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Water War Likely in Next Decade

World Bank says dwindling water supplies will inhibit growth, while the UN warns of rising possibility of conflict over water

08/28/02
UK Guardian

TELL AL-SAMEN (Syria) - From the searing plains of Mesopotamia to the steadily expanding deserts of northern China to the cotton fields of north-west Texas, the struggle for water is igniting social, economic and political tensions.

The World Bank has said dwindling water supplies will be a major factor inhibiting economic growth, a subject being discussed at a weeklong international conference in South Africa, which began yesterday about balancing the use of the world's resources against its economic needs.

Global warming, some experts suspect, may be adding to the strain.

Droughts may be extended in already dry regions, including parts of the United States, even as wetter areas tend towards calamitous downpours and floods like those ravaging Europe and Asia this summer.

In general, the world's climate may be more prone to extremes, with too much water in some areas and far too little in others.

Both the United Nations and the National Intelligence Council (NIC), an advisory group to the CIA, have warned that the competition for water is likely to worsen.

'As countries press against the limits of available water between now and 2015, the possibility of conflict will increase,' the NIC said in a report last year.

By 2015, according to estimates from the UN and the US government, at least 40 per cent of the world's population, or about three billion people, will live in countries where it is difficult or impossible to get enough water to satisfy basic needs.

'The signs of unsustainability are widespread and spreading,' said Ms Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Massachusetts.

'If we're to have any hope of satisfying the food and water needs of the world's people in the years ahead, we will need a fundamental shift in how we use and manage water,' she said.

An inescapable fact about the world's water supply is that it is finite. Less than 1 per cent of it is fresh water that can be used for drinking or agriculture, and demand for that water is rising.

Over the past 70 years, the world's population has tripled while water demand has increased sixfold, causing increasing strain especially in heavily populated areas where water is distant or is being depleted or is simply too polluted to use.

Already, a little more than half of the world's available fresh water is being used each year, according to one rough but generally accepted estimate.

That fraction could climb to 74 per cent by 2025 based on population growth alone, and would hit 90 per cent if people everywhere used as much water as the average American, one of the world's most gluttonous water consumers.

Water tables are falling on every continent, and experts warn that the situation is expected to worsen significantly in years to come.

Around the world, the question of water ownership has never before seemed so divisive.

Despite efforts by the UN and others, the world has yet to come up with an accepted formula on how shared waters should be divided.

That situation applies to nearly 300 rivers, including the Nile, the Danube, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, all subject to major disputes.

In 1997, a UN convention declared that international waterways should be divided reasonably and equitably, without causing unnecessary harm.

But Turkey, along with China and Burundi, refused to sign the agreement, a sign of reluctance on the part of major upstream countries to cede their dominant positions.

Beyond current water shortages, one reason for the tension is a lack of optimism that pressures on the world's water supply might be eased.

Of course, some new technologies, including advanced irrigation techniques, innovative desalination methods and bold water-moving schemes, offer some hope.

But experts say the task of making fresh water available where there is none - from seawater, from icebergs, or by moving surface water long distances - remains too costly to be widely adopted.

Most easily accessible fresh water sources have already been tapped.--New York Times

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