Avoiding Water Wars

The way to prevent future conflicts is more equitable, sustainable water use in the present.

“Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water.”

Ismail Serageldin, (1995)

– “The only problem with this scenario is a lack of evidence.”

Aaron Wolf


Back in 2018, two A\J journalists wrote a story on Cape Town, South Africa. Following a lengthy drought, the city was facing an expected date for their municipal water supply to run dry- dubbed “day zero”. While I was aware of dwindling fresh water resources on a global scale, the idea of a dam supporting millions of people going completely dry seemed like something out of a Hollywood movie. Luckily, through the residents of Cape Town’s strenuous water conservation efforts, the city was able to avoid day zero from ever becoming a reality.

Freshwater availability on a regional scale is complex and depends on a variety of factors including population size, climatic norms, reservoir fluxes, and socio-political instability. While some regions of the world which are rich in water resources, like Lagos, lack of government leadership and aging water infrastructure means that the water that does come out of the taps often isn’t safe to drink. Meanwhile other regions, like Cape Town or East Australia, are susceptible to drought and water shortages as the reservoirs in which they source their water cannot replenish themselves fast enough to keep up with increasing demand.

Variable rainfall as a result of climate change makes Australia particularly prone to droughts// SOURCE: CBC

We do not have a lot of freshwater available to us here on earth. In fact, we have extraordinarily little. Only 2.5% of all water on earth is freshwater, and 99% of that freshwater trapped in glacial reserves so it is not easily accessible to humans. This means, only 0.007% of all freshwater on earth is currently available for human use. Most of this is used towards agricultural purposes, accounting for over 70% of freshwater withdrawal.

But many of the aquifers and rivers from which we source our freshwater are starting to dry up. At the time of writing this article, researchers predict the world will run completely out of fresh water in about 19 years. But, like Cape Town’s day zero, those estimates aren’t set in stone and will ultimately depend on how we use our water resources.

Cape Town rose to a certain level of fame being the first major city to almost run out of water on such a massive scale, but they are not alone. The effects of climate change and our disregard towards over-straining water reservoirs means multiple cities across the globe are currently at risk for their own day zeros, including Beijing, Istanbul and London.

To add to the problem, researchers predict future political rifts surrounding water will likely occur where two nations share a transboundary water resource. A 2018 study examined different factors that affect a nation’s water availability like population growth, climate stress, or socioeconomic power imbalances to determine which areas will be most at risk for future hydro-political tension (which is a nice way of saying water wars). They found areas which share rivers like the Nile, the Ganges, the Indus, the Tigris/Euphrates, and the Colorado, will be likely hot spots.

Likelihood of hydro political interaction as a result of water scarcity// SOURCE: GIZMODO

Unless we get serious about conserving water, are the water wars we’ve been hearing about really on the horizon?

David Brooks is a global water conservation and management expert, having advised both the public and private sector in freshwater management. Brooks once said “Water wars may make good press, but they seldom make good politics. Even in the Middle East, where water is scarcer than anywhere else in the world, water has more often been a source of cooperation than of conflict.” Having heard little to dispute this water wars of the future scenario, I asked him to speak with me to explain what he meant by this.

“First of all, there won’t be any water wars,” Brooks told me, “People just do not go to war over water, it isn’t worthwhile. The only people who need large amounts of water are farmers, and they do not usually have a lot of political power. You can scrabble over water, but [scrabbles] are more likely to be intro-national instead of inter-national.”

Water wars or not, billions of people around the world still drink dirty water. And in the short future, more and more people will experience regional water scarcity as a result of climate change. So, as humans do, we find innovative ways to solve our problems. For example, we have found ways to make undrinkable water, drinkable.

Water desalination has been a promising option for sourcing our fresh water. Water desalination is the process of removing the minerals and salt from sea water by boiling water and capturing the steam (called thermal desalination) or forcing the water through a membrane (called reverse osmosis). Over the last decade, desalination plants have popped up all over the world in more arid regions like Israel, Gaza and San Diego. With warm, dry arid areas expected to get hotter and dryer with climate change, desalination presents itself to be a unique opportunity as a potential drinking water source in areas prone to droughts. Unfortunately, many critics say this method is too extremely expensive and energy intensive.

Brooks claims while this method is energy intensive, it is becoming increasingly more cost effective. “Desalination is coming along very rapidly,” he says, “I once wrote ‘Desalination is to water, what nuclear power is to electricity- too expensive to use’. It is a great sentence but totally wrong. It is energy intensive, but the cost of desalination has just plummeted as people began to look at it with modern technology. Israel is essentially getting all its drinking water from desalination! The next stage will be solar desalination because the cost of solar electricity had also plummeted.”

Israeli water desalination plant// SOURCE: United with Israel

This made me wonder, instead of spending all this money constructing water desalination plants, why don’t we just increase the price of water and conserve what we already have?

We price water much too low for the value it provides to us. But simply increasing the price of water has its own problems. “You immediately get to an equity question; what about poor people?” Brooks asked me, “You can say 100 ml of water per day, that’s enough for a family to live with… and by the time you’re making a swimming pool or something, then people can pay more for it.”

The idea of giving everyone a set amount of water they can use, then charging extra for those who want to waste it seems fair to me. But I must admit as an environmentalist my skin crawls every time, I walk by a home watering their lawn.

Unfortunately, conservation pricing may not work as well with agriculture and ultimately punish the farmers. “We need so much more water for irrigation than we do for drinking water. 80% of the world’s water is used for irrigation, or at least is used on farms, and the amount you need for drinking water is really marginal,” Brooks says.

He continued, “Water is so valuable to farmers, prices have to go up before it affects irrigation costs. You have to come at it from other ways. You have to have water conservation specialists working for the government… and you have to let prices go up very slowly.”

Another option we discussed is to implement water conservation designs in urban settings. Why do we need water so clean we can drink it in our toilet bowl or watering our lawn? Eco friendly designs which recycle or use less water cost money, and water is so cheap that unless the consumer is incentivized through legislation or higher water bills, there isn’t that motivation to pay out of pocket and replace their perfectly good, working just fine, toilet.

Living in Canada, we have one of the richest sources of freshwater per capita. As a result, we do not think about these kinds of problems affecting us at home. Although it is not as likely we will run out of drinking water on the same time scales as places like Mexico City or Lagos, that does not mean we get to use it guilt free. “Half of all communities in Canada already face water problems of one sort or another,” Brooks says, “The prairie provinces are short of water, they are right now and will be”. In fact, many rivers that once flowed down the Rockies and fed the prairies have already run dry- and this is in our own backyard.

The issues surrounding water that led to this “water wars” narrative is complex. Freshwater quality and quantity differ regionally. The real problem is not necessarily a lack of freshwater supply (promising options exist on the horizon to eventually solve these issues), but more a lack of equitable, sustainable water use in the present. This is then amplified through climate change affecting normal water distributions patterns and lack of political will to regulate this precious resource.

Aaron Wolf once said, “Throughout history, water has induced far more cooperation than conflict around the globe”. Sure, water conflicts may occur more frequently, but there probably will not be any water wars- it just makes good press. In the end, this narrative is drawing our attention away from the real problems and leading us in a direction of conflict, not cooperation.

In the meantime, we need to treat water like it costs more than we pay for it. Conserving water now will postpone whatever is on the horizon, water wars or not.



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