Water, Water, Disappearing Everywhere

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Ilmas Futehally is Executive Director and Co-founder of Strategic Foresight Group. She has led projects on water security in the Himalayan River Basins and the Middle East and has authored several volumes on conflict issues. 4

Fifty years ago, Lake Chad in Africa had a surface area of 25,000 square kilometers. Today, it has less than 2,000. The surface area of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has dropped by half, from 66,000 to 33,000 square km, and the Dead Sea in the Middle East from almost 1,000 to 650 square km. Fifty years from now, Lake Chad is at risk of disappearing altogether. Thirty years from now, the Aral Sea and the Dead Sea may become small lakes. China, the emerging superpower, may soon see Lake Poyang, its largest freshwater lake, evaporate–as many as 3,000 small lakes in the source region of the Yellow River have done so in the last two decades.

As lakes disappear, rivers are either being depleted or severely polluted. Large stretches of the Ganges, the Nile, and the Yangtze are already biologically dead. Over the next thirty years, some of the mightiest rivers in the world–including the Yellow and the Yangtze, the Ganges and the Indus, the Euphrates and the Jordan, and the Nile–will see a reduction of at least 25 to 30 percent in their flow from evaporation, desertification, climate change, and pollution. The climate change debate is highly focused on atmospheric pollution and energy, but there is a growing realization of the close links between climatic and environmental factors and the future flow and quality of water through melting glaciers, deforestation, changes in precipitation, and emission of waste into fresh water.

Hydro Insecurity Strategic Foresight Group  Building Peace Forum

Figure 1: Mega Arc of Hydro Insecurity

The next thirty years will also see a strong increase in demand for water–for hydroelectricity, irrigation, and urbanization. At the same time, the 25-30 percent reduction in water flow will lead to a drop in food grain production in China, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, and the Middle East. The net result of this decrease will be a gap between demand and supply of food grains of approximately 200 to 300 million tons by 2040 in international markets. China and India, reasonably self-sufficient in 2014, may become major importers of food grains by 2040. If all this unfolds, commodity prices will skyrocket, affecting the poor worldwide and making food riots, migration, and conflicts within and between countries inevitable.

The main theater of crisis and conflict driven by depletion of water resources will be from Southeast Asia via South Asia and Central Asia to Turkey and from Egypt along the eastern and central parts of Africa to Kenya and Burundi (See Figure 1).

What could change this ominous scenario? The good news is that mere decline in the availability of water does not necessarily lead to violence. Singapore and Senegal are examples of how to avoid conflict through good water governance and transboundary cooperation.

A recent study by Strategic Foresight Group (SFG) on 205 shared river basins from 148 countries concludes: “Any two countries engaged in active water cooperation do not go to war for any reason whatsoever, including land, religion, economy or terrorism.” The key to peace thus lies in the intensity of cooperation as measured by the water cooperation quotient (WCQ) the report introduces. The WCQ is a new tool developed by SFG and introduced to the international community by HRH Prince Hassan, Chairman of UN Secretary General’s Water Board. It uses ten parameters–including economic, environmental, institutional, legal, political, and technical factors–to examine both legal and operational cooperation between countries that share a water body. Countries are assessed on a scale of 0 to 100, with countries at risk scoring below 35.

To promote active water cooperation, the Blue Peace framework–which defines a structured process to turn water from a source of potential crisis to an instrument of cooperation–is essential. Specifically, it consists of creating regional mechanisms for cooperation, engaging mainstream political leaders from rival riparian countries, and enabling them to negotiate trade-offs between water and other public goods. Such mechanisms are already in place in Europe, North and South America, and West Africa.

The next decade will see the emergence of global mechanisms–both innovative legal and diplomatic instruments–for resolving water-related disputes and promoting transboundary water cooperation. If the international community mobilizes political will behind the new architecture of water and peace, the alternative grim scenario of water war can still be averted before the world crosses the tipping point.

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