The following essay is one of Zenster’s occasional contributions. What he has to say about a commodity more precious than oil is sure to give you pause for thought. We have a few readers and donors who work in this area. They lurk but don’t comment, and I’m hoping Zenster’s post will bring them out.
At any rate, we have something to ponder here. California is having its own water issues and the drought map of the U.S. shows other problem areas. Australia has had more than its share of drought. Thus, it’s an issue many of us have considered at a local level. Zenster goes global.
Blood for Water
Editor of a Leading Pakistani Paper: ‘If, in Order to Resolve Our [Water and Other] Problems, We Have to Wage Nuclear War with India, We Will’ – Water Disputes Between India and Pakistan – A Potential Casus Belli
While conflict over our world’s oil supplies dominated the closing decades of this last century, this new millennium will be greeted with far more pressing and volatile disputes about the increasing global needs for water. Some of the most hostile cultures and unstable political regions on earth are also home to severe Water Poverty.
By the year 2050 world population is predicted to have increased by fifty per cent. Rapidly expanding Muslim Middle East populations already require their governments to divert agricultural irrigation supplies over into municipal reservoirs. This has forced the MME to become increasingly dependent on imported food. Dwindling aquifers and diminished annual water flows in major rivers exacerbate this situation. A majority of the significant global population increases are taking place in those areas most affected by Water Poverty.
One equation calculates the annual depletion of global aquifers at 160 billion cubic meters (or 160 billion tons).Generally, it takes one thousand tons of water to produce one ton of grain. This 160-billion-ton water deficit is equal to 160 million tons of grain (or one half of the entire U.S. grain harvest). Per capita world grain consumption hovers at about three hundred kilograms – one third of a ton – per year.
The foregoing aquifer depletion rate demonstrates the irrigation needed for 160 million tons of grain, an amount that would feed some 480 million people. Currently, almost half a billion humans, or nearly ten percent of the globe’s population, subsist on unsustainable water supplies. The world’s entire water supply contains only some 2.5 percent fresh water, of which less than 0.007% is available from surface sources such as lakes and rivers.
Oceans cover more than seventy per cent of the earth’s surface but their content is not an optimal source of potable water. Current methods of desalination are not yet viable methods for extracting drinking supplies. At the moment, desalination represents the most expensive source of fresh water. Besides costing up to five times more than conventional sources and requiring ten times the energy to extract, there are also environmental issues to be considered.
A huge portion of the ocean’s food chain exists at the microbial and microscopic level. The uptake pipes of a desalination plant cannot discern the contents of what they ingest. This means that large shoreline areas of vital ocean-borne nutrients are borne away. It was for this reason that NOAA banned krill harvesting along America’s Pacific coast.
Krill (near microscopic shrimp-like crustaceans) are a crucial link in the oceanic food chain. They are a vital source of nutrition for vertebrate species, including whales, seabirds and salmon. This preventive measure by NOAA aims to protect baseline nutritional sources upon which the entire global food chain depends. One assessment of Southern Ocean life forms estimates that krill, along with their eggs and larvae, constitute over sixty percent of the average total zooplankton biomass.
While a seemingly “green” technology, desalination processes have a dark side. The saline sludge left after purification is a nightmare of toxic wastes which present intractable disposal problems. Boron, algal residue (e.g., “red tide”) and endocrine disruptors are present in ocean water and remain in the sludge. Further, nuclear energy is one of the few viable methods of providing sufficient electricity for desalination. Nuclear power plants themselves require large-scale supplies of cooling water; their thermal outtake plumes can alter coastal ecospheres in a significant manner.
Estimates for nuclear power plants’ problems cite that their intakes “kill at least 3.4 billion fish and other marine organisms annually”. One billion ocean-going microbes can fit into a single teaspoon, thus giving some perspective about the changes which would follow a catastrophic global collapse of the maritime food chain. There are no simple solutions.
Throughout history human populations and their agriculture have remained dependent on adequate water resources. While the per capita grain consumption of largely vegetarian countries like India may dip as low as two hundred kilograms per annum, a Western diet rich in livestock, dairy and eggs can require up to the equivalent of 800 kilograms of grain. This is not about “typical Western overconsumption”: North America, with about eight per cent of the world’s population, possesses sixteen per cent of the global water supplies. Europe’s situation is almost reversed: its percentage of the world’s population is now thirteen per cent yet it has access to only eight per cent of the water.
Asia contains sixty per cent of the world’s people, with a meager thirty-six per cent of the water. This hard fact sets the stage for some truly ominous prospects. India and China have already begun massive hydroelectric projects which could disrupt the health of ecologies and populations in a large number of downstream locations.
The Mekong River
China is constructing a series of dams along the upper reaches of the Mekong River. The Xiaowan dam is already operational. As the world’s tallest dam it is forcing neighbor countries to question the likely impact of the Xiaowan dam, in addition to several other proposed projects. [large image of dam sites is available here]
The Mekong River is one of the world’s largest watercourses. Whoever controls it has a strong lever which can be used on countries in the Lower Mekong Basin. Over sixty million people rely upon the Mekong River for food, water and transportation.
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Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam all depend upon the Mekong River to varying degrees. Overall flow control could serve to mitigate rising monsoon flood waters and redistribute those retained supplies during droughts. However, if the Chinese have control of the spigot there are the prospects of untimely releases (which could wash away entire cities), or a withholding of flow (collapsing whole ecosystems).
For example, Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap (Cambodian for “Large Fresh Water River”) is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. It is also one of the most productive inland fisheries in the entire world. The Tonlé Sap exhibits a unusual property: it changes the direction of its flow. This feature allows the lake bed to serve as a safety valve during flood seasons while it can also accumulate nutrient-rich sediments carried by the Mekong River.
This aquatic region supports over three million people, provides seventy-five per cent of Cambodia’s inland fish catch and sixty per cent of Cambodians’ protein intake. Such figures demonstrate the singular role of just this one feature along the Mekong River. Outflow from this massive inland lake accounts for about fifty per cent of the Mekong Delta’s capacity as its runs through South Vietnam. China’s construction of dams on the upper Mekong threatens the strength and volume of reverse flow into the Tonlé Sap and thereby places Cambodia and Vietnam at potentially severe risk.
History has taught smaller nations that the goodwill of larger neighboring countries is not reliable when it comes to vital resources. China’s overall track record does not inspire confidence for those along the Mekong River. While the smaller surrounding nations are reluctant to antagonize China they remain deeply concerned about the fate of their own economies as control of the Mekong River ends up in China’s hands.
Pakistan and India
A more imminently explosive situation is gathering steam in the Karakoram Range above Pakistan and India. There are elements within Pakistan prepared to launch a nuclear war over the issue of water rights shared by both nations. Although regulated by the 1960 Indus Water Treaty which provides for India’s use of the Rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, Pakistan may choose this conflict as an excuse to create an international crisis over water use.
Once again, hostile and aggressive nations often generate intense discord using access to water as the catalyst for war. In the case of Pakistan, water poverty is self-inflicted. Monsoon rains and snowmelt provide an almost unlimited water supply. Each year the Indus River runs with about 170 MAF or Million Acre Feet (one acre foot of water equals 325,851 gallons). In comparison, that amount is ten times that of America’s Colorado River and three times that of The Nile.
Between 1858 and 1947 the British Raj oversaw construction of the river link canal system in what would become post-partition Pakistan. However, early military adventures in Afghanistan and Kashmir were allowed to overshadow water management issues and the end result has been an ongoing annual shortfall of ten million acre feet.
Rather than take responsibility for its negligence, Pakistan blames India (which has a much more proactive water management program). The blame game allows Pakistan to appeal to the global community, asking it to apply pressure on India, knowing that India has a much larger economy and thus is more easily subject to coercion. Using the threat of war, Pakistan inspires insecurity and fear. At the same time it diverts attention away from its own incompetence and lack of stewardship.
Belligerent blackmail of the sort used by Pakistan is an increasingly common tool for failed nation states as they try to cover their tracks regarding disproportionate military spending and consequent neglect of their internal economies. Iran is a good example of this neglect-aggression tactic. Its near-total economic collapse can be traced back to massive over-investment in the nascent nuclear weapons program. This tunnel vision operates to the detriment of maintaining its petroleum extraction industry and its domestic food production. Iran recently eclipsed Japan as the world’s largest importer of wheat.
Middle East North Africa
Overall, the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region is the world’s fastest growing importer of foreign-grown wheat. The water required to irrigate domestic grain and other foodstuffs would equal the entire annual flow of the River Nile. Thus, for regions experiencing Water Poverty, importing wheat is the equivalent of importing water. There also exists the issue of how water is utilized. For example, in the case of India, using 1,000 tons of water to raise one ton of wheat brings an Indian farmer only around $200. But that same amount of water can be used to expand industrial capacity by $10,000 or fifty times as much value.
But this doesn’t address the profound internal security issue of any nation’s ability to become self-supporting domestic food producers. As Water Poverty spreads, an adequate water supply, and thus food security, will begin to overshadow energy security as a prime concern for individual governments. While the vast majority of water-poor nations are not in a position to wage war upon their water-richer neighbors, the discrepancies are sure to spark unrest and conflict. Five previous decades have seen 1,831 disputes over water rights. While it is encouraging that 1,228 of these disagreements did not result in armed conflict, it is very telling that 18 of the 21 situations requiring military resolution occurred between Israel and her Arab neighbors.
All of this lends even greater urgency to the necessity for dealing robustly with hostile and aggressive Islamic regimes in the MME. Proliferation of atomic weapons proceeds unabated, bringing with it the distinct possibility that future MME water conflicts may be resolved by resorting to nuclear war. Since some of the world’s largest aquifers straddle national borders, conflict is inevitable.
Water, Water Everywhere
A UN study cites some 23.4 million cubic kilometers sequestered in underground aquifers. This amounts to five hundred forty seven times more water than all of the earth’s rivers combined. For instance, the Guarani aquifer in South America could furnish our planet’s current population with almost 100 liters of water per day for the next 200 years. The Nubian Sandstone aquifer in Northern Africa holds 500,000 times the River Nile’s annual flow. Unfortunately, it is not replenished by the scant rainfall in the region. More over, the energy needed to transport this aquifer’s water around the world far exceeds the value.
Aquifers are also rather delicate constructions. The water in many of these underground reservoirs is over one million years old; their natural replenishment can be a very slow process. The Nubian Sandstone aquifer, since it is not replenished, becomes a one-time source of supply. Overdrafting, or overpumping, of aquifers can produce dramatic disturbances in local geologies. Known as “ground subsidence”, the shifts in geophysical stability when aquifers are accessed can manifest as compaction, or an actual lowering of the land surface.
Although such surface effects occur gradually, they cause significant alterations in topography. They can appear as changes in the slope or elevation of streams or canals, cause damage to bridges, roads or railways and even compromise buildings or other large structures. These surface effects are not limited to localized damage. One extraordinary fissure in central Arizona is over ten miles long. Low-lying coastal regions can undergo subsidence in low-lying coastal regions can cause them to be inundated during high tides. Overdrafting of coastal aquifers can also result in saline intrusion of ocean water into normally potable supplies.
Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip have experienced this problem. The population density, approximately 3,500 people per square kilometer, has resulted in overpumping the Coastal Aquifer at a rate of 68-90 MCM (Million Cubic Meters) per year. This excessive use has increased the rate of saline intrusion from Mediterranean seawater. It has also inhibited the dilution of anthropogenic (human origin) waste water entering the aquifer. The result has been brackish drinking water with elevated concentrations of salt, pesticides and human waste, making it hazardous for human consumption.
In the self-defeating tradition of so many hostile and aggressive nations, the Palestinians (and their democratically elected terrorist Hamas government) intentionally diverted donations of metal piping destined for sewage management and waste water control over to the construction of rockets which have been used to bombard Israel for many years. Even Mahmoud Abbas described the rockets that are being launched as the “pipes” that provided Israel with an excuse to carry out military operations in the Gaza Strip. “Our people don’t deserve these tragedies,” he said. “If these pipes provide an excuse, it’s time to stop using them.” Yet the rocket attacks upon Israel were kept up and diversion of this municipal resource continued until it resulted in the breaching of several sand-diked effluent ponds that created a sewage tsunami (warning: graphic images in this video show huge sloughs of despond), drowning five Palestinians in Um An Nasir in Northern Gaza.
It is these same hostile and aggressive nations which continue to exacerbate their own Water Poverty by not adopting modern methods and technologies that conserve use. Too often, these countries are riddled with corruption that just as frequently sees substandard civil engineering or a total absence of the infrastructure needed to alleviate Water Poverty. It is these same hostile and aggressive nations that will most quickly resort to military force in order to solve the problems they created in the first place.
Continued high birth rates in these regions of Water Poverty may eventually overwhelm the ability of grain-producing countries to meet their needs. The expanding demand of population giants like China and India could simply outstrip the production of grain exporting countries like The United States, Canada and Australia. The repercussions of such supply-side defaults could be tremendous. A country that lapses into hydrological poverty will find it a local form of poverty which offers little chance of escape.
It should be remembered that while a person can go without food for weeks, it is difficult to survive without water for more than several days. Humanity survived without gasoline for almost a million years, but we now find ourselves expending thousands of lives and trillions of dollars to protect the West’s access to oil. Giving up personal automobiles might seem onerous but imagine what would happen if the water taps ran dry. How much more fierce will be the battles fought over water?
Finally, Islam’s continued hostility towards the West may eventually bring water wars to an unimaginable level of confrontation. If the number of terrorist atrocities escalated in the West, we could see a complete halt of wheat exports to the MME by grain-producing countries. The United States, Canada and Australia continue as targets for Muslim hostility. Should they band together for protection and unanimously halt deliveries of grain to the MME, mass starvation could set in within less than a month. Being net food importers, the triangulating actions of China and Russia would be unable to lend anything but brief assistance to terrorist states.
Western nations do not have the luxury of sitting back and allowing Muslim majority countries to discover on their own just how misguided and incompetent their antagonizing of non-Islamic nations has been. Proliferation of nuclear weapons within the MME specifically and the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction in general will not permit any sort of “wait-and-see” attitude.
All of this militates towards some unpleasant outcomes. It is now recognized that the World War II nuclear attacks upon Japan ended up saving a tremendous number of lives, Allied and Japanese alike. Would there ever come the time when a Western leader refuses to retaliate against the MME by imposing starvation and instead views nuclear strikes as more humane? If, accompanied by economic implosion, some unforeseen drastic shortfall in domestic grain supplies due to drought or crop failure were to occur it could come to such Hobbesian choices.
Even as it stabs at the West, the MME is itself perched upon a razor’s edge of survival. Islam continues to justify terrorist atrocities against the very countries that feed it. This hostility is short-sighted; it could well result in the erosion of tolerance for monumental ingratitude. Those Islamic leaders who have driven their respective populations into this existential box canyon may end their final moments as Mussolini did.