Population Matters

World Lack of Water Day

March 22nd, 2011

Today is World Water Day, an international observance that grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) that was held in Rio de Janeiro.

More than at any time since the Rio Conference, World Water Day this year is more cause for concern than celebration. For while there have been many advances in the past two decades, those advances have not kept up with the world’s ever surging demand for fresh water…or the shrinking supplies. 

Water is not the kind of story that ordinarily makes national headlines, but increasingly it’s the real story behind many of those headlines, whether its turmoil in Yemen, riots in Syria, or the emerging food crisis.  

Water scarcity and the growing lack of clean water are aggravating severe poverty, imperiling health, and pushing many countries to the brink of hunger.  And the problem is far from peaking.  With continued population growth,  increased drought due to climate change, the growing demand of agriculture, the depletion of underground aquifers, and the dramatic shrinkage of many lakes and rivers, relieving water scarcity is an uphill, if not impossible task.

Yemen, whose population is one of the fastest growing on the planet, will effectively run out of water in a decade or so.  Whatever happens to the Saleh regime in the coming weeks and months, the future rulers of Yemen will face an almost impossible task. 

The same is true of Syria, where severe rioting has broken out in recent days.  With a still growing population and a persistent draught, Syria faces a challenge that would daunt the most democratic of regimes.  In Eastern Syria, a five-year drought has uprooted over a million people.   Dr. Josef Olmert at American University gave this assessment in the Huffington Post.

Syria is on the verge of a catastrophic water crisis, caused by years of drought and total neglect by the government of the water sources. Over a million starving and thirsty peasants, mainly Kurds from the North-east of Syria, but also Sunnis from the Hauran and Druze from the neighboring Jabal regio were forced to abandon their traditional way of life and migrated to the metropolitan areas, particularly the Capital, Damascus. This is a time-bomb that is waiting to explode, and the Hauran riots are just the beginning. The traditionally belligerent Kurdish population of the Jzeera region are next in line, and possibly also the urban Kurdish population of Damascus, Aleppo and Hammah.

But it’s not just Syria, the entire Middle East is a water crisis waiting to happen…with no relief in sight.  Sundeep Waslekar, writing for Forbes India, gave this blunt assessment yesterday:

Be it the Jordan River, Yarmouk, Lake Kinneret or the Dead Sea itself, water has depleted significantly over the last few decades. Rivers Jordan and Yarmouk have lost 90 percent of their water in the last 50 years. If this trend continues, large parts of the Middle East will simply have no water by the next decade. Half of Syria will become a desert in two or three decades..

When that happens, agriculture in these parts will be severely restricted. The region will face an unprecedented food crisis. Now one could say that Middle East could simply import food from India or China. But water tables there are going down too. Food production could fall everywhere from China to India to Pakistan to Syria to Egypt. This is no longer a storm that is some distance away. The storm has crossed the horizon. And the Middle East and North Africa will face political uncertainty till then and then they’ll be hit by this food crisis and that’s when destabilisation will start. They are entering an era of inconclusive uncertainty.

And it’s not just the Middle East, water scarcity afflicts a large number of developing countries with civil unrest and growing populations, including Haiti, Pakistan, and Sudan. Larisa Epatko of the PBS Newshour offered an overview of these and other countries today.  It’s well worth a view.

It’s not that there aren’t things that can be done to remedy water scarcity.  Yemeni farmers could quit growing khat, a popular narcotic that accounts for a lot of the existing water demand in that country.  Syria could improve its dreadful water management practices.  And expanded use of drip irrigation systems in many countries could reduce agriculture’s claim on water resources.  But if experience is any indicator, the fact that something could be done is no guarantee that it will be done.  In the meantime, water demand continues to grow and water supply continues to shrink. 

Behind all the headlines about Japan and the brewing trouble in the Middle East is a story that may be the biggest story of the 21st century.  It’s a pity that even on World Water Day, the issue of water scarcity still doesn’t get much attention.  But someday, not many World Water Days from now, it will.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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