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Expect water conflicts and water wars - lessons from Danube and Nile. Why water is becoming an issue of national security for many nations. Making cities water sustainable. Trends in water and other utilities keynote speaker POST / VIDEO

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Water is already a scarce and badly managed resource globally. Expect water conflicts - local, national and international, and even water wars. Comment from banks of Danube river in Hungary, Budapest. Lessons from river Nile - Uganda and Sudan. Comment by Patrick Dixon.

Extract from The Future of Almost Everything book:

Over a decade ago I warned of water wars, and that water would become a national security issue. We have seen this recently in Syria and Iraq. Rivers, canals, dams, water treatment plants and pipelines have all become military targets. Entire cities in desert areas can easily be placed under siege if their water is cut off.

We could see water wars between nations, quarrelling over, say, how much water flows into a country down a long river, or how much one country is allowed to pollute another’s water supply. In 2006, there was a drought in East Africa which caused the levels of water in Lake Victoria to fall. The Ugandan government took a decision to reduce the amount of water flowing out of Lake Victoria through their hydroelectric dam into the source of the River Nile. This was in open defiance of a 1929 treaty under which Egypt had exclusive rights to 80% of the Nile’s water. Uganda’s action also threatened a crisis for Sudan, a country that similarly depends on the great river.

Germany and Austria were sued by Black Sea states through the EU for polluting the River Danube. Algae blooms in the Black Sea killed millions of fish, and completely wiped out forty species.

If there is no rain in the Pyrenees, there will be no water in Andorra. If the Caspian Sea dies as a result of one country’s pol­lution, four other nations suffer. Expect many more rows between neighbours up and down river, whether farmers, villages, towns, cities, nations or regions.

Dams will be bigger and more controversial

Controversy will continue to grow over vast dams like the Three Gorges Dam of the Yangtze River in China, which created a lake 600km long, drowned a city of 250,000, and displaced a million. Three hundred new large dams a year will force up to 4 million people a year to leave their homes around the world, often ancestral lands.

In theory dams are a wonderful idea: offering free power, irrigation and flood prevention, providing a tourist attraction and water sports, fish farming and drought protection. They create jobs, are national status symbols, and prevent global warming. For example, the Congo River at Inga could supply half the energy needs of the whole of Africa, and only 10% of Africa’s potential hydroelectric capacity has so far been harnessed.

But dams also change the environment. Constant irrigation brings salts to the surface, so that farmland is increasingly infertile. Silt that used to be carried by floods now clogs up reservoirs, and fish are blocked from going upstream.

800 billion cubic metres of virtual water

Nations will look to save water by virtual trading. For example, it takes a ton of water to grow a single kilogram of rice. To grow a 40kg bag of rice requires 40 tons of water, and a single 40-ton lorry loaded with rice is the equivalent of importing 1,000 lorries to a water-starved nation, each carrying 40 tons of water – the same as a small ship. You would need 25 such ships to carry enough water to make a single ton of rice, so it is madness to grow rice in a desert. A water-deprived nation like Egypt can save huge amounts of water by producing more goods and growing less food. In future, the most water-hungry farming or industrial processes will be in parts of the world with high rainfall.

Our world is already trading 800 billion tons of virtual water a year, equivalent to all the water flowing down ten rivers the size of the Nile. If all food tariff barriers on shipments to America, Europe and other parts of the world were removed, the amount of virtual water traded would double in a short period of time.

Major changes are likely to take place rapidly. For example, farming in California uses up 80% of the state’s scarce water supplies, yet contributes only 2% to the local economy. Farms pay only around 15% of the capital costs of the Federal water supply infrastructure. A significant proportion of food production will have to move into wetter states further east, to save California from an even greater water crisis over the next 20 years.

Two thirds of humanity in areas short of water by 2025

Water is one of the primary needs of humanity and we are facing a global shortage, especially near megacities. By 2025, two thirds of humankind will live in areas where there are water shortages, up from one third today. While nations like Brazil have a surplus of clean river water, most nations are facing water deficits.

Globally we already use 35% of accessible supplies. Farming uses 60% of all the world’s pumped water, even though only 1% of the world’s fields are irrigated. An additional 19% is used to dilute pollution, sustain fisheries and transport goods. Thus the human race already uses around half the planet’s supply. But water use has quadrupled since 1950 due to a larger and wealthier global population. So, then, it is clear that water demand will increase by at least 40% in many emerging nations by 2040. And pressures will be even greater in areas of hot countries frequented by tourists, with soaring demand for water in the most popular holiday resorts.

To make matters worse, climate change means more rain in some places but less in others. Underground water levels are falling in many of the world’s most important crop-growing areas, including the western US, large parts of India and north China, where water tables are dropping a metre a year. We will see longer pipelines across countries and continents, balanc­ing supply and population. These will create new opportunities for trade, political demands and sabotage by terrorists.

The water and electricity industries will be even more closely linked in future, as water management uses a lot of power. Anything that reduces the cost of power also reduces the cost of water. In addition, as we will see, power can be used to make fresh water from the sea.

Many rivers semi-dead in Asia

Over-irrigation means that many rivers already die for part of the year in Asia. These include most rivers in India, among them the mighty Ganges, a principal water source for south Asia, and China’s Yellow River.

With the number of urban dwellers set to reach 5 billion by 2025, steps are being taken to switch water from farms to cities. Three hundred Chinese cities are now experiencing water shortages.

Every individual in indus­trialised cities will be affected in some way by 2025, with widespread water metering, ‘grey water’ systems (for example bath water stored for watering the garden), and a shift in culture to viewing all water as a limited natural resource. Expect as many regulations on the use of water as on energy conservation.

Thirsty world by 2030

By the year 2030, virtually all of the world’s economically accessible rivers will be required to meet the needs of agriculture, industry and households, and to maintain lake and river levels. This is based only on current trends with no allowance for the added impact of climate change.

The death of the Aral Sea is described by the government of Uzbekistan as one of the most serious ecological catastrophes in the history of the human race, and took place in a single generation. Originally one of the world’s largest lakes, its shores are now far from their original location, and mineral levels have risen dramatically.

Coupled with this is coastal pollution. While half the world’s population still lacks basic sanitation, 80% of all local sea water pollution is from contaminants carried there by fresh water.

Ensuring future water supplies

Humanity will find many ways to manage water more efficiently, and there is no reason to think that our future world will grind to a halt because of lack of water. Here are some ways in which shortages will be dealt with – the first two alone will make a huge difference in most developed nations, and in cities of many emerging nations.

- installing water metres for every user, and charging more per litre

- stopping leaks ‒ 25% of London’s water is lost from ancient pipes

- using drip irrigation and growing drought-resistant crops

- shifting water-hungry agriculture to wetter areas of the world

- implementing better local water management with small dams for farmers

- building large dams – also used for power

- collecting rainwater, e.g. roofs into cisterns

- reducing water use by washing machines, dishwashers and toilets

- recycling waste water or ‘grey’ water for uses other than drinking, washing or food preparation

- increasing use of desalination – as in Middle East and cities like London, using new technologies which require far less energy

- increasing use of nanotech-coated surfaces that are cleaned without using much water, e.g. in urinals.

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