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.

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Topics: Conflict • Water • What in the World?

soundoff (241 Responses)
  1. DL

    Whew!! Glad we're taking such good care of our Great Lakes – it's not like they're polluted to the point of not supporting life and having huge dead zones in them...

    February 26, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Reply
    • butkus12

      Yeah right......don't forget you have a treaty with Canada (top 2 country in the world with most fresh water ) regarding those great lakes !

      February 27, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Reply
    • butkus12

      wrong post !

      February 27, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Reply
  2. moneywhys

    Check out John Perkins book, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man for an idea of how the conflicts will unfold as they mirror the building of empire through the methods of the corporatocracy in gaining access to oil around the world.

    February 26, 2013 at 1:39 pm | Reply
    • Pockets

      Agree. Also loved the segment in Zeitgeist: Addendum.

      February 26, 2013 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  3. allenwoll

    Fareed - Open-Field agriculture is doomed. . Basic carbohydrates for food, fiber and lumber will be synthesized - Air, Water and Energy (Solar & Nuclear). . Virtually all animal products will be synthesized. . Produce production will be mechanized. . Water use will be cut to a small fraction of the present - No transpiration in these processes - just the water contained in the product is needed and it is recovered. . Open-Field agriculture is just a TEMPORARY stepping stone. . Fantastic, impossible, you say ? ? . Go back 125 years and ask a citizen about powered flight ! ! ! . LOL !
    Incidentally, Singapore "" aknowledges its genisis FROM U S water recovery technology. . Virtually ALL wastewater CAN be recovered economically when the Pols and the Special Interests are pushed aside ! . See Arizona for examples.

    February 26, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
  4. Pepis and Coca cola

    Thank you for your water we will add sugar and sell it back to you!! 400% profit

    February 26, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Andrew

      PEPSI, PEPSI, PEPSI ... no "water wars".

      March 23, 2013 at 7:32 am | Reply
  5. pmorin

    YES! We need to control the population worldwide! I’m all for mass sterilization but because no politician in the world will risk their carrier even bringing up the subject of population control we need to start taxing anyone who has more than two kids! Not reward them if they have more money. And If you have no kids it’s a huge tax credit!... By the way I’m a woman in my thirties and have chosen not to have kids of my own because of the damage over population is doing to the earth.

    February 26, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  6. Steve

    "We" don't need to do a thing to control the human population. The forces of nature control populations when the natural llaws are broken. And folks, the human-race has broken the law big time!!!

    February 26, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  7. Matthew

    I believe that drought and famine can be as effective as war and sterilization in reducing the human population. A shortage of water is very good for producing both drought and famine. Thus, apparently GPS is pointing out that we have embarked on the very solution that many posting here are seeking. The problem is the solution. Or is that the solution is the problem?

    February 26, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  8. Harvesting

    I thought the Ice caps were melting and glaciers receeding? Water levels are supposed to rise wouldn't that mean we are releasing more water? I am being a devil's advocate with those statements. And at the same time I wonder what to believe, remembering back to stories I read about the cooling in the artic in the 70's and the "scientists" of that time were talking about possible melting the artic to warm us up. Well I live in the Pacific Northwest so rain fall here is not an issue GL to the rest of the desert area of the world.

    February 26, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Reply
    • anonymous

      that all mixes in with salt water in the oceans, if we could drink salt water, nothing short of nuclear war, a massive asteroid or a gamma ray burst could get rid of it, and we would have other things to worry about then.

      February 26, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Reply
  9. Oscar Pitchfork

    ll you need to do is engineer a selective virus that's matched with key genotyopes; asians, africans, etc. Turn the sucker loose, wait a year, then wait for the stink to go away...

    February 26, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply
    • anonymous

      look, we got a neo-nazi here

      February 26, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Reply
  10. butch

    i kept trying to find something in this article that explained why the middle east running out of water is bad.

    February 26, 2013 at 9:31 pm | Reply
  11. MashaSobaka

    I'm sorry, but making people pay for water? Making people pay for things that they NEED always, always, always adversely affects the poor. Who gets to live and who dies of dehydration shouldn't ever be determined by the size of someone's wallet.

    Also, grass – you know, front lawns, sports fields? – is one of the most irrigated "crops" in the United States. Want us to save water? Eliminate lawns.

    February 26, 2013 at 11:16 pm | Reply
  12. allenwoll

    WATER, when used, is NOT destroyed, like oil. . Well, at least very little water is destroyed and THAT is replaced, metabolically, for example.
    Oh, did you say CHEAP fresh water ? - Now THAT is another story altogether ! ! ! . There are sooooooo many simple ways to conserve and better use water that the REAL pinch is quite a distance off ! !
    In the end, ENERGY is the ONLY critical resource, for all others yield to CHEAP ENERGY pretty well ! ! !

    February 26, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Reply
  13. jeff

    wait... what? you mean the mideast? Saudi, Iran, Iraq? People who held the world hostage with their monopoly on oil? The region of the world that threatens everyone with destruction? What? they need water? lol fk them.

    February 27, 2013 at 1:07 am | Reply
  14. jeff

    seriously fareed zakaria... you cannot find a more pleasant photo of yourself for the front image of this page? you look like you are holding back a sneeze.

    February 27, 2013 at 1:09 am | Reply
  15. Ralph_in_FL

    Malthus was not wrong, just early.

    February 27, 2013 at 10:35 am | Reply
  16. The Mayor of Medinah

    Maybe someday we can sell water to the Middle East for $10.00 a gallon, I am glad I live near Lake MIchigan

    February 27, 2013 at 11:52 am | Reply
  17. oneSTARman

    TRIBULATIONS – The time we are approaching will NOT be Easy. We will see FAMINE and Pestilence and War and DEATH. Because Burning Fossil fuels is KILLING the Planet. WE have CREATED this Apocalyptic Future for our Children and Grandchildren. We STILL have the POWER to change it – But we will need to get to work NOW.

    February 27, 2013 at 11:52 am | Reply
    • VietnamVet

      THE SKY IS FALLING!!! A piece must have just hit you on the head.

      February 27, 2013 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  18. The Reverend

    This is God working his mighty work against the islamic world. Feel his mighty hand crush you, all demon worshipers!

    February 27, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  19. Gives NO F****

    Who the hell cares about the idiots in the middle east. If you dont have water Move its called common sense and survival

    February 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
    • Sam Kinison

      you live in a DESERT. Move to where the WATER is.

      February 27, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Reply
  20. Durundal

    Can you imagine the hilarity that will ensue if our government implements reproductive licensing requirements? It would solve the (stu pidity) and population problem, but all the wingnuts will be hollering "its their 'right' to procreate". Oh I can hear the conspiracy theories now... Wait a minute, isnt this a polar switch towards eugenics??

    February 27, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  21. Rodeoguy

    Lets get together a group of countries that have lots of water, maybe we will call ourselves OWEC, and sell the water to those countries that are short on supply. Wow, just think of the power we would have!

    February 27, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  22. Kevin

    Conserving in an area with an abundance of water does not make a bit of difference to an area around the world with no water. We're not going to ship it overseas, so conserving our water will NOT help the Middle East or Africa

    Water issues need to be addressed on a regional level

    February 27, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  23. TomD

    Hahaha... I Am so happy to see Muslim countries losing its water reserve.. We already bombed most of their countries to rubbles and now this!! Yup I Like it..

    February 27, 2013 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  24. Phil

    Its not just (or even mostly) the population increase. Its human land management. Its about soil. CNN should interview John D. Liu. China of all countries has demonstrated how massive areas of land can be restored – bringing back vegitation and water holding capacity of soil and access to fresh water cycles. It can be done. We should be doing it. We need to adopt strategies at all levels. Interestingly, approaches that work with the cycles and laws of nature also improve food security, health and self sufficiency. Check out Green Gold by Liu on youtube.

    February 27, 2013 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  25. Jesse

    Everyone is thinking backwards. Eliminating the population. The last 100 years is the first time in history that mankind has not been able to go out and explore new lands. We should be pouring all our resources into antimatter drives. Major breakthroughs at the cern super collider have allowed us to store anti matter. Anti matter propulsion has a max efficiency of about 60% speed of light. We have several habitable planets nearby. Time to colonize space at least start with the moon and mars.

    February 27, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      lots of water on the Moon and Mars Jesse?

      February 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • RobM

      Uh.... there's no water on the moon or mars. So, how does this help with the topic at hand?

      February 27, 2013 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  26. Joe

    if others are solving the problem now wouldnt you want to know about it CNN? whatifwechange dot org

    February 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  27. Observer

    Sounds like a personal problem to me. Have fun with your water wars, Middle East.

    February 27, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Reply
  28. VietnamVet

    Fareed, how is fracking in the United States going to effect the water supply in Africa? Do you thing the world is hollow?

    February 27, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  29. NorCalMojo

    There might be war in the Middle East?

    Shocking news from such a peaceful region.

    February 27, 2013 at 7:04 pm | Reply
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