Among the most pressing challenges of today one can find the growing shortage of fresh water for everyday use, which can lead to wars and mass migrations to those areas where water will still be readily available.
Marshes, rivers, lakes and other wetlands are disappearing at three times the pace of forests. This was stated in a report drafted in accordance with the Ramsar Convention. The convention was signed back in 1975 in the Iranian city of Ramsar from which it derived its name. The disappearance of wetlands affects all regions of the world, but it is particularly visible in Latin America, where in the period from 1990 to 2015 over 59% of all wetlands would become history. At the same time, Europe would lose 35% of its wetlands over the same period of time. In the Old World, the largest decline is observed in the Mediterranean region.
Water resources of our planet are declining for two main reasons. On the one hand, 70% of all drinking water is being used for agriculture that keeps booming in order to meet the needs of the growing population of the planet. On the other hand, as a result of global warming, glaciers keep melting, as those lands that were still fertile yesterday have now turned to deserts.
Therefore, UN experts state that a critical situation has been developing across multiple continents as drinking water is getting increasingly more scarce, to the point when it is now being referred to as blue gold. This can result in new military conflicts erupting in many regions of the world, primarily across the Middle East and South Asia. According to UN forecasts, by 2040, the world’s population will reach nine billion people, while the fresh water reserves will be able to satisfy only 70% of the total population.
At the same time, nowhere is drinking water scarcer than in the Arab world. This region is home to most of the world’s poorest states or territories in terms of water resources, including Bahrain, Djibouti, Gaza, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation and the World Bank have recently released a report titled Water Management in Fragile Systems: Building Resilience to Shocks and Protracted Crises in the Middle East and North Africa. According to this document, the economic losses of Arab countries due to water scarcity can be reach up to 14% of their GDP by 2050.
And if the richest countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, can subsidize water purchases, the poorest countries are going to face a struggle for every sip of drinking water, that will become a trigger for uncontrolled violence. One should be mindful that among the key trigger of the Arab Spring uprisings were rising food prices, that were directly connected to the region’s worsening water crisis.
A major conflict is brewing in the Middle East in the basins of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the Turkish government is planning to erect 22 high-altitude dams, nine of which have already been finished. This has already provoked an extremely sharp response from Syria and Iraq, since those states are reluctant to become dependent on Turkey in fulfilling their drinking water needs.
Another knot of contradictions has developed in the Jordan Basin, where Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians are fighting for water resources. Tensions are growing in the Nile basin in connection with the plans of Ethiopia to build a giant dam together with a hydroelectric power station. The problem of water deficit is very urgent for Asian countries as well.
It’s been pointed out that China has long regarded drinking water as a strategic weapon – one that the country’s leaders have to advance their foreign-policy goals. In fact Beijing happens to be the world’s unrivaled hydro-hegemon, as it remains the source of cross-border riparian flows to more countries than any other state.
Unsurprisingly, China is now home to more dams than the rest of the world combined, and the construction continues, leaving downstream neighbors – especially the vulnerable lower Mekong basin states, Nepal, and Kazakhstan at China’s mercy.
But a bigger challenge for Beijing could be the threat of a water crisis which would submerge the world’s second-largest economy and wash away growth. A number of independent reports show that the booming population of China along with the climate change processes can hinder China’s economic growth. It’s been pointed out that glaciers in the western China provinces of Qinghai and Gansu, as well as the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, are rapidly melting, causing natural disasters and reducing the drinking-water supply.
Describing the situation in blunt terms, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has warned that the lack of water threatens the “very survival of the Chinese nation itself.”
This situation is being closely monitored by the neighboring countries, which depend on Beijing’s handling of the water crisis as some of the decisions it may take are going to affect its neighbors in a drastic manner.
In addition, yet another series of tension has flared up in Asia, this time between Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad has recently stated that Kuala Lumpur is going to be forced to increase the cost of water supplied to Singapore tenfold in a situation when the latter does not have its own water resources!
Water is a strategic resource that, undoubtedly, will determine the future of many countries. But at the same time, it is a time bomb that can go off at any give moment due to water mismanagement problems, leading to conflicts and bloodshed.
However, the vicious cycle of violence and instability can only be broken if all of the states on the face of this planet are going to commit to make advancements in such areas water management and environment protection. Otherwise, their problems with water resources, as well as internal unrest, will only get worse overtime.
Grete Mautner is an independent researcher and journalist from Germany, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”