Water: the power of tomorrow – Part 1


The importance of a fundamental item for life on Earth that will be the cause of wars in the very near future
By Thyago Szoke

When it comes to water, much of the world's population is not aware of its value. There are many countries - and Brazil is one of them - where there is plenty of this liquid which is essential to life, and for that reason water is seen as something trivial, available to a simple tap opening, which often has a leak.

As it is known, however, there are several countries where water is a very valuable item, especially in Africa and the Middle East. Access to water there is expensive, often because of desalination processes, or simply because of low supply and prolonged dry periods.

Today, the annual supply of water per person is 6,800 cubic meters, whereas in the 1950s the quantity was 16,800 cubic meters – that is, an impressive 60% reduction. In fact, it is a commonplace for our parents and grandparents to comment on how it was possible to swim in rivers that are not clean anymore, such as the Tietê and Pinheiros, to mention two examples in the city of São Paulo. Much of this feedback comes, of course, from the pollution of rivers and seas, in the vast majority of cases caused by the human being.

Precisely from the abundance came the disregard. After all, we do not give due importance to something that is easy found in nature, and this is something that we have been conditioned since school days: as children, we learn that Earth is composed of approximately 71% water, and the rest is destined for the continents. What is usually not taught, however, is that over 97% of this volume is in the seas, along with salt, which would leave less than 3% for fresh water. Of these 3%, 2.5% is in the glaciers; the remaining 0.5% is mostly underground aquifers. And it is estimated that not even half of it is fit for human and animal consumption.

According to the United Nations, countries that provide up to 1.7 thousand cubic meters of water per person annually are in a condition of "water stress"; those that can not provide more than 1000 cubic meters are considered to be in "severe water shortage".

This means that more than 1 billion people today face difficulties in accessing drinking water – in many cases, they do not even have access to it. If we take into consideration that the world population is currently 7.6 billion people, we can conclude that 13% of the world is living on less than necessary for survival – in Africa alone, the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that around 2020 (2 years from now!) there will be 75 to 250 million people in Africa facing water shortages. And you, there, washing the sidewalk with the garden hose...

The Pacific Institute, which develops studies related to water shortage and global security, fears conflicts will occur in the very near future because of this.

As I told the audience in a lecture given to the students of a university in the state of São Paulo last year, this is a reality that has been meticulously hidden by economic and political powers. When we talk today about the Six Day War, when Israel invaded the Golan Heights in Syria, both by its strategic position and the region harboring the springs of the Jordan River, everything sounds distant and unimportant; after all such a war occurred in the distant year of 1967, more than 50 years ago. Currently in the territory of Palestine, the local population is deprived of access to local sources by the Israeli government itself, one of the factors that considerably increase political instability in an area with large deserts and little water potential. However, this demonstrates how water is seen as a commodity and many countries would not hesitate a second before disposing of their military weapons for defense or conquest of water-abundant regions.

Also in the region, we can cite the geopolitical instability between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, on account of the Euphrates and Tigre rivers. These rivers supply the three countries with water, but they both have their source in Turkish territory. A few years ago, in 2009, a drought in the region reduced the volume of rivers, which promptly led to an exchange of accusations among these countries of using more water than necessary. And there are more disputes like this: Angola, Botswana and Namibia are arguing about the Okavango basin; Likewise, Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt are always discussing the use of the Nile River waters.

It is at this point that we come to this first article: what, after all, is happening with water and how will this impact our lives in the not-so-distant future? Come back later and check the Part 2.