Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Climate change and the age of water wars

The UN has identified 92 countries as being in severe danger of global warming related acute water shortages that could eventually lead to resource-based conflict. Mainly in Asia, Africa and South America, these countries are home to two thirds of the world’s population and among the world’s poorest. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon told the first Asia-Pacific Water Summit in Japan yesterday that the planet faced a water crisis that could be very bad news for Asia due to massive population growth, rising water consumption, pollution and poor water management. Ban said the consequences would be grave. “Throughout the world, water resources continue to be spoiled, wasted and degraded,” he said. “Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.”

Ban was speaking to the results of a study by London based NGO International Alert. Their report showed that 46 nations and 2.7 billion people are now at high risk of being overwhelmed by armed conflict and war because of water shortages due to climate change. A further 56 countries face political destabilisation, affecting another 1.2 billion. The report entitled “A Climate of Conflict” (pdf) highlights four key elements of risk: political instability, economic weakness, food insecurity and large-scale migration. Climate change will have a direct affect on fresh water supply. It identified several water issues arising from these risks including falling water levels in the Ganges basin, longer droughts on the margins of Africa’s Sahel, glacial melting in the Andes and the Himalayas and rising sea levels.

The worst threats affect those countries least equipped to deal with the crisis. Most lack the resources and stability to deal with global warming. International Alert’s secretary-general, Dan Smith, said the Netherlands will be affected by rising sea levels, but will avoid war and strife because it has the resources and political structure to act effectively. “But other countries that suffer loss of land and water and be buffeted by increasingly fierce storms will have no effective government to ensure corrective measures are taken,” he said. “People will form defensive groups and battles will break out.”

The UN has declared 2008 to be the International Year of Sanitation. It states that over 40 per cent of the global population, some 2.6 billion, have no access to latrines or basic sanitation facilities. As a result millions suffer from a wide range of preventable illnesses, such as diarrhoea, which claim thousands of lives each day. Young children are worst impacted. The UN Millennium task force on Water and Sanitation believes the problem can be solved for just $10 billion annually (about 1 percent of the world’s military spending).

The task force’s 2005 report on water and sanitation (pdf) sought to answer two questions: what is involved in a global expansion of water supply and sanitation in a sustainable manner and how can water use be optimised to meet the challenge. They found that in order to achieve their water and sanitation targets by 2015, the world’s richer countries needed to increase donor aid, the middle ranking countries needed to re-allocate aid to those most deserving, create support for ownership of water supply and sanitation among the poorest, focus on community mobilisation in the areas most at need and most importantly more planning and investment in water resources management and infrastructure.

Asia’s burgeoning but disparate population presents one of the greatest challenges. In the next two decades Asia's urban population will swell by 60 percent and a large proportion of this growth will take place in cities of half a million or less. It will be more difficult to manage water resources prudently in these smaller cities because they do not have the technology, financing, expertise and political support of Asia's mega cities. The Manila-based Asian Development Bank’s study of water resources calls it a strange anomaly. “These smaller centres are receiving conspicuously less attention from national and international policy makers," it said. “Unless the present policy and focus change radically, these centres are likely to be major water and waste-water `black holes' of the future.”

Africa is the other major problem area. Potential 'water wars' are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country such as the Nile, Niger, Volta and Zambezi basins. The Cuito and Okavango rivers between Angola, Botswana and Namibia’s Caprivi Strip have also suffered due to large scale agriculture, urbanisation and the effects of the Angolan civil war. Tensions also erupted between Egypt and Ethiopia when the latter country considered the construction of dams on the White Nile. Lester Brown, head of environmental research institute Worldwatch, sees the problem starkly. “There is already little water left when the Nile reaches the sea,” he says. “Water scarcity is now the single biggest threat to global food security.”

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