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The Worth of Water
Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “When the well is dry, we learn the worth of water.” Across the world, people have finally come to understand Franklin’s words. Ultimately, the survival or destruction of civilization will depend on the availability of water. I present this scenario: in the near future, a single drop will stand between war and peace. Thousands of civilian lives may be lost over a lake, river or reservoir. This international issue, still developing, is a complicated one, and ripe for both governmental and moral corruption.
The 2003 World Water Development Report stated that accelerating population growth, pollution, and global warming will collide to form the greatest threat mankind has ever faced: a lack of water. In the 20th century the rate of global water usage was almost double population growth (Kirby). Severe water shortages will strike the Southwestern United States by 2025 and affect 4 billion people worldwide by 2050 (Vergano). Most Middle Eastern and North African countries are already considered to have absolute water scarcity (International). In 2025 this group will have expanded to include Pakistan, South Africa and large sections of India and China. The effects of pollution will also spread.
The increased use of pesticides and fertilizer taints what clean groundwater and surface water there is. Large amounts of raw sewage are unceremoniously dumped into streams and oceans daily due to irresponsibility and urban overcrowding. Millions will soon join the 1.5 billion people who currently possess no access to clean drinking water (Mutume). Diseases such as cholera, malaria and typhoid will rage through the world’s regions. These water-borne illnesses already claim two million lives annually (Cuciniello). Coupled with altering precipitation patterns due to global warming, the problems will multiply.
Water shortages will undoubtedly spawn starvation, threatening the lives of hundreds of millions of people (Borenstein). Those below the poverty line in Asia have diets relying on cereals, which compose up to 70% of their nutritional intake (Barker). Irrigated farming in Africa accounted for 88% of total water usage (Smith). In the U.S., the statistic is 80% (United). Both the underprivileged and privileged will suffer. Importing grain is an expensive option the impoverished cannot afford. One pound of beef requires 2,500 gallons of water, stretching the resources of nations that embrace Western-style diets (Shah). Clashes will erupt between urban and rural dwellers, agricultural and domestic sectors, and countries for precious water reserves.
Water plays an increasingly important role in international, as well as domestic, politics and conflicts. Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka refused to open a sluice gate in July of 2006, preventing water from reaching rice farmers. Military action was taken. After the chaos subsided, seventeen aid workers were dead. Competition is also severe between India and Bangladesh, a situation mirrored between Turkey and Syria (Watkins). Notably, all recent peace agreements in the Middle East included specifications on water, where is it considered to be a “strategic resource” (Lonergan). Relations between the U.S. and Mexico were strained after the latter failed to comply with a 1944 water-sharing treaty, resulting in a “water debt” that was repaid after more than ten years (“Mexico’s”). Irrigational water from the Republican River was the subject of a heated dispute between Nebraska and Kansas, and Montana’s disagreements with Wyoming over the Tongue and Powder River basins were eventually brought to the U.S. Supreme Court (“Drought”). Not only does water scarcity threaten peace and stability, it also presents the opportunity for corruption.
Various corporations and organizations, including sections of the U.N., have encouraged privatization of water, leading to unequal access and distribution, poor quality, and high prices. In early 2007 a New Zealander stole water from a kindergarten school because he could neither afford nor receive the amount of water he needed (“Water”). Financially, water shortages are a nightmare for the majority of the world’s citizens. The sole beneficiaries in this case and countless others are water companies, who have reaped huge profits resulting from the misfortune of others. Yet, while some attempt to undermine the public’s well-being, there are realistic policies the American government can implement to improve the situation.
In order to increase corporate accountability and the conservation of water resources in general, the federal government must enact stricter laws concerning pollution. Companies must be required to devise more efficient methods of production. It is astonishing that a thousand gallons of water are required to yield a single liter of orange juice (Shah). In addition, the U.S. must increase pressure on other nations to assist in a global effort against water scarcity. Consumers must lead this movement. Though the aforementioned options cannot single-handedly halt water shortages and will cost the public, they are steps in the right direction. The cost of ignorance and inactivity will cost much more.
Grave questions arise. Is access to clean water a human right or a business transaction? What sort of legal framework should there be between countries on water resources, if any? The answers are not simple, nor should they be. Water scarcity is greater than a matter of supply and demand. Governments worldwide must realize that water is not an infinitely exploitable resource that magically sanitizes and replenishes itself. Instead, it should be treated as a precious gift that is disappearing at an alarming rate. The urgency for action is immeasurable. Mark Twain once said, “Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over.” Water scarcity is the crisis of the future, a result of many influences, and already a major challenge, but must not become another political platform built on hollow promises. If addressed, it has the potential to bring peace. If left unaddressed, it will become a matter of violent conflict. The choice lies in the hands of each citizen of the earth.
Barker, Randolph and Barbara von Koppen, et al. Water Scarcity and Poverty.
Borenstein, Seth. “Expect water shortage in 20 years.” The Gazette. 11 March 2007.
Cuciniello, Christine. “Water wars plague Canadians.” The Brock Press. 6 March 2007.
“Drought triggers U.S. water wars, pits Montana against Wyoming.” U.S. Water News Online. Feb 2007.
International Water Management Institute. Projected Water Scarcity in 2025.
Lonergan, Steve “Water and war.” Freshwater (1998).
Kirby, Alex. “Water scarcity: A looming crisis?” BBC News. 19 Oct. 2004.
McCarthy, Michael. “Water scarcity could affect billions: is this the biggest crisis of all?” CommonDreams.Org NewsCenter. 3 Mar. 2003.
“Mexico’s Rio Grande water debt repaid.” U.S. Water News Online. October 2005.
Mutume, Gumisai. “Rough road to sustainable development.” Department of Public Information: United Nations. July 2004.
Shah, Anup. “Water and Development.” GlobalIssues.Org. 24 Nov. 2006.
Smith, Russel. “Africa’s potential water wars.” BBC News. 15 Nov. 1999.
United States Department of Agriculture: Economic Research Service. Irrigation and Water Use. 1 Feb. 2001.
Vergano, Dan. “Water shortages will leave world in dire straits.” USA Today. 26 Jan. 2003.
“Water wars on Waiheke.” NZ City.
Watkins, Kevin and Anders Berntell. “A global problem: How to avoid war over water.” International Herald Tribune. 23 Aug. 2006.