E – MODERN ERA, 20thC to current
The amount of available water on the Earth is a closed system, the water we have on this planet is what we’ve got and is all that we’re ever going to get. While we have vast oceans spanning more than two-thirds of our globe’s surface (71%), which would suggest that water shortage seems highly improbable.
The water we have is working through a cycle, which starts with evaporation from the sea. Around 94% of all water is in the sea, at any given time some 500,000 cubic kilometres of this has been evaporated which condenses into clouds and later falls as precipitation. Some of course falls back into the sea with the seas replenished every 2,600 years.
Some of the precipitation falls where it gets added to the snow and ice on mountains, in glaciers, at the poles. Some ice sublimates and turns directly into water vapour, so that it condenses and precipitates again. The precipitation that falls on land, masses up as streams, then rivers, perhaps deposited in lakes, or held up by dams, led into reservoirs or runs back into the sea.
As it crosses the land some of it gets absorbed into the soil and then either passes through to become groundwater in aquifers, sucked up into plants and trees or evaporates from soil and plants back up into the atmosphere.
Of the 6% that is not in the sea, two thirds is held within underground aquifers, though in recent times we have been drawing on these rather too heavily and some have become salinated. It takes 5,000 years for the aquifers to replenish themselves.
In theory then only 2% is left readily available for us. Of this small portion, 85% is snow and ice at the poles and glaciers. Some is out there as atmospheric vapour, in the soil, in plants and trees, in animals and us. Finally lakes hold just 0.02% of total water and are replenished in ten years, rivers contain just 0.0001% and replenish every twelve days.
Early human settlements gathered around this meagre balance of the Earth’s waters in the rivers and lakes. With just this resource we were able to create the earliest civilisations, in particular taking advantage of the fertile river valleys where they first practiced agriculture.
Accelerating consumption – In the past three decades human population doubled while human water-use tripled – primarily because, ton-for-ton, modern high-yielding crop varieties need more water than the traditional ones. As water is a closed system, these simple statistics mean that the available water/head of world population has been slashed to a sixth of its previous levels!
Asian middle classes – But this situation will only get worse. The huge populations of China (1.37 billion) and India (1.27 billion) are sustaining massive industrial growth as they develop a ‘middle class’ that seeks to adopt features of our Western appliances and standards of living. Chinese water consumption is currently just 86 litres per person per day, India’s is a little higher at 135 litres/person/day, this compares with the UK at 150 and the USA at 575. The Chinese and Indians are developing a ‘middle class’, this and other trends will increase their usage and close that gap.
Water footprints – These are a measure of water consumed in producing foodstuffs and other products. For example, when you buy a litre of water in its plastic bottle be aware that the bottle manufacture used almost seven litres – this figure ignores getting the water extracted and transporting it to the shop. Coffee outlets seem to have multiplied in the last few decades and a small cup of coffee uses 140 litres of water to grow the beans that are used. The processes involved in creating a smart pair of leather shoes swallows up a massive 8,000 litres of water. Each kilo of rice consumes 2,300 litres of water and a kilo of beef uses 22,000 litres of water.
Biofuels – Another big rock has been thrown in to the ‘pond’ – bio-fuels! As oil runs out, we strive to find alternative power sources and large tracts of our agricultural land are being redeployed to grow new bio-fuels. But to run a single average US car for a year on this fuel requires the output of 11 acres of farmland! The UK has targets to convert its agriculture to 10% bio-fuel use by 2020. Yet, according to the Stockholm International Water Institute, growing corn and then converting it into a litre of ethanol consumes almost twice the energy that the ethanol can generate. Indian sugar cane uses 3,500 litres of water to produce a litre of ethanol, Chinese maize uses 2,400 litres – yet China plans to quadruple its bio-fuel production by 2020!
Water wars – Around 60% of our meagre useable water is flowing within some 300 river basins and these often form international boundaries, some on either bank of the river, others along the length of its course. New dams, hydro-electric plants and irrigation schemes upriver do of course cause shortages for the nations downstream. A tenth of these river basins have more than five sharing countries, the Danube serves eighteen!
A UN publication in 2006 stated ‘…with world demand for water increasing six-fold over the 20th century, there was no let-up in disputes over trans-boundary water issues, prompting some experts to predict that the wars of the 21st century will be fought over water’. Past UN Secretaries General also issued warnings – Kofi Annan: ‘Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.’ Boutros Boutros Ghali: ‘Competition for water resources could provoke wars in Africa and the Middle East’.
There are already a series of water disputes, some 250-300 rivers either cross or define international boundaries. There are around seventy in Europe, sixty each in Africa, Asia and Latin America/the Caribbean and around twenty in North America. The river basins these create cover 50% of the world’s land surface, providing 60% of all fresh water. Those sharing a river are termed ‘riparian’ states, they might face each other with the river’s course forming their international boundary or perhaps they’re located up or downstream from each other. Of course if one country upstream seeks to dam the river or draw too much from it then the downstream riparian neighbour will clearly suffer.
Despite some two hundred treaties being signed in the last fifty years, there have been over five hundred water conflicts across the same period. And today there is no formal treaty for the vast majority of these river basins. The word ‘rival’ derives from the Latin word rivalis meaning one using the same river as another!
There has been no real progress on international water dispute mechanisms. The vast majority of the world’s river basins have no treaties in place, 10% of these river basins have five or more riparian states. In Asia there are some sixty potential flashpoint river basins, then there’s the River Jordan with Israel, Syria and Jordan squabbling over it. The Mekong has Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam arguing over it. The Danube has no fewer than eighteen riparian states.
Even in the United States there have had heated squabbles. Georgia, Alabama and Florida engaged in the ‘tri-state water war’. It was at the end of the last century when Atlanta, having assessed its future water needs, decided to set reservoirs along three rivers so it could withdraw increasing amounts for its own needs. Downstream Alabama and Florida, already annoyed by having to deal with Atlanta’s pollution flowing down their shared rivers, saw their water supply was now under even greater threat. They believed it would reduce the potential for agricultural, industrial and population growth. Florida in particular saw a threat to its profitable oyster business. So the issues of sharing water courses are real, and real everywhere!