World thirst for water

March 05, 1996|By Theodore L. Gaillard Jr.

FOLLOWING THE yearlong drought that saw rivers and water tables at their lowest levels in decades, blizzards and floods have inundated Northeast and mid-Atlantic states from Maine to Maryland.

Elsewhere, however, intensifying regional fresh water shortages threaten to trigger a global crisis. What preventive measures are being taken? It's hard to tell: world and national leaders continue to ignore the problem.

In our own Mississippi watershed, we have paved over -- with roads, roofs and parking lots -- an area larger than that of New England, drastically increasing runoff and decreasing aquifer renewal.

Water costing the government 54 cents per acre-foot was sold to Colorado farmers at 7 cents, encouraging irrigation in marginal areas and contributing to the recent 50 percent depletion level of the Ogallala Aquifer (which provides water for 20 percent of the irrigated cropland in the United States).

In California, similar water table depletion has caused as much as a 27-foot surface subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley.

Globally, the situation gets grimmer. Regional populations continue to increase at 1 to 3 percent annually even as international scientific panels confirm that human activities have triggered an atmospheric global warming trend.

By 1980 worldwide fresh water usage was three times that of 1950. Current rates of population growth and water depletion suggest that by 2000, global supplies of fresh water per person will be reduced by more than 50 percent of 1976 levels. (Syrian authorities have had to cut off residential tap water in Damascus between 2 p.m. and 6 a.m.).

Safe water shortage

As of 1990, 25 percent of the world's population did not have access to safe drinking water. In Russia, oil spills and the radioactive and chemical pollution bequeathed by decades of Soviet crash industrialization have rendered three-quarters of its fresh water unpotable. Irrigation drawdown of two major inflowing rivers has caused the Aral Sea to shrink 60 percent in volume and 40 percent in area.

The World Bank reports that the next decade will see countries spend $600 billion in attempts to increase water supplies.

It comes as no surprise, then, to learn that in the last ten years more than 30 countries (including the United States and Mexico) have been in international conflict over issues such as reduced water flow, siltation and pollution in 25 of the world's major rivers, lakes and aquifers -- from the Great Lakes and the West Bank aquifer to the Indus, Colorado and Euphrates rivers.

We need to focus not on oil, but on water -- the most important fluid of the 21st century.

Elsewhere, terrorists in Ethiopia could restrict water flow in the headwaters of the Blue Nile with serious impact on Egypt. Turkey (admitting to boundary violations of Iraq in response to Kurd border raids) is enjoying the benefits of its massive Southeast Anatolia Project, which includes 22 major dams and irrigation systems harnessing headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

Political analyst Robert Kaplan quotes Erduhan Bayindir, Ataturk Dam site manager, as saying: "We can stop the flow of water into Syria and Iraq for up to eight months . . . in order to regulate their political behavior."

In his "History of Warfare," John Keegan notes that as early as 3000 B.C., Sumerian cities were beginning to squabble over pasturage and water rights. Five thousand years later, the Center for Strategic and International Studies raises concern about possible military conflict over water rights, with rioting and desperation-driven warfare more violent than anything the Sumerians could have imagined.

Little planning

We have done little regional, national, or global long-range planning to address this planet's rapidly dwindling fresh water supply. To date, U.N. international peacekeeping efforts have been reactive rather than proactive, and of limited success. Here is a chance for the U.N. to assume a key role in preventing future conflict.

If, however, we do not soon mobilize planning, funding and technology to address this vital issue, the world's thirst for fresh water could drive it to armed confrontation.

Theodore Gaillard writes from Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 3/05/96

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