Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Global Water Use: An Environmental Ponzi Scheme

Courtesy of The Guardian, two excellent articles on water scarcity around the world.  The first looks at what it aptly describes as an environmental ponzi scheme as Earth’s water-stressed nations are borrowing against the future, as rising populations use stocks faster than they are replaced:

Find water and you find life. This simple maxim guides scientists searching distant planets for aliens. But if the astrobiologists were to reverse their telescopes and look at our own globe, they would find a conundrum: billions of people living in places with little or no water.

That unsustainable paradox is now unravelling before our eyes in the Middle East and north Africa. The 16 most water-stressed states on Earth are all in that troubled region, with Bahrain at the top of the ranking from risk analysts Maplecroft. Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria follow not far behind.

All are built on an environmental Ponzi scheme, using more water than they receive: 700 times more in Libya’s case. The unrest of the Arab spring of course has many causes, but arguably the most fundamental is the crumbling of a social contract that offered cheap water – and hence food – in return for subservience to dictators.

The region’s population is rocketing – there are 10,000 new mouths to feed each day – just as grain production plummets. The deep, ancient aquifers that enabled crops to green the deserts are almost exhausted, and the oil that fires the desalination plants to make up the loss is dwindling too.

It’s a perfect storm of water, food and energy crises and has arrived two decades sooner than even the most sober analysts expected. And while the Middle East is the first region to feel the wrath of that storm, across the world warning signs are flashing – from the sinking of Mexico City as its aquifers are sucked dry to the docking of freshwater tankers in Barcelona.

The world’s population tripled in the 20th century, but the thirst for water grew six-fold, the large majority sprinkled on fields. The UN predicts that, by 2025, two-thirds of us will experience water shortages, with nearly two billion suffering severe shortfalls. Today China, struck by terrible droughts in its agricultural heartlands, is the world’s biggest importer of “virtual water”: the billions of tonnes of water used to produce the food and other goods brought into the world’s most populous nation.

China, along with other water-stressed nations such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea, has sought to cut out the middlemen and acquire land in wetter places for themselves in order to grow and send food home. The so-called “land grabs” across the global south are the result.

From Australia to Hong Kong to India to Spain, nations caught between the stormy equator and the damp high latitudes are running out of water. Global warming will evaporate more moisture into the air, but in all likelihood this will fall in harder downpours in already wet areas rather than bring relief to arid lands. Increasingly, warming will lead to “global weirding” of the weather, with freak events uprooting thousands of years of farming knowledge.

Desalination – with 14,000 plants already in existence – is one solution that is growing fast, but is energy-intensive, expensive and heavy on carbon. Even the few trials of solar-powered desalination plants will leave hypersaline water polluting the seas. Mega-engineering projects, such as China’s 50-year south-north water-diversion scheme, might also offer relief, at vast cost. And none of these address the other water problem: the lack of clean water and sanitation in wet nations too poor to provide them.

Ultimately, as appears to be happening in the Middle East, Ponzi schemes crash. Fresh or virtual water can be imported from distant rainy nations, but only at a price many cannot afford. The ultimate solution is as simple as it is challenging: plug leaks, recycle waste and treasure each drop. Only when the water consumed is less than the water falling from the sky will nations have stopped borrowing against tomorrow.

The second offers a data driven look at water scarcity in the Middle East and Africa:

With a rising global population, increasing water use per capita and depleting reserves of groundwater, there’s no doubt that blue gold, as water is sometimes called, is an increasingly precious resource. Yet despite a wealth of reports, books and films examining the problem of water scarcity, it doesn’t always feature high on the agenda.

This year’s political unrest in the water-starved Middle East has raised the profile of the issue, with various commentators predicting that lack of water will be the region’s next big issue.

Image of the Guardian's water stress map Explore global water stress data in our interactive map

This data, pulled together from two sources and illustrated in map form here, shows the challenge of water scarcity in the Middle East and wider world. The first set of data is a summary of a 2011 commercial dataset created by risk analysts Maplecroft. This data ranks more than 180 countries and assigns each a label to describe whether its exposure to water stress is low, medium, high or extreme.

The second data source is the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation‘s Aquastat tool. This is less up-to-date and less comprehensive but available in full, providing some interesting, if sometimes quite old, figures which compare how much fresh water (surface and ground) a country could sustainably provide with the amount that is actually consumed there. The higher the proportion of its renewable water resource that a country uses, the more exposed it is to water stress.

It’s no surprise to see that all the sixteen extreme cases are countries in or around the Middle East and North Africa. Bahrain clocks in at first place on the Maplecroft rankings, though according to the Aquastat data the tiny nation uses “only” 220% of its available renewable water reserves, compared to 943% in Saudi Arabia and a remarkable 2,465% in Kuwait. Presumably much of the excess comes from desalination plants rather than draining non-renewable groundwater, though the Aquastat data doesn’t confirm this.

However, it’s not only the Middle East that’s feeling the pitch. Australia, South Africa, Spain, India, Cuba, Hong Kong – a large number of countries are ranked as having a “high” level of water stress by Maplecroft, which means having water demand above 40% of the maximum renewable resource or more than 1,700 cubic metres a person a year.

Looking at the map, it’s easy to see the footprint of Hadley cells, the global circulation patterns that help ensure that the world’s driest regions sit between the stormy equatorial regions and the drizzly zones further north and south. But there’s plenty of deviation from this pattern on the map, highlighting the fact that each region is unique – and that water management is just as crucial as the amount of rainfall that a country receives.



This entry was posted on Thursday, June 30th, 2011 at 2:53 am and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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