The Observer view on water as a global political issue | Observer editorial

With demand for fresh water set to outstrip supply, it’s crucial that we find technological solutions

It is spring, the season in which the ancient Egyptians said prayers to the goddess Isis when her tears for her husband, Osiris, filled the Nile. Water has always had a value. And now, in the 21st century, its value is becoming ever more apparent. In an increasingly large number of areas, that value is being driven by scarcity. The World Bank estimates that, as a privatised commodity, it is worth $1tr.

Last week, California imposed mandatory restrictions on water use for the first time in its history. It follows four years of severe drought. With the state’s level of water at just 5% of the historical average, the governor of California was right to point out: “It’s a different world. We have to act differently.”

And with the increased marketisation of water come other tensions. The water restrictions in California are aimed primarily at urban populations even though, as the Economist points out, agriculture accounts for 80% of water use. The agriculture industry is also worth $45bn. It produces half the fruit and vegetables consumed in the US.

Across the world, water has become political. In Ireland, there have been demonstrations against a water tax that is due to be levied from this month. The protests have drawn tens of thousands and show no signs of abating. Meanwhile, in Karachi earlier this year, riots were triggered by a lack of clean water. And in São Paulo, the lack of water in a state of 41 million has meant widespread rationing. With the taps running dry, many residents and businesses have begun to start drilling their own wells, sometimes in the basements of their homes and factories. And in a country where much of the electricity is hydro-powered, the lack of water is causing electricity shortages.

Whichever part of the world you care to look at, water is becoming a source of hardship, violence and, perhaps most worryingly, political tension.

Last month, Unesco’s world water development report warned that the planet could suffer a 40% shortfall in 15 years unless countries dramatically change their use of resources. It will be a cause of war and major migration on an even greater scale than witnessed so far. The report says that global water demand will increase by 55% by 2050, while reserves dwindle as climate change takes its toll. In 2006, the global population was 6.5 billion. That will grow by a third again in three decades.

In addition to population growth, the changing diet of the middle classes in India and elsewhere will add to the strain on our thirsty planet. In a century, the population of the world has tripled, while the demand for water has increased sixfold. Yet the way in which water is managed, transported, diverted and costed is blighted too often by short termism and self-interest. The tap remains on because the consequences – much like our failure to address the world’s changing climate – can be shouldered by another generation. But already, the price of inaction is too high.

China, a country that is doing much to encourage innovation and technological solutions to global warming, finds itself with a huge challenge when it comes to water. In some cases these two are linked. It has more dams – 26,000 – than any other country in the world. Four years ago, it announced it would double its hydropower to reduce its dependency on coal-fired power plants. It is diverting water from Tibet via five dams, one already built. The livelihood of Tibetans and 2 billion Chinese living downstream will suffer and the fragile ecosystem will likely be irreversibly damaged. Across China’s borders, Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh are depending on rivers sourced in Tibet. More than 60% of Cambodia’s annual fish catch derives from a lake, which relies on the annual flooding of the Mekong. Depriving the river of its floodwaters has resulted in a drastic drop in the fish catch.

The New York Times reported last week that 22 million Chinese have been relocated as a result of hydropower projects since the 1950s and a million Tibetans since the 1990s.

The potential for political conflict is all too obvious, primarily because 50% of the world’s water supply is transnational; it runs through two or more countries and in two-thirds of those areas, there is a lack of agreement about its use. In 2014, belatedly, the United Nations watercourses convention came into effect, spelling out guidelines for trans-boundary water sharing. The bad news is that the convention is voluntary, and neither China nor most nations in South Asia are signatories.

Water is profitable and where there is profit, there is often bloodshed. Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, has created a 5,000-year timeline of conflict caused by water. It begins before the 6th century BC and moves well past the 2012 riots in Cape Town, prompted by a lack of clean water. In 10 years, one in five people will live in regions of water scarcity where supply can’t meet demand. So where are the solutions?

San Francisco has banned the sale of small bottles of water in public places. Every gesture helps but individual effort, a bolder strategy and international co-operation are vital. In Brazil and the US, the reliance is on engineering solutions – digging deeper, laying longer tunnels. Instead, part of the answer has to be economic. Water, in developed areas, costs too little. Ireland may revolt but, while water poverty has to be addressed, the resource also has to be properly priced. There are perfectly legitimate conservation reasons for pricing water at a level that helps sustain it, and us, for the long term. We may all have to face up to the fact that in a world where there is less of it, we all have to pay more. In the south-east of England last year, householders consumed 160 litres a day for just 55p.

But some principles need to apply as we look to govern the use of, and access to, water. Public money, via taxpayers, should not subsidise private entrepreneurs, as in California.

There are other approaches. In Australia, the long-term strategy includes an agricultural shift to less water-intensive crops. In Los Angeles, an innovative water conservation management system has been in place for years. Technology can clearly play a major role in helping produce some solutions. Desalination – though currently prohibitively expensive – is an innovation worth pursuing. Many more are required.

Already one in nine people has no access to clean water. The challenge is how, across national frontiers, we tap into a different future.



Observer editorial

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