March 22nd, 2013
11:09 AM ET

The coming water wars?

This article was originally posted last month. It is being reposted today, World Water Day. For more What in the World, watch GPS on Sundays at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.

By Global Public Square staff

Imagine a large body of water – about the size of the Dead Sea – simply disappearing. It sounds like a science fiction movie. But it’s not. It’s happening in real life – and we've only just found out.

A pioneering study from NASA and the University of California Irvine shows how the Middle East is losing its fresh water reserves. As you can see from the satellite imagery in the video, we’re going from blues and greens, to yellows and reds: that’s 144 cubic kilometers of lost water between 2003 and 2009. What do we mean by “lost water”? Most of it comes from below the Earth’s surface, from water trapped in rocks. In times of drought, we tend to drill for water by constructing wells and pumps. But the Earth has a finite supply. NASA’s scientists say pumping for water is the equivalent of using up your bank savings. And that bank account is dwindling.

This could have serious implications. Conflicts over water are as old as the story of Noah – in 3,000 BC. The Pacific Institute lists 225 such conflicts through history. What’s fascinating is that nearly half of those conflicts took place in the last two decades. Are we going to see a new era of wars fought over water?

Consider that NASA’s study is of one of the most volatile regions in the world. We tend to think of the Middle East and its upheavals as defined by oil. Perhaps in the future it will be defined by water. We often talk of a world of nuclear haves and have-nots, but a world of water haves and have-nots could be even more dangerous.

Part of the problem is that the world’s needs have changed. Look at the population boom. We’ve gone from 4 billion people in 1975, to around 7 billion today. The United Nations projects we will hit 9 billion by 2050. Meanwhile, as India, China, and Africa continue to add millions to their middle classes, global demand for all kinds of food and products will increase. All of those products cost money – except for water, which we like to think of as abundant and free. Yet water is the resource we need to worry most about. According to the World Health Organization, more than 780 million people – that’s two-and-a-half times the population of the United States – lack access to clean water. More than 3 million people die every year from this shortage. As our needs expand, so will the shortfall.

What can be done? Most of our water is actually wasted – and the United States is actually one of the worst culprits. We can change that. Singapore already treats sewage water to convert it into clean drinking water. We need to consider large-scale desalinization, where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are world leaders. And remember, agriculture uses up as much as 70 percent of water. We need to fund research into more effective crops. A village in India reportedly set a world record this month for rice produced in a single hectare. How? Simply by changing when the seedlings were planted, a process which saves water.

Perhaps most simple and effective would be to put some kind of a price on water – so that people use it with a greater sense of efficiency and care.

All kinds of innovations are underway.

Next month the United Nations will mark World Water Day and the international year of water cooperation. It’s a good time to start thinking about big global measures to regulate the world’s most important resource.

Post by:
Topics: Conflict • Water • What in the World?

soundoff (241 Responses)
  1. JWS

    If you want cheap clean water, move to the Great Lakes Basin. All water that is used drains back into the lakes ultimately. Please don't think that you can take our water away!! I will fight that any way that I can.

    February 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  2. Hahahahahahahah

    A barrel of water for a barrel of oil??? Hahahahahahahahaha

    February 25, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  3. susanai

    Reblogged this on SUSAN'S SPACE.

    February 25, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Reply
  4. JesterJames

    Desalination technology and channeling rain water into underground aquifers would solve any water problems. 70% of the planet is covered in water after all.

    February 25, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  5. Hadenuffyet

    Fracking removes water from our reach. When you mix it with goo to make it gel and pump it 10,000 ft. underground. , it's gone for good.

    February 25, 2013 at 7:00 pm | Reply
  6. Frank Maunder

    "In California, Whiskey's for drinking, Water's for fighting." Mark Twain.
    Nothing new here. And yes, it is possible to live without oil (petroleum). Not possible to live without H2O.

    February 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
  7. Lagos

    "Perhaps most simple and effective would be to put some kind of a price on water"

    Since when is water free?

    February 25, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Reply
    • hjc

      I know i pay for my water service......

      February 26, 2013 at 2:24 am | Reply
      • economysize

        Thank you! I don't understand how everybody missed that. Water has a price. And if you waste it, you still pay for it.

        February 27, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  8. Missy Baker

    With water being this scarce, why on earth are we promoting so much shale gas drilling via hydraulic fracturing (aka "tracking). Each well uses approximately 5 million gallons of water. Each well pad can have as many as 24 individual wells. The water that is mixed with the chemicals for fracking plus the heavy metals and NORMs and brine from the shale layer can NEVER be cleaned. We need water to survive. We do NOT need natural gas to survive. Nonetheless, in Texas a couple of summers ago, the natural gas drilling companies were withdrawing water out of a river near Ft. Worth to use the fresh water for hydraulic fracturing, while there were discussions of having the residents drink recycled, treated sewer water. Is the natural gas industry so important that human life must be placed a distant second?

    February 25, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  9. Jiri pink as

    The world does not have a water shortage problem, it has a water storage problem. We just need more dams and
    Reservoirs. Problem is we spend our time fighting over imaginary gods and killing each other. Our priorities are
    Just screwed up.

    February 26, 2013 at 12:02 am | Reply
    • JT

      I agree, and I would add that we need to look at recharging natural aquifers in addition to surface reservoirs. His example of the Dead Sea disappearing (or the Aral, or the Caspian) is exacerbated by natural evaporation and drought. If the same amount of water was stored under ground (or in the ground) then it wouldn't be subject to the same rate of evaporation.

      February 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  10. AJ Albrecht

    Part of the problem can be identified in CNN's population statistics: since 1975, we have grown from 4 to 7 billion people on this planet. Factor in that many major religions prohibit birth control, and one can understand that our need for water will only grow. One would think our religion is intentionally ushering us towards some apocalypse.

    February 26, 2013 at 12:06 am | Reply
  11. Nick Naranja

    We can actually grow crops with very limited amounts of water, but how much money do you want to spend on food?

    February 26, 2013 at 12:09 am | Reply
  12. Jimmy

    February 26, 2013 at 12:14 am | Reply
    • Jimmy

      start your search here.....

      February 26, 2013 at 12:14 am | Reply
  13. allthingsgeography1

    Reblogged this on All Things Geography.

    February 26, 2013 at 12:16 am | Reply
  14. Ink Ink

    I disagree on the idea of increasing the price of water, that just means like killing the poors. There must be a better way to educate people to use water more economically

    February 26, 2013 at 12:21 am | Reply
  15. Ashley

    Here's a compelling fact: you save more water not eating 1lb meat than not taking shower for 6 months. You want to save water? Go vegetarian or better yet....go vegan!

    February 26, 2013 at 12:33 am | Reply
  16. Frill Artist

    More liberal conspiracies to drive up the price of water. Not falling for it, libs.

    February 26, 2013 at 12:58 am | Reply
  17. TimB

    Water for Oil.

    February 26, 2013 at 1:07 am | Reply
  18. cworley

    see this is what bothers me i read all this whining and complaining and no one on this freaking planet is ever going to do anything to fix the problem and why... cost, cost, money money money. money is nothing, pointless, and worth squat. money is a pipe dream it is just paper and metal. wasted paper and metal that could be used for something more efficient and useful. if you want irrigation dig it if you want a dam build it. if you want something get up off your butt and get it. dig hunt fish plant and build your own dang home out of the trees the earth provides. if you want a cow and your neighbor wants a couple goats and it just so happens you have some goats... give that dude a couple goat and holy crap you have a cow! its a miracle. we are on this planet not going anywhere soon we are stuck with each other sorry to break the news to you but its true. eliminate money and eliminate boundaries and BARTER! most importantly of all WORK FOR WHAT YOU WANT AND GET IT YOURSELF DON'T DEPEND ON OTHERS! if the middle east wants water because the don't have any if they have to trade for it im sure they can give someone something for a decent supply... or... don't live in the freaking desert!!!!

    February 26, 2013 at 1:26 am | Reply
    • anonymous

      so in other words, you want to set the world back 300 or 400 years in its development? we can not have all these luxuries by building them by ourselves. Money is a very important system, and using a different system still wont fix this issue.

      February 26, 2013 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  19. hyndsyte2020

    Desalinization will be the only answer at some point for the middle east as the aquifers will not support their populations as it increases into the future, and shipping water in will be far more expensive that the fossil fuel needed, which they export, to run reverse osmosis plants. This doesn't mean the US doesn't have its own water issues. The Ogallala aquafer that supplies the water to the great american bread basket states is quickly drying up also. China right now has ships that travel into the great lakes and fill their holds with fresh water, hauling it all the way back to areas of China with shortages. They don't pay for that water and no one has asked them to. Perhaps we should politely ask them not to. Then a pipeline could be built to transport what they take to annually and help recharge that depleated aquafer in the midwest. Of couse , we would have to ask T. Boone Pickens to not pump out what is piped in and put it in bottles down at the aquafers southern tip, which is what is happeneing now.

    February 26, 2013 at 3:56 am | Reply
  20. cheeseroll

    There's no need for any controversy. Just stop feeding the third world, which is the main driver of population growth, and it will solve a significant fraction of the problem.

    Imagine that billions and billions are pumped into artificially sustaining poverty-stricken third world communities in desert and arid areas by transporting food across vast distances and digging wells.

    Case in point: The Horn of Africa can only sustain a population of 10 million people at most, but currently there are NINETY MILLION people inhabiting it. This is all thanks to 50 years of food aid by do-gooders who weren't using their brains.

    February 26, 2013 at 4:29 am | Reply
  21. John Cooper

    Price on water? In the west we already do, but it's low. Increasing it a lot would be dangerous by itself.
    Average westerner uses 150L/water/day. Even at a cent per litre, that's $15/day. No one would pay even a tenth of that. Especially if its actually pee

    February 26, 2013 at 5:37 am | Reply
  22. JO

    And how will desalination benefit us when the salt concentrations of the ocean rise so high that fish life can't be supported?

    February 26, 2013 at 8:51 am | Reply
  23. Kathy

    We need to double think the fracking for natural gas using mass amounts of water that will be contaminated with chemicals. One more reason to halt going forth until this is resolved. They could use LP gas. However, fracking could cause contamination of ground and well water. Too many people worrying about their pocketbooks today instead of the generations of tomorrow. Talk about wasting water needlessly. We need to be expanding natural fuel powers that do not harm the environment in any way.

    February 26, 2013 at 9:18 am | Reply
  24. Jo

    Chinese tankers go regularly through the Great Lakes, up through Lake Michigan, where they've been going to near the SOURCE OF THE GREAT LAKES to pump out tankers FULL of Canadian and American water. They sell some of it back, as under the guise of 'Nestle Waters', in plastic bottles that have recently been proven to leach poisons into the 'spring' water. They are filling aquifers with OUR water. It has been exposed by REAL news affiliates. It's been going on long enough, that we notice the lake's drop in water levels every year. And still no one does or says anything, so it goes on......China is hoarding good, clean water, for our own future. Since the owners of CNN and the rest of the world want Agenda 21, aka 'Sustainable Development', aka new world order communism, they plan on making China the 'best' place to be in the near future, unless some masochist/dictator decides he's all that and a bag of chips, nukes elsewhere, incoming returned, then.....bye bye water. So stop looking for answers where all they do is provide 'allowed/censored material' propaganda that tows the 'party line'. Wake up!

    February 26, 2013 at 9:52 am | Reply
  25. Zach

    You do realize we can turn salt water into fresh water. I would work on doing some more of that.

    February 26, 2013 at 9:53 am | Reply
    • Jo

      Agreed – but we need a quick, easy, portable way to do that for the 'average' person. I'd love to learn how you do it.

      February 26, 2013 at 10:07 am | Reply
  26. Jo

    The 'possible' plan being, with HAARP, chemtrails, working a massive earthquake, designed to open up the whole Mississippi valley from the gulf right up to, including the great lakes, eliminating all the freshwater. Time to wake up! Seriously. Start educating yourselves, turn off the tv, start finding out about the world from news sources not spitting ou, admitted by their own reporter's, propaganda feed they are REQUIRED to report. CNN news is not. Sorry CNN. TRUTH IS NOT CNN.

    February 26, 2013 at 10:05 am | Reply
  27. economicsgenious

    There is plenty of water. We have something called an ocean. We also have something called fire. You can take the ocean water and boil it and collect the steam and you now have salt free water. Just saying. An education is a horrible thing to waste. Sad to say, I am not even finished with mine yet and that was the easiest solution to think of.

    February 26, 2013 at 10:39 am | Reply
    • JH

      Scaling that process to 8 billion is not quite the same.

      February 26, 2013 at 11:33 am | Reply
  28. MikeForNewYawk

    If water is H20 and we breathe in 02 and exhale C02, while trees breathe in C02 and make 02, by cutting down trees around the world, while increasing the population and increasing pollution; we might have upset the recipe for nature to make water.

    February 26, 2013 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  29. the doctor

    may we the US could trade water for oil?

    February 26, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • butkus12

      Where is that water coming from ????

      February 27, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  30. Rob

    Before we can begin to scale back the population we need to scale back the root cost, religion, specifically the catholic and muslim religions since they promote irresponsibly big families!

    February 26, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply
1 2 3 4 5

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.