With the era of cheap, bountiful water having been replaced by increasing supply-and-quality constraints, many international investors are beginning to view water as the new oil

There is a popular, tongue-in-cheek saying in America — attributed to the writer Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California Water Wars — that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California currently is reeling under its worst drought in modern times.

Among the issues that will shape our future world are water and other natural resources, demographics, and sustainable economic growth, as well as an accelerated weaponisation of science and other geopolitical elements. A combination of these factors will create winners and losers in the world.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. The sharpening, international, geopolitical competition over natural resources has turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle and triggered price volatility. The geopolitics of natural resources promises to get murkier.

Water — the sustainer of life and livelihoods — is already the world’s most exploited natural resource. With nature’s freshwater-renewable capacity lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilisation, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Securing a larger portion of the shared water has fostered increasing competition between countries and provinces.

Impact on ecosystems

More ominously, the struggle for water is exacerbating impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Degradation of water resources has resulted in aquatic ecosystems losing half their biodiversity since just the mid-1970s. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural stream-flows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow. Sana'a city in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of the Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges. Internal resource conflicts are often camouflaged as civil wars. Sudan’s Darfur conflict, for example, arose from water and grassland scarcity.

The United Nations in 2010 recognised access to safe, affordable water and sanitation as a human right. Yet the reality remains stark: More people today own or use a mobile phone than have regular access to a toilet. Unclean water is the greatest killer on the globe, claiming thousands of children’s lives every day, yet a fifth of humankind still lacks easy access to potable water. More than half of the global population currently lives under water stress — a figure projected to increase to two-thirds during the next decade.

Source of increasing conflict

The risks of overt conflicts over water are increasing. Water wars in a political and economic sense are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies has warned that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade. The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, has called for urgent action, saying some countries battling severe water shortages risk failing. The U.S. State Department, for its part, has upgraded water to “a central U.S. foreign policy concern.”

Decisions in many countries on where to set up new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly being constrained by inadequate local water availability. Where availability is already low, a decision to establish a new plant often triggers local protests because it is likely to spur greater competition over scarce water resources. One such example is the POSCO steel plant in Odisha.

The seriously water-stressed economies, stretching from South Korea and India to Iran and Egypt, are paying a high price for their water problems. The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260 billion. South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. China, facing growing water paucity in its arid north, risks slipping into the category of water-stressed states.

Water is a renewable but finite resource. Nature’s fixed water-replenishment capacity limits the world’s renewable freshwater resources to about 43,000 billion cubic meters per year — the maximum theoretical amount of water regenerated under natural conditions, excluding human influence and the effects of climate change. But the human population has doubled since 1970 alone, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Major increases in water demand, however, are being driven not merely by economic and demographic growth but also by energy, manufacturing, and food-production needs to meet rising human-consumption levels. Lifestyle changes, for example, have spurred increasing per capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products. Take the United States: Although its per capita water resources are more than six times larger than India’s, water disputes have gradually spread from its west to its east.

Globally, consumption growth is the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive. Production of meat, on average, is 10 times more water-intensive than plant-based calories and proteins. If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger but also feed a four-billion-larger population, according to a University of Minnesota study.

In China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, traditional diets have been transformed in the last one generation alone, becoming much meatier. The only silver lining for India’s dismal water situation is the fact that its per capita meat consumption remains the lowest in the world, with a large segment of its population vegetarian. Had India’s consumptive profile been similar to that of the U.S. — the world’s largest consumer of meat, energy and water — it probably would have become one of the planet’s most-parched states.

Diet change impacts

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body mass index (BMI) of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s. Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 per cent in the U.S. and 26.9 per cent in Britain to 5.7 per cent in China and 1.9 per cent in India.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. They also cause much greater greenhouse-gas emissions through their bigger food and transport needs. For example, greater car use is common among the overweight. A study published in the British journal, BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average BMI as the U.S., it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water, food and energy situations.

The issue thus isn’t just about how many mouths there are to feed but also about how much excess body fat there is on the planet. The point to note is that a net population increase usually translates into greater human capital to create innovations, power economic growth, and support the elderly. But a net increase in body weight only contributes to state liability and greater water stress.

Sharing and settlement mechanisms

This background helps explain why water is becoming the world’s next major security and economic challenge. Averting water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms. However, most of the world’s transnational basins lack any cooperative arrangement, and there is still no international water law in force. Worse yet, unilateralist appropriation of shared water resources is endemic where autocrats rule.

With the era of cheap, bountiful water having been replaced by increasing supply-and-quality constraints, many international investors are beginning to view water as the new oil. Looking ahead, water shortages are not only going to intensify and spread, but users also will have to increasingly pay more for their water supply.

This double whammy can be mitigated only by smart water management and sustainable use of scarce water resources. New and emerging technologies ought to be leveraged to innovatively manage resources and develop non-traditional supply sources, including through public-private partnerships. Water, food and energy must be integrated in a holistic policy framework. The world can ill-afford to waste time — or water.

Make no mistake: Water poses a more intractable problem for the world than peak oil, economic slowdown and other oft-cited challenges. Addressing this core problem holds the key to dealing with other challenges because of water’s nexuses with global warming, energy shortages, stresses on food supply, population pressures, pollution, environmental degradation, global epidemics and natural disasters. Effective water management can help transform economies and power security.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. Adapted from his new book, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis, Oxford University Press, to be released on February 24.)

RELATED NEWS

Water priorities for urban IndiaJanuary 1, 2014

Water: a litre saved is a litre earnedDecember 15, 2013

More In: Lead | Opinion