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Water Scarcity: A Ticking Time Bomb for Conflict That Threatens Half the World’s Population by 2050

Water is the most precious resource for sustaining life and survival of living world, but we are losing fresh water at an astonishing rate: Climate change is resulting in disappearing of glaciers and severe droughts, groundwater being pumped out faster than natural processes can replace it. Much of the world faces a hotter and drier future under climate change, according to scientists. Rainfall – including the monsoons that fortify agriculture in south Asia – will become more unpredictable. Storm surges could contaminate freshwater reservoirs.


The Overall global water demand is projected to increase by 55 percent on the way to 2050 led by countries like Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and China (BRIICS) to satisfy the needs of ever-growing population —a staggering 9.6 billion people by 2050. In countries like China, the largest growth rate in water use will be in the industrial and domestic sectors according to the Water Resources Group.  And new fault lines are emerging with energy production. America’s oil and gas rush is putting growing demands on a water supply already under pressure from drought and growing populations.


Water scarcity is considered the current biggest threat to global prosperity, as over 1 billion people today have no access to water and nearly half of the World population is feared to be influenced by water stress by 2050. By 2025, up to 2.4 billion people worldwide may be living in areas subject to periods of intense water scarcity, according to UN estimates. The African countries, India and China and most parts of Central Asia will be under severe water scarcity, while USA and South America will suffer from extreme water stress.


Agriculture is the leading use of water and globally irrigated farming takes more than 60 percent of the available fresh water. The water shortages shall cause food production to decline reduced electrical power generation and the Economic output will suffer, due to contraction in manufacturing and resource extraction. Water shortages will deliver a “severe hit” to the economies of the Middle East, central Asia, and Africa by the middle of the century, it could strip off 14% of GDP in the Middle East and nearly 12% of GDP in the Sahel – without a radical shift in management, according to the World bank’s projections. Central Asia could lose close to 11% of GDP and east Asia about 7% under business-as-usual water management policies, according to a new report. Taking into account all regions, the mid-range toll of water shortages on GDP was about 6%.


Water scarcity made worse by climate change is a growing issue worldwide, and no place knows that better than South Africa’s Cape Town, for example, that could become the world’s first major city to run out of water. Much of the city’s water flows from neighbouring Lesotho, and the next water crisis could be looming there. South Africa has been plagued by a prolonged drought for three years.


The city’s tools for reducing water consumption, though, could be used around the world to preserve limited resources, he said. Cape Town residents have learned to shower in 90 seconds or less, and hotels in the popular tourist destination are working on building their own desalinization plants to ensure clean water supplies off the grid. Thanks to lower residential water consumption and a slower rate of decline in dam levels, Cape Town officials on Feb. 20 pushed out the estimated date on which it may have to turn off water supplies to residents by more than a month to July 9, 2018. Bloomberg reports. We view the water crisis as not just isolated to Cape Town, it’s a global phenomenon. World class cities, such as Los Angeles, Beijing, Sao Paulo, are going through the same thing and a lot of them have had to put in water restrictions.


India too is staring at a water crisis. Just three decades from now, India could be importing the water as availability per person will dwindle down to 22 percent of the present scenario. In some places in India, disaster has already arrived. The four reservoirs that supply Chennai, India’s sixth-largest city, are nearly dry. Taps have long run dry in cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad, meaning millions of people must rely on emergency government tanks for water. Tanker mafias have even emerged, ruling who gets water and for what price.


India’s population is outgrowing its water supply. India is set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in less than a decade — and by 2050 it will have added 416 million urban residents, according to the UN. Years of rapid urbanization with little infrastructure planning means most cities are ill equipped to handle the additional population stress. Demand for water will reach twice the available supply by 2030, the UN report said — placing hundreds of millions of lives in danger.


Urban lakes and inlets have been lost to encroachment and environmental degradation, meaning cities generally don’t have places to store usable rainwater. They also have limited water conservation infrastructure — rainwater harvesting systems, water reuse and recycling, and waste water treatment.

Conflicts over Water

In March 2012, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released a report, “Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security,” which said “We judge that the use of water as a weapon will become more common during the next 10 years with more powerful upstream nations impeding or cutting off the downstream flow”. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned in 2007, water scarcity will also act as a catalyst for wars and conflict.


Historically, water tensions have led to more water-sharing agreements than violent conflicts. The recent example is the Nile that has long been a source of instability for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have signed the agreement in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum to end a long-running dispute over the sharing of Nile waters and the building of Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam, in Ethiopia.


However, in the future rivers, lakes and aquifers can become precious security assets and cause of various national and sub national conflicts. The Pacific Institute, which studies issues of water and global security, found a fourfold increase in violent confrontations over water over the last decade. Thirty-four of the 37 countries presumed to be at risk of war due to the absence of trans-boundary water resources cooperation: Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait—are still at loggerheads over the Tigris-Euphrates river system. China is involved in water disputes in Southeast Asia, and its huge dams on the Mekong River have greatly affected food security for both Cambodia and Vietnam.


Future Water conflict areas

A United Nations report published in Sep 2018, identifies several hotspots around the globe where “hydro-political issues,” in the parlance of the researchers, are likely to give rise to geopolitical tensions, and possibly even conflict. The authors of the new report, a team from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), say the escalating effects of climate change, in conjunction with ongoing trends in population growth, could trigger regional instability and social unrest in regions where freshwater is scarce, and where bordering nations have to manage and share this increasingly scarce commodity.


Competition for dwindling water resources, the authors say, will exacerbate tensions on a global scale in the coming decades, with certain regions more vulnerable than others. But how are the various factors that influence water demand and availability likely to affect populations around the world? The new study, led by JRC scientist Fabio Farinosi, was an attempt to answer this critical question, and to also create a model that can predict where and when future water wars might arise.


Farinosi’s team used a machine learning-driven approach to investigate the various factors that have traditionally given rise to water-related tensions. An algorithm studied previous episodes of conflict over water resources,  and considered  factors such as access to freshwater, climate stress (two greenhouse gas emission scenarios were considered, one moderate and one extreme), population trends, human pressures on the water supply, socio-economic conditions, and more. The factors that were found to be more relevant in determining hydro-political interactions were mainly represented by, respectively: population density, water availability (quantified through the Falkenmark index), upstream/downstream dynamics (represented by the flow accumulation), with territorial (area difference) and power imbalance (Composite Index of National Capability – CINC), and climatic conditions.


Looking at the results, the researchers found that conflicts are more likely to arise in areas where a “transboundary” to water is present, such as a shared lake, basin, or river, and when freshwater is scarce, population density high, and power imbalances and climate stresses exist. A number of potentially problematic areas were identified, including five hotspots: the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers.



Chinese Dams on Yarlung Zangbo (Brahmaputra) creates tensions in India

Climate change threatens Tibetan Plateau water resources in a couple of ways—more rainfall in the medium term, but also quicker glacial melts and less water flow in the future. The recent Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment suggests that, even with a drastic reduction in carbon emissions, one-third of the Himalayan glaciers are doomed to melt by the end of this century; without a reduction in emissions, that grows to two-thirds. The livelihoods of well over a billion people are directly at risk from this.


Most studies predict that, after an initial period of augmented river flow due to glacial melt, the rivers will begin to dry up for part of the year from 2050 or 2060, putting at risk the food security of a significant portion of humanity. The threat of further conflict as a result is multifaceted. Reduced flow will lead to energy as well as water shortages. The increasing prevalence of extreme precipitation events, also widely predicted, will threaten the stability of the dams, with grave risks downstream.


China operationalised the largest dam in Tibet in Oct 2015, Zam Hydropower Station built at a cost of $1.5 billion, enhancing fears in India and Bangladesh about flash floods and related risks like landslides involving lives of millions of people downstream. Reports in the past said besides Zangmu, China is reportedly building few more dams.


More than 400 dams are under construction, or planned for the coming decade, in India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan; many more will be built across the Chinese border in Tibet. If the plans come to fruition, this will be among the most heavily dammed regions in the world. These schemes both aggravate international tensions and carry grave ecological risks, which themselves respect no borders. To the same extent that India fears Chinese ambitions to dam the Brahmaputra in particular, Bangladesh has already felt the negative effects of India’s hydraulic engineering upstream.


The dams also raised concerns in India over China’s ability to release water in times of conflict which could pose serious risk of flooding. China seeks to allay Indian fears saying that they are the run-of-the-river projects which were not designed to hold water.


India Pakistan tensions due to Water

The Indus  one of Asia’s mightiest rivers with its source in the northwestern foothills of the Himalayas, it flows through the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and along the length of Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The river and its five tributaries together make up the Indus Basin, which spans four countries and supports 215m people. Yet fast-growing populations and increasing demand for hydropower and irrigation in each country means the Indus is coming under intense pressure.


This is also one source of tensions between India and Pakistan, in spite of Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) mediated by World Bank. India and Pakistan, the two main countries in the basin, divided up rights to the various tributaries under the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 (IWT). The IWT has survived various wars and other hostilities between the two countries, and as such it is largely considered a success.


Nearly 63 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water, and increased pollution of water-bodies and poor storage infrastructure over the years, has created a water deficit which may become unmanageable in the future. A WaterAid report in 2016 ranked India among the worst countries in the world for the number of people without safe water.


Pakistan is already one of the most water scarce on earth, and with runaway population growth and shifting rainfall patterns, the problem will intensify in coming years. One recent estimate suggests that Pakistan will face a shortage of 31 million acre-feet of water by 2025. [Pakistan uses about 104 million acre feet every year for agricultural irrigation.] Its underground aquifers are critically depleted from the over-extraction of groundwater, and the two largest dams—the Tarbela and the Mangla—have seen a decline in their storage capacity due to excessive deposits of silt.


With tensions rising between India and Pakistan in the wake of a deadly terrorist attack in Feb 2019 that killed more than 40 Indian police officers in Kashmir, New Delhi has decided to retaliate in part by cutting off some river water that flows downstream to Pakistan. The decision to build a dam on the Ravi River, whose waters are allocated to India by treaty but a portion of which had been allowed to flow through to Pakistan, adds an extra source of conflict between two nuclear-armed neighbors that have repeatedly clashed over the disputed Kashmir territory.


Pakistani officials say that India has violated the Indus Waters Treaty many times by constructing 3200 dams and barrages on the river Jhelum, which deprives Pakistan of this major source. However India says that Under the IWT India can use 1.50 MAF of water from Jhelum for its own use to fulfill the demands of catchment areas. This gives it the right to construct run-of-river multi-purpose projects. There have been periodic calls in India for a unilateral withdrawal from the Indus Treaty, a threat that was issued last in 2016.


Under the IWT, India does indeed have a right to “limited hydropower generation” upstream on the western tributaries allotted to Pakistan, including the Chenab and the Jhelum. However, many in Pakistan worry that even though these proposed dams may individually abide by the technical letter of the treaty, their effects will add up downstream.


Conflicts over Water in Central Asia

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, are opposing the plans of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build massive hydroelectric dams upstream of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers.

While the dam will be highly advantageous to Tajikistan, by providing 13 billion terawatt hours of electrical power per annum turning Tajikistan from a power scarce country to power exporter of electricity. However it would impound almost 14 square kilometers of water of Uzbekistan, severely restricting the badly needed flow into Uzbekistan and likely devastating the domestic cotton trade.


Middle East

Water has played an important role in Yemen’s ongoing collapse. Decades of mismanagement have left the country — one of the world’s most water-scarce nations — with dilapidated water infrastructure, severely depleted groundwater reserves, and high rates of water-use inefficiency.

Physical infrastructure, including dams, has been used as convenient and high-publicity targets by extremists, terrorists, and rogue states threatening substantial harm and will become more likely.

IS uses water as weapon of war

In Iraq, ISIL has exploited access to water to expand its control over territory and to subjugate the population. IS fighters control most of the upper areas of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow from Turkey in the north to the Gulf in the south. All of Iraq and a large part of Syria rely on these rivers for food, water and industry.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, president of the Arab Water Council, told Al-Monitor that the Arab region is facing a crisis because of the lack of rain and available water resources. The Arab region accounts for less than 7% of the world’s water reserves, according to Abu Zeid, and less than 1% of the flowing water, while rain does not exceed 2% of the global average. Abu Zeid predicted that IS’ attempts to control Arab water resources would lead to a water crisis that would overshadow the ongoing oil conflict, since water is a matter of life or death.

“Arab water is facing a great danger, which portends the exacerbation of the water conflict given that freshwater resources are limited. However, there is a food gap that increases with the growing population, which threatens a famine by 2025 in the absence of concerted efforts,” Abu Zeid said.

United Nations has called for the addition to all the water treaties of “monitoring provisions, enforcement mechanisms, and specific water allocation provisions that address variations in water flow and changing needs.”


Water Scarcity Initiatives

On September 25, 2015, the global development agenda for the next 15 years was set at the United Nations General Assembly following the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Stand-alone and integrated water goal SDG6 has been included, specifically SDG 6.4 aims to “substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.”

For in depth understanding on Water Management   technology and applications please visit:    The Future of Water Management: Innovations and Sustainability

The 2030 Water Resources Group: This initiative brings together governments, civil society organizations, and businesses to support the implementation of integrated water resources management. The goal is to promote sustainable and equitable water use, particularly in developing countries.

The World Bank Water Global Practice: This program aims to help countries improve their water management and increase access to clean water and sanitation. The program provides technical assistance, financing, and knowledge sharing to support sustainable water management.

Water.org: This nonprofit organization works to provide access to clean water and sanitation to communities in developing countries. The organization partners with local organizations to provide innovative financing solutions, such as microloans, to help communities build sustainable water systems.

The Alliance for Water Stewardship: This global network brings together businesses, NGOs, and governments to promote sustainable water use. The Alliance provides a standard for water stewardship that helps organizations assess and manage their water use.

The 100 Resilient Cities Program: This initiative supports cities in building resilience to the social, economic, and environmental challenges they face. Water management is a key focus area, with many cities implementing innovative solutions such as green infrastructure, water recycling, and desalination.

These initiatives and programs are just a few examples of the many efforts being made around the world to address the water crisis. By working together and implementing a range of solutions, we can build a more sustainable and water-secure future for all.

Joining Rivers

Joining rivers is a large-scale engineering solution that involves diverting water from one river to another. This can be done by constructing canals, tunnels, and reservoirs to create a system of interconnected waterways. The idea behind joining rivers is to address water scarcity in regions where there is a shortage of water by transferring water from regions that have an excess of it.

One of the main benefits of joining rivers is that it can help to redistribute water resources across a region or even a country. By transferring water from areas with a surplus to areas with a deficit, it is possible to ensure that everyone has access to an adequate supply of water. This can be particularly beneficial in regions that are prone to drought, as it can help to reduce the impact of water shortages on agriculture, industry, and human populations.

Joining rivers can also help to reduce the pressure on existing water sources. In many parts of the world, rivers and aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be replenished. By transferring water from one river to another, it is possible to reduce the demand on existing water sources and allow them to recover.

Furthermore, joining rivers can have positive impacts on the environment. By creating a more even distribution of water, it is possible to improve the health of ecosystems that depend on water. This can be particularly important for species that are threatened by habitat loss and climate change.

However, joining rivers is not without its challenges. It can be a costly and complex process that requires significant engineering expertise. It can also have negative impacts on the environment, particularly if it involves the destruction of natural habitats or the displacement of local communities. Additionally, there may be disputes over water rights and ownership, which can lead to conflict between different regions or even countries.

In conclusion, joining rivers is a potential solution to water scarcity, but it should be approached with caution. While it can help to redistribute water resources and reduce pressure on existing sources, it is important to consider the potential negative impacts on the environment and local communities. Ultimately, any decision to join rivers should be based on a careful assessment of the costs, benefits, and risks involved.

Engineering solutions to water shortages—including the transfer of water between rivers—are becoming increasingly common, particularly as urban water demands grow. Under China’s south-to-north diversion project, 9.5 billion cubic meters of water shall be supplied annually to the northern regions, including the cities of Beijing and Tianjin, and provinces of Henan and Hebei.

References and Resources also include:

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