Future shock: a thirsty planet

March 09, 2001|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- We have seen the enemy and it is us -- and there will be more of us. And less water.

Predictions are always tricky, especially about the future. So goes the joke -- and the reality.

At the end of last year, U.S. intelligence agencies, in unusual collaborations with universities and think tanks, published a 68-page study called "Global Trends 2015." It says a lot of things that seem obvious: World population will increase from 6.1 billion to 7.2 billion. And it says some things that may surprise many: The United States-European alliance that now runs the world may crack up under pressure from economic and security issues and a China-Russia-India alliance.

One of the most interesting conclusions of the analysts and scholars is that there will be energy and food enough to go around 15 years from now. Yes, they say, there will be a 50 percent increase in energy demand, but that is not a great problem with more than 80 percent of the world's oil and 95 percent of its natural gas still underground. There will be famine, but that will be because of poor distribution complicated by politics and war.

Water will be the problem. Demands for water might be the cause of future wars. More than a third of the world's people will be in areas described as "water-stressed." Aqueducts and irrigation systems in one country may threaten the existence of others, particularly in the Middle East, where Egypt, Syria and Iraq could be hurt by Ethiopia diverting the Nile or Turkey taking more from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The study concludes that the United States will continue to be the world's dominant economic, military and technological power, but it will be more susceptible to more lethal nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism. Also on the list of possibilities: "A de facto geo-strategic alliance" of China, Russia and India as a counterweight to American and Western influence.

Beyond water, the great threat to world orders, old and new, will probably come from growing gaps between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of the globe -- producing "frustrated expectations, inequities and heightened communal tensions."

That also means more migration, says the study: "Legal and illegal immigrants now account for more than 15 percent of the population of more than 50 countries" -- 10 percent in the United States -- and "these numbers will grow substantially and will increase social and political tension and perhaps alter national identities even as they contribute to demographic and economic dynamism."

Other predictions or possibilities include these:

Russia will continue to weaken economically, militarily and socially as its infrastructure continues to decay -- and the country's population might be expected to drop from 146 million to 130 million.

China's survival as a single nation could be challenged by changing political, social and economic pressures "increasingly challenging the regime's legitimacy."

There will be a Palestinian state. Israel "at best" will be in a "cold peace" with its neighbors.

Iran and Nigeria could be in crisis over religious and ethnic differences.

Some African countries may be in such bad shape, heightened by AIDS and tuberculosis, that average life expectancy could be reduced by as much as 40 years -- leaving 40 million orphans.

Japan "will have difficulty maintaining its position as the world's third-ranking economy."

Like most efforts of sweeping context, "Global Trends 2015" hedges a lot of its bets and offers alternative scenarios. But it does emphasize some realities that can't be ignored:

"Divergent demographic trends, the globalization of labor markets and political instability and conflict will fuel a dramatic increase in the global movement of people through 2015."

And: A rising tide will help the rich get richer. But, "Globalization will not lift all boats."

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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