The jumpsuits worn by the inhabitants of the arid planet Arrakis in Dune no longer belong to the realm of science fiction, since NASA is experimenting with a process for recycling waste water, perspiration and urine by osmosis. If the system proves effective, it could be incorporated into the space suits worn by NASA’s astronauts. The iceberg idea doesn’t seem so far-fetched either these days, since a cargo ship may attempt to tow one from Greenland to the Canaries in 2012. But although these hi-tech solutions appeal to some, it is difficult to imagine them becoming standards for managing water. There is no system of global governance in place today, aside from the International Watercourses Convention which was signed in 1997, but which is still in the process of being ratified. According to the UN, 263 rivers, lakes, or water tables are classified as “international basins”, as they are shared by two or more countries. They represent 60% of the world’s water reserves and 40% of the global population depends on them. Without a global system for regulating usage, won’t water conflicts be unavoidable?
It is clear that tensions are running very high in certain regions of the world, around the Nile, between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, between Egypt and Ethiopia, and especially between Israel and its neighbours – Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Territory,
says Sébastien Treyer, the Director of Programmes at IDDRI, the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. “But in those situations, water is more of an aggravating factor than the heart of the conflict itself, except perhaps in the Golan Heights.” Are we being over-dramatic by anticipating water conflicts all over the planet? According to Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography at Oregon State University and specialist in transboundary water conflicts, it is an area where consensus will have to be found. “Strategically speaking, fighting for water is absurd. A country cannot increase its water resources by going to war with a neighbour unless it captures the entire watershed, depopulates it, and runs the risk of tremendous retaliation,” he said in an interview entitled The war over water will not take place. Nevertheless, one third of mankind already lives in an area suffering from water stress (where available water resources are below 1,700 m3 per person per year) and global warming will affect the water supply in ways that are difficult to anticipate.
Your money or your life
Besides political agreements between countries, economic solutions are being considered which include the creation of a water market – a solution that has water rights organisations up in arms. Are we going to witness the emergence of a water stock exchange, like the one that currently exists for cereals, fed by large-scale hydraulic infrastructures between the regions that have water and those that don’t?
In theory, it is an attractive idea for economists keen on using the market to resolve issues and for fans of large-scale hydraulic infrastructures, but to me it doesn’t seem workable,
says Sébastien Treyer. “By definition, water is a local asset that cannot be transported, or at least only over very short distances. The cost of infrastructures for transporting water seriously undermines the relevance of a global water market that would make it possible to regulate water use by increasing its price.”
Though the spectre of a global water market is receding, pollution prevention and growing competition for water uses over a particular area call for appeasement mechanisms. Because if a war over water does occur, it could be triggered by conflict between the uses of water – whether domestic, farming, industrial, rural or urban – in a same area. Unless we manage to change the current situation: The right to water is not yet a fundamental human right on an international level. How do we guarantee this, whilst also funding water supply and sanitation networks? NGOs are pushing for free or very low cost universal access to water for basic needs, and any failure to comply could be punished – why not dream a little – in a future international criminal court dedicated to the environment. As for non-vital uses such as watering gardens and filling private swimming pools, these would be subject to a graduated tax system, based on the nature and the volume of the consumption.
Tracking the water footprint
But our water consumption for drinking and hygiene represents only a tiny part of what we use. Today, mankind uses 40% of the planet’s available fresh water resources. Agriculture is voracious and consumes 70% worldwide through irrigation (in France, the ratio is 20% for agriculture and 60% for industry, mostly to produce electricity).
Irrigated single-crop farming over large surfaces has a triple negative effect. It favours plants that consume a lot of water and fertilisers, it pollutes, it strips the soil and prevents water from reaching the water tables because of runoff. But a return to local agriculture could change the model and turn farmers into managers of water sources,
says Nicolas Imbert, Director of Green Cross France. According to Nicolas, one solution for the agricultural and industrial sector would be to display the water footprint, or in other words the water consumption necessary for manufacturing the product, and then implement a corresponding tax system. “Eventually these measures will significantly increase the cost of industrial agriculture compared with ecological agriculture, and the cost of extracting fossil raw materials and fossil fuels compared with renewable ones. It will be possible to reintegrate the externalities, whilst progressively restoring the biodiversity and importance of rivers and developing agricultural and architectural creativity,” says Nicolas Imbert. This systemic approach is at least as revolutionary as trailing an iceberg around the world’s oceans.
Photo © Shutterstock / Erik Mandre