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‘Water to become a driver of tensions and conflicts in next 20 years’

Published time: June 10, 2014 17:27
AFP Photo / David McNew

The growth of the world’s population will lead to the exacerbation of water supply problems and push more countries into conflicts over water resources, water specialist Russell Sticklor told RT.

The United Nations estimates that within 15 years around half of the world's population will suffer from a lack of water. About a fifth of the global population is currently under so-called 'water stress', with their countries' underground reserves already severely depleted. This figure is dramatically rising with almost one third of the world's population predicted to be hit by critical shortages over the next decade. At the same time, the demand for fresh water has tripled over the past five decades, and global water consumption is looking less likely to sustain population growth.

RT:Water has always been taken for granted. Should it be?

Russell Sticklor: Absolutely not. I think one the big reasons why historically we have been able to take water for granted is because there has been an ample supply of it. The planet has never had so many people on it as it currently does, just over 7 billion people. Since World War Two, the world has experienced massive population growth both in the Middle East and North Africa, in Asia, in Sub-Saharan Africa. Between now and 2050, we are expected to add 2 billion more people to the total global population. For that reason, the competition for access to water is going to become more and more of a feature of global affairs. For that reason, we have been able to take it for granted in the past... but with more people on the planet and everyone needing water, there is going to be more competition for it.

RT:Are we to see water wars in the future?

RS: It’s worth noting that in the past, Middle Eastern countries have not gone to war over water --- water has never been the main cause for the conflict. If we take Israel and the Palestinian territories for example, since the 1940s water has been an active source of disagreement between the two sides, but water is not something that has spilled over into violent conflict there. In the Middle East, we see some other potential flash points for conflict. For example, Turkey, Syria and Iraq share the Euphrates River, and depend on water from this river. All of these three countries are also experiencing significant population growth. So the question becomes as each of these countries share a certain water source, as the population grows, how will they find ways to make sure that each country has access to enough water for their economy, for agriculture, for households?

One other area in the Middle East I’d point to is Egypt. Egypt and Ethiopia both share the waters of the Nile. Historically, they had about the same population back in the 1950s, there was about 20-25 million people in each country. Today, each country has the population in the low 80 millions. However, during the next 40 years, Ethiopia’s population is going to expand much more quickly than Egypt’s. Yet, Egypt relies on the Nile --- that starts in Ethiopia --- to receive its water. So right now, Ethiopia is building a very large dam on the Nile in order to have water for hydroelectricity, for Ethiopia’s own development, and this is something that has definitely worried Egypt.

It’s one of the reasons that former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said about 25 years ago“Future fighting in the Middle East is most likely going to revolve around water”. I think we are starting to see the very early stages of that. With continued growth of the population in the region, in 20, 30, 40 years, water is going to become more and more of a driver of tensions or cause for possible conflicts. The Middle East and North Africa is one of the main areas we need to watch for that because it is one of the most water scarce region in the world, and it currently has the population of 300 million --- about the size of the US, with a fraction of US water resources. So how we manage the water in the Middle East and North Africa is going to be a big component about whether there is stability in this region later on this century.

AFP Photo / Justin Sullivan

RT: But wouldn't water wars help awake the world to the need of going green and clean, while also helping nations better share and manage their dwindling resources?

RS: We tend to react to problems once they are already a major problem and we have no choice but to deal with them. Population growth that is happening now will continue to happen in the next 50 years and is going to force us to confront the issue. It is not there will be less water; there always has been more or less the same amount of water on the planet. The question is how many people are vying for the same water resources. In the Middle East and North Africa, it is going to be particularly pronounced.

Could a water war awake countries and governments to the need to better utilize water? Absolutely. The question is “Can we be proactive enough to head off this sort of violent conflict?”

We have already seen water play a contributing role in the conflict in Syria. There was a drought in Syria before the civil war and that was a contributor to internal instability in Syria. Yemen has about 26 million people right now, but between now and 2050 its population is going to double. Yemen is already one of the most water-stressed places in the entire world, so Yemen is another place to watch in terms of the first example of a country really scraping the bottom of the barrel on how much water it has. We can see water becoming more of a driver of conflicts in the future, and the hope is that we can tackle these issues before it boils over in direct conflict between countries or between parties within the same country.

RT: What about the technology aspect? Are our machines up-to-date and ready to withstand the growing shortage of freshwater?

RS: Machinery and infrastructure can play a major role. In a lot of countries, the water delivery infrastructure such as water pipelines, ground water pumps is not in a great condition. The effect of that is that water can be used inefficiently. So if you have water that can be taken from a reservoir to the city but you are taking it with very old leaking pipelines, you are going to lose a lot of that water. Infrastructure upgrades in water-stressed areas of the world can allow us to use water more efficiently.

There is another interesting aspect of how can technology and infrastructure play a role. This has actually been a wide practice in the Middle East, desalinization. That is the process of converting sea water into fresh water that humans can use. At the moment it still remains a very energy-intensive process. So we see countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates --- which have a lot of domestic energy resources but no locally fresh water --- they rely heavily on desalinization for their water. The hope is that as the technology becomes more refined, we may be able to desalinate more water for coastal populations in water-stressed areas in the world. And it’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have just announced plans to build the world’s largest solar powered desalinization facility, so the idea is to take an unlimited resource such as solar energy, combine it with virtually unlimited water supplies that we have in the oceans, and see if we can find a green, environmentally friendly way to convert salt water into fresh water.

RT: Do you think in several years we’ll see invasions of water-scarce states to water-rich states?

RS: I wouldn’t turn it as invasion. Historically, if you look back over several thousands of years, one of the reasons populations had moved from place to place is that water resources in the given area dried out. And that’s why people historically migrated, in response to natural resource pressures. If you do have a country in a modern era that runs out of water --- or whose water resources do not allow it to support the population of the certain size --- you may see migration to other countries that have more water. Those migrations would probably happen a little bit more locally.

So if we are looking forward a few decades into Yemen, which may be not able to support its population given the way it uses its water resources, we might see migration into more water-rich areas of Ethiopia, or different parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Basically people move to where the water resources are.

All parts of the world are not affected equally by this. There are countries that late in the 21st century might be seen as water powers. Countries with vast amounts of water resources but a comparatively small population. So Canada, Russia come to mind as countries that have just massive territory, and more water than they really need. But you have other parts of the world, the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, which have much higher populations collectively with much less water resources. As an interesting sign what might be to come, there is an agreement signed a few years ago by a company in Alaska --- with Mumbai, India. Alaska, which has no people but a lot of water, sent some shipments of water in an ocean tanker all the way from Alaska to India. So people are willing to think creatively of how to get water from water-rich parts of the world to water-scarce parts of the world. Migration could be part of that ultimately, but the real answer for us is going to be using what water we have more efficiently.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.