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Great Lakes Article:

Climate change and water resources
John Onu Odihi
Borneo Bulletin
01/31/2003


Climate change and water resources are two of the important issues occupying the centre stage of global environmental and policy agenda over the past decades.

Concerns over them looks certain to continue well into the new millennium with many experts warning that the problems could not be arrested easily even if we practice all the restraints proposed for their mitigation. A change to a warmer climate would result in the melting of ice and glaciers that would cause a rise in sea levels globally.

Also, fresh water pollution caused by intrusion of seawater would jeopardise supplies of fresh water for human consumption, industrial and agricultural production in coastal areas.

Furthermore, climate change would be capable of causing drastic changes and redefining agricultural belts globally. If and when that happens, today's breadbaskets (important food producing areas of the world) could be turned into "agricultural deserts" as a result of several factors, which include the inability of crops to cope with climate change-induced temperature regimes. As more data becomes available, the fears surrounding climate change particularly the implications for water resources take on a renewed urgency.

Not withstanding its abundance (about two-thirds of the earth's surface), water remains an elusive resource because of its nature and distribution in both space and time. Only a small quantity of water available at any time on earth is of fresh nature.

The bulk of water exists as seawater, which cannot be directly used by humans or in agricultural production. Also, water is not well distributed around the world. Its occurrence in time and space does not correspond well to demand. The bulk of fresh water occurs as glaciers, snow or ice in areas too far or too cold for humans to reach.

Vast areas of the world receive too little rainfall and are therefore arid or semi-arid. In these areas, water is always in short supply and costs of providing good quality water may be too high for the state in such places. Centuries of exploitation of underground sources have resulted in their complete exhaustion or near-exhaustion in many parts of the world.

Water supply has been a thorny issue in many parts of the world. A potpourri of factors has been responsible for water supply even before the scientific community discovered the problem of climate change. Rising human populations is a key factor of global concern.

The fundamental nature of the human population problem stems from the multifarious nature of human dependency on water. Each baby born exerts a demand pressure on water supplies through its needs for food (production and preparation), shelter, sanitation and recreation among others. Additionally, modernisation or "the good life", wrongly or rightly defined in materialistic terms as abundance of one's material acquisition, places much pressure on water resources. Unfortunately, water resources remain finite in many places even with today's technology because of political, technological and economic feasibility problems.

Not withstanding these problems, demand for water keeps growing almost everywhere in the world. In poorer areas, high demands and low supply lead to high mortality rates. The inadequacy of supply in terms of quantity, quality or both cause the poor segments of societies in poor countries to use polluted water. This has led to very high incidences of enteric or killer diseases such as diarrhoea, dysentery and typhoid among others with their high tolls on the population of such countries.

Water, which is easily one of the most abundant resources of nature, has created the phenomenon called "hydropolitics" (politics over water), and it is frequently a cause of friction between people divided by a political boundary. This happens when a water resource such as a river has a transboundary existence.

The cause of such friction is usually a development policy or programme that skews benefits and costs across such a political boundary. One side gets the carrot (benefits) and another gets the stick or sting of the development. In many cases more than two countries have a stake in an international river. Major basins of the world such as the Amazon, Mekong, Congo, Nile, Niger and Rhine are international basins.

The problem comes when countries that have a stake in an international river have different agenda for its development.

Parochial development such as damming or diverting the waters of international rivers for the benefits of one country is capable of, and has at one time or another, strained relationships between countries.

Some examples of unresolved international river issues as recent as the mid-1990s included those over Rio Grande and Colorado (USA and Mexico), Eurprates and Tigris (Iraq, Syria and Turkey) and Nile (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia). Close to home, the Mekong is a source of friction between Thailand, Vietnam, Kampuchea and Laos.

The unequivocal importance of water to humans, the widely accepted idea of climate change and its dire implications for water resources the world over sum up to the need for good planning and management of water resources. We cannot plan well without correct understanding of the situation. While Brunei Darussalam has yet to experience major problems with water resources, the impacts of climate change are of global proportions. It may only be a matter of time, given the country's coastal location, for Brunei Darussalam to experience some of the adverse impacts of climate change such as sea level rise.

It is therefore to our good fortune that Professor C. Gregory Knight will be giving a lecture to address the issues of climate change and water resources planning using Bulgaria as a case study during his short visit to Brunei Darussalam. Gregory Knight is Professor of Geography and Director, Institute for Integrated Regional Assessment at the Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, United State of America.

The lecture is open to the public and invited guests from various organisations and associations responsible for water supply and climate studies. His lecture will be given at 2:30 p.m. on 3 February 2003 in Room 1.27 Computer Service Centre (CSC) Universiti Brunei Darussalam. It is hoped that anyone with burning questions on the issue would attend and find some answers in the lecture and/or in the discussions that follow.

The author of this article is from the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

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