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 (242 Responses)
  1. Dave T

    Can our universities create new majors that concentrate on water management? Like after it rains, can new ways catch this water from simply washing down street drains or farmlands? Can new ways stop chemicals washing away farmlands into clean water reserves? Can new international programs reduce the runaway population growth, as well? Thus help limited water resources go farther? Is it true, it is not by having birth control that reduces runaway population, but that of having daily structure like schools, instead? I heard a general once say, that if you want to install clean water systems in 3rd world countries, you must first ask the locals for input. Then afterwards, our people could teach everything from nano-watering of crops to that of preventing sewage to wash into wells. They could teach farming and water management courses in these new schools. Thus you provide structure to people...

    March 2, 2013 at 9:24 am | Reply
  2. K Shah

    @daveT, most of the indigeous natives know and understand how to implement the ancient systems they were used to. Sure modernisation may be needed in some cases, seeing the trend globaly I noticed that we have poisoned the earth and that we should go back and learn from animism how to fix the earth and that is to see everything as divine, treat the trees as God... there is a whole literature behind it.

    Farming, water harvesting, getting back in tune to nature... will all do well for us. If you get a chance please do read through native american wisdom and see what they lived like, what their philosophy was about... at the rate of us destroying the planet we may have to turn to their wisdom and take care of ourselves there.

    March 4, 2013 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  3. sand

    some western university has published some article so what just today a chinese university published that they have produced the world lightest material a graphene aerogel that weighs 6 times less then the material that darpa produced last year this is a huge breakthrough in material technology and science. as for water those detectors that nasa used wasent sensitive enough to detect how much water there is it was just top 1m layer of the water surface that was detected. there is huge water reserves in the middle east lots of waters in the mountains these rivers can be deverted and used as water for houses and some countrys in the middle east have deverted rivers so this has been done and proven.

    March 22, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  4. Giorgio

    ITALY does not understand America. We need no "water wars", but basic knowledge in politics and history. Italy is one great ally to USA, so does Western Union, but, no China, no S.Korea. Italy can not help America, if it does not know basic alliances.

    March 22, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  5. me

    Its good to born in Canada, I tell that to my kids and anyone else out there, thankful where I am on this planet with so much chaos everywhere else in the world. Not to mention, having great neighbors to the south and northwest.


    March 25, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Reply
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  7. nirudub

    its very bad news for everyone. water is a main important part of human part of human life. we cant use it as a drug. so now its a time for all human being to think upon this type of major pollution problems

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    June 13, 2013 at 9:21 am | Reply
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    July 10, 2013 at 8:24 pm | Reply
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