A World Without Water

Advocates Warn of Thirst and Turmoil for a Parched Planet

Environmentalists—and even some heads of state—are frantically trying to undo the damage. Much of the problem can be traced to river damming and the Green Revolution, both of which were embraced by the American government during the last century and exported globally. The Green Revolution was supposed to solve the world's hunger problem by introducing high-yield miracle seeds to developing nations, especially India and China. Instead it created an ongoing irrigation crisis by replacing drought-resistant indigenous crops with water-guzzling varieties. Farmers were forced to forgo traditional and sustainable irrigation methods; deep wells became the norm, pulling precious groundwater out of already water-scarce areas. Then developers began trying to solve the irrigation problem by building big dams. According to Sandra Postel of the Global Water Policy Project, a water conservation advocacy group, there were 5000 large dams (more than 15 meters high) worldwide in 1950. There are now 45,000. On average, there have been two large dams constructed every day for the past 50 years. "They were built with the best of intentions," says Postel, "to supply hydroelectric power, irrigation, and public water, and to control floods. But we didn't understand the full range of ecological consequences that would unfold."

Now four of the world's greatest rivers (the Ganges, Yellow River, Nile, and Colorado) routinely dry up before reaching the ocean, and water that normally would roll through the earth and feed aquifers runs off pavements and rooftops into sewers, eventually ending up (usually carrying pesticides and toxins) in the ocean, but without moisturizing forests and marshlands on the way. Add relentless human consumption, industrial farming, and global warming and you've got the Ogallala Aquifer, which stretches from the Texas Panhandle to South Dakota and is believed to have once contained 4 trillion tons of pristine water. It's now mined continuously by over 200,000 groundwater wells. They pull out 13 million gallons per minute—which is 14 times faster than nature's replenishing rate. Each year since 1991 the aquifer's water table has dropped three feet—a huge amount when multiplied by the area. By some estimates, more than half its water is gone. And that's not America's only problem area: one of the heaviest water-using places on the planet—California—is in serious trouble. The state's Department of Water Resources says that if more supplies aren't found by 2020, residents will face a shortfall of fresh water nearly as great as the amount that all of its towns and cities together are consuming today. And the U.S. is still considered water-rich; countries with less abundance are in even more danger.

That's one note activists will stress at next week's meeting: danger. Since they've had no luck convincing governments to stop making quick profits off "the commons"—essential resources that historically belong to one and all—they're going to invoke public security. "Water scarcity is now a serious source of conflict in many places," says Barlow. "Almost every country in the Middle East is facing a water crisis of historic proportions." Israel has aggressively mined water wherever possible throughout the region, severely taxing water systems in Syria and Jordan (not to mention Palestinian townships). And Turkey has caused serious tension with plans to dam the Euphrates River, thereby diverting much of its life-sustaining flow to Syria and Iraq.

Bangladesh, which depends heavily on rivers that originate in India, is suffering terribly now because India has diverted and dammed so many of its water sources. In Africa, relations between Botswana and Namibia are severely strained by Namibian plans to construct a pipeline to divert water from the shared Okavango River. Ethiopia plans to take more water from the Nile, although Egypt is heavily dependent on those waters for irrigation and power. And as water tables fall steadily in the North China Plain (which yields more than half of China's wheat and nearly a third of its corn) as well as in northwest India's Punjab region, experts are bracing for a highly combustible imbalance between available water supplies and human needs.

Officials attending the upcoming WSSD meeting are certainly aware of these problems. They just can't figure out which way to approach a solution. Most of the northern governments (essentially the U.S., Canada, and the European Union) want the UN to start adopting trade agreements similar to those put forth by the WTO. They're pressuring the UN to solve the world's resource crisis by implementing "voluntary partnerships" with private companies to take over government-run industries devoted to public health, clean air, and water. Representatives from the companies will be on hand to reassure officials that they can privatize and conserve at the same time.

Delegates from poorer nations, with the possible exception of South Africa, aren't buying that idea. They got a taste of WTO justice when northern trade partners wanted to export genetically modified seeds. Several developing countries declined to buy because they don't want modified food in their environments, and they landed in WTO court for trade violations. But under previously signed UN accords, nations do have the right to refuse products they feel are environmentally unsound. One of the questions poorer nations want answered at the WSSD is which entity has ultimate power when agreements conflict. They hope it's the UN—otherwise they can all too easily envision their natural resources being siphoned off to nurture the golf courses and swimming pools of the world's elite.

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