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In an increasingly parched world, shared water resources are becoming an instrument of power, fostering competition within and between nations. The struggle is escalating political tensions and exacerbating effects on ecosystems. This week’s Budapest World Water Summit is the latest initiative to search for ways to mitigate the pressing challenges.
Consider some sobering facts: Bottled water at the grocery store is more expensive than crude oil on the spot market. More people own or use a cellphone than have access to sanitation services.
Unclean water is the greatest killer on the globe, yet a fifth of humankind still lacks easy access to potable water. More than half of the global population lives under water stress – a figure projected to increase to two-thirds during the next decade.
Access to natural resources has been a key factor, historically, in war and peace. Water, however, is very different from other natural resources. A person cannot live without water.
There are substitutes for many resources, including oil, but none for water. From distant lands, a country can import fossil fuels, mineral ores and resources originating in the biosphere, such as fish and timber. But not the most vital resource, water – at least not in a major or sustainable way. It’s prohibitively expensive. Water is essentially local.
Scarcity of water generates conflict. Even the origin of the word “rival” is tied to water competition. It comes from the Latin rivalis – one who uses the same stream.
Water’s paradox is that it is a life preserver, but it can also be a life destroyer when it becomes a carrier of deadly bacteria or comes in the deluge of a tsunami, a flash flood or a hurricane. Many of the greatest natural disasters of our time have been related to water. A recent example was the Fukushima disaster, which triggered a triple nuclear meltdown.
Because of global warming, potable water is set to come under increasing strain even as oceans rise and the intensity and frequency of storms and other extreme weather events increases.
Rapid economic and demographic expansion has already turned potable water into a major issue across large parts of the world. Lifestyle changes, for example, have spurred increasing per-capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products.
It is against this background that water wars, in a political and economic sense, are already being waged between competing states in several regions. Some build dams on international rivers or, if located downstream, resort to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. U.S. intelligence has warned that such water conflicts could turn into real wars.
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