26 July 2012

It’s a small, dry world after all

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Hannah Vogel writes...

Our planet is a blue planet. It’s three-fourths water. But it’s also a small, dry planet, and it’s getting smaller and dryer every day.

Earth is a closed system; excepting heat energy, not much gets in or out of our atmosphere. We’ve got a set amount of water, but its distribution is anything but set. Water flows through nations in many forms, whether it’s shifting rain patterns due to global climate change, depletion of closed aquifers, channelization and development of river ecosystems, or the import and export of water-intensive commodities. In today’s highly interconnected global society, the choices we make about water use in our everyday lives can have incredible ramifications halfway across the world. Like a Butterfly Effect, only wetter.

Nowhere in the world is this more evident than in the Arab Spring countries. The political regimes weren’t the only things that the people rose up against. The regimes, in addition to their frequent brutality, were incompetent managers of water and food resources. Yemen is expected to be the first country in the world to run out of water, and top officials were regularly digging illegal wells in their backyards while leaving their people to import increasingly expensive water and crops. Over 800,000 Syrians had their livelihoods wiped out by one of the most severe droughts in history, and the government did nothing to help and was overwhelmed by their migration to urban centers. Arab nations have to import around half of their food and over two-thirds of their water supply originates outside of the region. Last year, even with heavy government subsidies, Egypt experienced food price inflation of 11%.

Nations that avoided the uprisings, like Saudi Arabia, have the money to start buying up land in more fertile, water-rich nations like Ethiopia and Sudan and preserve their political stability, but this is no solution. This takes water away from the Nile Delta and simply transfers those nations’ flawed consumption models to another location. That water is still being overused. We’re a closed system, and so we can’t afford to be closed-minded system. We need to find a solution that isn’t just stealing water from other thirsty people.

What can we do? First, we can offer technical and financial aid for reducing water consumption and providing family planning services. Right now, it’s projected that the population of Middle Eastern countries will increase by 132% by 2030. If some of that population growth can be limited, that will help ease demand on drained local water sources. We can continue to address our own consumption patterns, recognizing that if we import fewer products embedded with relatively abundant American water and soil nutrients and export more, the global market will benefit. Climate change is also a huge stress factor on the worldwide water network. Wintertime droughts in the Middle East are already increasing due to shifting weather patterns, and rising sea levels will salinize aquifers and significantly affect the Nile Delta. If we recognize our own influence on climate change and fund both mitigation and adaptation strategies for nations affected by our extremely high carbon and greenhouse gas output, that’s a start in repaying the American debt to the atmosphere.

This may seem like a lot to do for people all around the world. Some may say that the Middle Eastern countries have made their bed with imprudent water use and shoddy infrastructure and now they must lie in it. Some might ask what we have to do with a revolution seven thousand miles away. To those people, I’d like to emphasize that the world’s finite water supply is everyone’s problem. If these water problems aren’t addressed, water wars won’t stop within national boundaries. Some global security strategists and US intelligence analysts consider water to be one of the next big factors in global conflicts. Wouldn’t it be awful if World War III were Water War I? We have to learn from the Arab Spring. People need water, and we need to work together to address how it’s distributed and how we can get it to them, or they’ll forcefully get it from us.

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