to clean drinking water, and 37% of those people live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Internationally, half of all hospital beds are filled with people suffering a water-related disease, and in developing countries around 80% of illness can be linked to poor water conditions. The Global Water Partnership says that only 2.5% of the total volume of water on Earth is drinkable, and that only 0.3% of that is located in rivers and lakes. Finally, National Geographic predicts that by 2025, about 66% of world population will live in water-stressed regions as a result of overuse and climate change.

#3: What Issues Have Arisen So Far?
The Conflicts

UNESCO says that the majority of water conflicts occur in the already politically tense Middle East. Syria, Turkey and Iraq dispute use of shared rivers, while the Jordan River Conflict involves Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. The Nile River is also contested between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, while the Aral Sea is a source of tension for its surrounding nations in Central Asia. In East Asia, political pressure is predicted to rise over the Mekong River as well; China is expected to dam parts of the water source, which will impact downstream supply to Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. India and Pakistan also have a hostile history that’s expected to continue, regarding their shared use of the Indus River.

#2: What Factors Have Contributed to This Situation?
The Population

A leading reason for water shortage, and the subsequent water wars, is rising population. In a February 2015 article, the New Yorker highlights how ‘water never technically disappears’, ‘when it leaves one place, it goes somewhere else,’ and that ‘the amount of freshwater on Earth has not changed significantly in millions of years.’ However, population growth means that what was once an adequate supply has become inadequate. Water shortage is also a result of rising prosperity, as successful families ditch less environmentally demanding, vegetarian lifestyles in favor of protein-rich, meat-based diets, which require much more water to maintain. In the past century, the population has tripled but water use has grown six-fold; in short we have more people, using more water per person.

#1: How Will This End?
The Future

If the threat of ‘water wars’ emphasizes one thing, it’s the importance of rainwater. If rains were regular and reliable, tensions would not run so high. But the modern world reality is that drought is increasing, climate change accelerating, and the population rising. While there’s clearly money to be made by private water firms in the twenty-first century, the onus is on local governments and international bodies to regulate water supply fairly. Branded by analysts as the ‘oil of our time’, the ‘water rush’ will continue to provoke conflict until systems are installed to suit all sides. The first step involves finalizing a definition of water; is it a regional luxury, or an international right?

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