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. Christopher H.

    The first world nations waste so many billions of gallons of fresh water on lawns, golf courses, and inefficent farming practices. The United States is the worst, but we actually have a ton of water thanks to the last ice age. Nations like the middle east better play it smart or they will have to import water. Too bad they didn't waste the Ural Sea.

    February 27, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  2. bankrupt1

    no doubt. most of it is already stolen. seeds will be an issue too.

    February 28, 2013 at 2:46 am | Reply
  3. bankrupt1

    the banksters and war profiteers will make sure there's always something to fight about it seems.

    February 28, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply
  4. prnda76

    So let me get this straight 2/3 of this planet are covered with water and we are going to fight wars over it? This entire article just show that we humans, as species, have not changed at all in the last 5000 years. The technology exists to use ocean water as drinking water yet somehow it is easier (A.K.A. cheaper and more profitable) to fight a war over water. Then next time you talk about democracy and how great modern society is maybe you should throw this little fact into the mix... That behind fancy suits and good manners hides the same animal that was there 4000 years ago... We have not changed. The only thing that has changed are the tools and weapons of war. The strong still do whatever they want, while the weak do what they must.

    February 28, 2013 at 9:23 am | Reply
  5. us_1776

    Wars have been fought over much less than water.

    So, yes.


    February 28, 2013 at 10:19 am | Reply
  6. Tom

    I really needed that "bank savings" analogy to understand the subject.......... not.
    Also.... fresh water might change it's location (droughts, underground changes, etc), but they are not FINITE! ...unlike oil that burns and changes into a different substances, water usually only changes it's state...

    February 28, 2013 at 11:13 am | Reply
  7. bobby jones

    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.

    It's called the water bill, i get 4 a year. Where in the US is water free? In the country where you have your own well.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:26 am | Reply
    • Charles

      I was wondering the same thing. I get a water bill every month. I get charged for the water coming in and the water going out.

      February 28, 2013 at 11:53 am | Reply
  8. PeopleAren'tThatSmart

    One day the Middle East will just dry more oil, no more water. People will move, and it will become the wasteland a lot of us wish it would become. Not in our lifetimes...maybe @ 2400? Then we can just cover then entire region with one big solar panel.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:28 am | Reply
  9. more2bits

    Why not mankind fights over just about everything else. It's a war mongering species we call 'humans'.

    ET is not amused.

    February 28, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Reply
  10. realitychk1

    One things for certain, time will fix it all. Meanwhile we keep on killing, starving, raping, etc... till the end. Nature will in the long run fix this population problem. All of mankind needs humbled asap whether you fools like it or not!

    February 28, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  11. Wootings

    ...of all the far-fetched fictional films of the past few decades, who would have thought that the one that would become reality was Ice Pirates?

    February 28, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Reply
  12. Joe

    My family and our friends have guns. We will be drinking fresh warter while the liberals dies off.

    February 28, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • dbarak

      Joe, I think you have that backwards. The liberals will be around longer because we don't practice inbreeding. Genetics will win the day.

      February 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  13. davidabarak

    Maybe I'm dense (no maybe about it!), but where does the water "go?" Does it seep back down into the aquifers? Does it run off into the ocean? Does it evaporate into the sky? My point is that the water isn't gone, like we're shooting it into space. It's somewhere (I know I left it around here somewhere), and I know it's getting harder to get at fresh water because we're using and wasting it more. But where does it go?

    February 28, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • skunky123

      Sure it is true our system is "closed" (it doesn't evaporate into space). However, we drink from the ground water and our waste goes into the air, into sewage that goes to streams, that goes to the oceans or the air. The ground water is only partially replenished by rain. The water table and our drinking water is shrinking even if the planet has the same number of water molecules.

      March 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  14. larry mc gill

    we are very lucky in canada we have 25 per cent of the water in the world

    February 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  15. alienshark


    February 28, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Reply
  16. Chris

    And conservatives want to know why we want to make birth control free? It should be handed out like candy.

    February 28, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Reply
  17. Naik

    We all are given free will. We need to do what we can. If failed to do our job then nature will take care of this which we may
    not like the result. Anything given free (almost free) we do not have value for it so we waste it lot.Water bill needs to go up in order to control the waste.

    February 28, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Reply
  18. Marc McCord

    I am one of the world's most ardent proponents of water issues, and a strong believer in conservation on every level. But, this story states something that just is not true. It implies that most of the water we use is wasted. It cites Singapore as treating sewage water, yet almost 100% of American cities have been doing that same thing forever. And, most of the water used in agriculture, like almost all the water we use for most purposes, is treated, cleaned and returned to the hydrologic cycle where we use it over and over again.

    The one place where we truly do destroy water and permanently remove it from our hydrologic cycle is in the process of high volume slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracing) for natural gas and oil production. An average well uses about 5 million gallons for a single frac job, and that water becomes so contaminated by toxins, carcinogens, neurotoxins and radioactivity that is has to be disposed into the Ellenberger Formation 15-18,000 feet beneath the surface where (supposedly) it can never return to our water tables.

    We should all conserve water every way possible. What we waste today is temporarily taken away from us, but will eventually return in the hydrologic cycle. The article above fails to mention that fact. It also fails to mention anything about the extreme destruction of water and permanent removal of water from our hydrologic cycle in the exploration and production of natural gas and oil.

    February 28, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  19. Marc McCord

    The most inane, uneducated comment of the day:


    There's not gonna be any wars over water. The poles will melt and that should help. There's also a lot of water in space.
    February 27, 2013 at 2:14 pm |

    John, all the water that is her today has ALWAYS been here. There is no such thing as new water coming here from space. Of all the water on earth only 3% of drinkable fresh water, and only 0.3% is available for all humans, animals and plants to use to sustain life. If the polar ice caps melt, then the earth will tilt on its axis and most of today's land masses will be submerged and its populations drowned.

    Did you ever study any science at all, or were you home schooled in a christian family?

    February 28, 2013 at 7:03 pm | Reply
  20. JomoDaMusicMan

    What difference does it makes if the water dwindle, the country with the strongest military will just take all the water and the weaker countries will just die of thirst

    February 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm | Reply
  21. allenwoll

    There is no shortage of water unless one speaks of cheap, clean, fresh water. . It is NOT consumed like oil.

    February 28, 2013 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  22. Russ

    I live in North america, smack dab in the middle of the great lakes. Now I know that these terrific bodies of fresh water are a finite source , but they will last long enough to keep me and mine watered while those middle eastern desert rats die off.........

    February 28, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Reply
  23. JM

    I think a headline with "water wars" is sensationalist, exaggerated, and totally unrealistic. People realize that it is much cheaper to build plants to remove the salt from the seawater than to go to war. By the way, if we ever do figure-out how to move to a hydrogen-based economy, we will have plenty of water as a byproduct.

    March 1, 2013 at 1:30 am | Reply
    • skunky123

      Hydrogen based? You do know that they make hydrogen by heating fossil fuels, by burning fossel fuels, right? Yep, natural gas gives off the hydrogen from the hydrocarbon molecules by super heating it. There is no free lunch buddy.

      March 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  24. svann

    Good thing we have global warming then – to evaporate the oceans, to make rain, to have more water....

    March 1, 2013 at 1:32 am | Reply
  25. H2O

    Of course there will be wars over water. There have been water wars in the past and there is every reason to believe it will happen again.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:41 am | Reply
  26. Rick Wadley

    I have a system that treats contaminated water to potable standards.
    100kw will treat 1ML per day. Sea water or waste water can be treated.
    Salt is separated from the water and the result is dry powdered salt.This product is then useable.
    This is simple tech that can be used world wide.

    March 1, 2013 at 5:20 am | Reply
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