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Summer 2000


Water: The Key Issue of the 21st Century

Mikhail Gorbachev was the last president of the Soviet Union and now heads the International Green Cross, www.globalgreen.org. Shimon Peres, a former Israeli prime minister, is currently Israel’s minister of regional cooperation. Both are recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Geneva—There is one salient fact that overrides all others in the 21st century: Today’s 6 billion people—projected to grow to 8 billion within the next 25 years—must share the same amount of water on this planet shared by less than one-sixth that many before the turn of the 19th century.

As population grows, economies develop and megacities expand, greater and greater demand will be placed on freshwater supplies. Unlike a resource such as oil, for which coal, wind or nuclear power can be an alternative, water has no substitute.
This condition can either be a motor for peace, leading to unprecedented cooperation to manage supplies, or it can generate greater conflict, perhaps even war in water-scarce regions.

Unless we acknowledge this crisis and take steps to head it off, our future on a global scale could look a lot like certain locales in the past when, 4,500 years ago, the city states of Lugash and Umma went to war over irrigation rights along the Tigris River. Indeed, in our time, we are already witnessing outbreaks among farmers fighting over resources from Cochabamba, Bolivia, to Cauvery, India.

And if nothing is done in the next 10 to 15 years, the thirst for peace in the dry and volatile Middle East may revert to a belligerent fight over water.

A GLOBAL ISSUE | A glance at a world map conveys the erroneous impression that there could hardly be a water problem. But 97 percent of Earth’s water is in the sea and very expensive to desalinate. Two percent is locked in the polar icecaps. Subtracting the amount lost to floods, evaporation, inaccessible regions and contamination, that leaves a mere 0.1 percent of global water resources to sustain billions of us in the coming century.

It is true that this limited freshwater is a renewable resource; in principle it can be fully recycled and reused. But contamination beyond repair diminishes even what is available in limited quantities.

Much of the world relies on natural underground aquifers for freshwater. Yet, we are rapidly using those reserves, digging ever deeper wells (like those in northern Syria) and lowering water tables in every continent. Some alarmed Chinese leaders have even suggested moving their capital from Beijing because of chronic water shortages.

More than half the major rivers in the world are going dry or are so polluted they endanger the health of those depending on them. In 1998, 25 million people fled their homes because of water crises in river basins—a far higher number than refugees from war in that same period. Have we already forgotten the floods in Mozambique earlier this year or in Bangladesh?

In the developing world, roughly a quarter of the population—or 1.3 billion people—does not have access to clean water. More than twice that number, almost 3 billion people, lack proper sanitation, causing millions of deaths each year—mainly as a result of children drinking contaminated water.

Region by region across the globe, freshwater resources are under strain. The Ganges in India, believed to be sacred and often a burial place for the dead, carries typhoid, cholera and diarrhea to the living.

In China, the Yellow River, which caused so much grief throughout that country’s long history because of flooding, is running dry because of the rapid expansion of agriculture, industry and population along its meandering 3,600-mile path.
In the former Soviet Union, the Aral Sea remains the world’s foremost example of the kind of ecological calamity mismanagement of water resources can cause. When Soviet central planners decided to grow cotton in the desert, they diverted water from the rivers flowing into the Aral Sea to irrigate crops on which pesticides were heavily applied. The sea has since shrunk to two-thirds of its former size, leaving the old port town of Muynak 30 miles from the present coast.

Today, the native fish are all gone, and salt and toxic dust from pesticide runoff choke the area. Children suffer chronic respiratory diseases as a result.
Even the Colorado River that has made Los Angeles bloom in a virtual desert is ranked as one of the world’s most stressed and over-committed rivers.

A DRY PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST? | More than anywhere else, the Middle East exemplifies the perils and possibilities created by the water crisis. Turkey, in the far north, is blessed with abundant water supplies. As the rivers run down into Syria and on into Jordan and Israel, however, there is scarcely enough water for the present population of the Jordan Valley. And if current trends continue, this population will double in the next 20 years.

Already, the Israeli rate of usage of water per acre for irrigating crops is just 30 percent of that used by US agriculture. Still, Israel uses far more water than the Palestinians who, on the verge of realizing the dream of their own state, nonetheless fear "a dry peace."

In the past 10 years the various states in the Middle East have spent billions to acquire arms instead of building water pipelines or finding ways to conserve, clean and use water more effciently on a shared, regional basis.

We all know that deserts create poverty, and that poverty often leads to war—especially when everyone is armed to the teeth. But missiles in an armed desert can’t carry water any more than minefields can stop pollution from crossing borders.

The alternative to another round of conflict, this time over water instead of land, is cooperation. Desalinization or joint management is cheaper than launching wars for rivers.

Recently, Green Cross International, supported by the Peres Institute for Peace, has launched a joint effort to encourage cooperation among all stakeholders by finding a way to manage water on a regional basis.

Such an effort is especially critical for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, who must get water from the same aquifers. In March, Jordan’s King Abdullah, Israel’s President Ehud Barak and the Palestinian Authority’s President Yasser Arafat all announced support for this initiative.

In the long term, of course, any settlement of the water issue would have to include Syria and Lebanon, which will hopefully be brought into the process sooner rather than later. (Mr. Gorbachev will personally play a mediating role with Syria.)
Overall, we are optimistic about the prospects for cooperation in the Middle East. This should be an example for other areas, from the Parana Rio de la Plata in South America to the Nile River Basin in Africa. More than 300 water basins in the world are shared by two or more countries—all of which will have to work out complementary arrangements.

GLOBAL SOLUTIONS | On the international level, several proposals have been set forth that will help encourage regional cooperation, ease conflict and offer a peaceful and sustainable solution to the problems of water scarcity and pollution.

Green Cross International, which promotes international mediation to prevent water conflicts and encourages integrated basin management, has proposed the creation of watercourse management authorities for critical international basins, with the authority and tools to implement regional decisions. The legitimacy of such regional bodies derives from a new concept made necessary by 21st-century realities: Like liberty and the right to a livelihood, access to clean, safe water should be regarded as a human right.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has also recently proposed a worldwide water alliance to keep neighboring countries from fighting over water. Instead of a formal NATO-like structure, the water alliance would be open to those countries and governments that "understand the urgency of working together to conserve transboundary water, manage it wisely and use it well."

We support these proposals as important steps in a new awareness that the planet’s most precious resource must be husbanded in the 21st century. If this awareness can be translated into a political practice of cooperation instead of conflict, humanity as a whole will have reached a new watershed for peace.

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