Down the drain

September 5, 1997

Water is an ever more precious resource, but experts do not believe that water shortages will spark a war in the future. Jennie Bristow reports

Will the next world war be fought over water? It may seem a far-fetched notion, but with water shortages likely to worsen on all continents in future, it is one preoccupying many politicians.

The question was first posed by Boutros Boutros Ghali, later secretary general of the United Nations, some years ago, when he was Egypt's foreign minister worrying about a Middle East desperately short of water. The idea has subsequently gained popularity, resulting in television series with titles such as Water Wars and cataclysmic visions of a world in which thirsty hordes fight in the desert.

The issue will be raised again next week at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a series of papers examining various aspects of the water crisis.

As Tony Allan, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, points out, "many economies in arid regions have only half the water they need". Global warming has led to falling water levels, the developed world is wasting water on a colossal scale and the United Nations estimates that the world's population will rise to 9.4 billion by 2050. So why has there not been a war over water?

The reason is that countries short of water have found ways of managing the water they do have or of importing enough to satisfy demand. Professor Allan points out: "The Middle East ran out of water in the 1970s and has not yet gone to war."

Instead, Middle Eastern governments have used what Allan calls "virtual water" - water hidden from sight in food - that the region has begun to import while conserving its own supplies. "When people think of water supply, they automatically think of river basins," he says. "But this ignores the fact that most water, by far, goes into food production. Agriculture takes up vast amounts of water, which tends to be taken for granted". He produces a diagram to illustrate the point. Individuals consume less than one cubic metre of water each year, and only 100 cubic metres in domestic use. Yet 1,000 cubic metres of water are consumed by individuals in the food they eat.

Allan's explanation as to why the Middle East has not gone to war over water rests on his understanding of the cunning ways its governments have managed to "sneak" water into the country. "A government cannot tell its people that there is no water," he reasons. "That would be unacceptable. So what these governments have done is to import more food into the country, and carry on letting people use the water in the ways they always did." Another statistic proves his point. From 1961 to 1970, grain imports to the Middle East were steady at about seven million tonnes. After 1970 they began to increase sharply, reaching over forty million tonnes in 1992.

Nigel Arnell, of Southampton University, also believes that water wars are not imminent, even though his research suggests that global warming will sharply reduce the amount of water available in Europe. Like Allan, he says that if water is managed more effectively, much of the shortfall can be made up.

"Lack of water does bring about tensions and conflicts," he says, citing the problems involved in managing international rivers. "There often appears to be no incentive for one country to avoid polluting the water supply of another, and this can cause problems. But I think there would have to be other underlying conflicts to cause the outbreak of war. Water can be a trigger or an excuse, but not the direct cause of a major conflict."

Former journalist Michael Prest became passionately engaged in the water crisis during a stint at the World Bank. Now planning a television series on the subject, he says: "The notion that water will lead to wars has been greatly exaggerated. We are not going to run out of water, and we are not going to go to war over a cup of tea." He agrees that there is a problem, but also argues that this is more to do with the management of water than with environmental apocalypse.

"The real issue is water prices: water is becoming a commodity," he contends. The general rise in income has resulted in increased competition for water. But higher water prices are not necessarily a bad thing. "There is a popular idea that pricing water penalises the poor, but not necessarily," Prest says. Because people with a higher income tend to use more water, the money frommiddle-class consumers of water subsidises poorer users.

The management "solutions" Prest envisages are based on reducing demand for water. He is concerned about water wastage: 70 per cent of water is used in agriculture, and half of that is wasted. Water suppliers lose about 20 per cent of their water through leaks, and British companies lose "more like one-third".

But as well as looking to water firms for solutions to unnecessary leakage, we should also look to our own backyards, Prest says. Water companies lose control over the consumption of water when it reaches the houses they serve, where much of it is wasted. He cites the use of drinking water to wash cars. "You don't need purified water to wash your car." People should be provided with alternatives to fresh water - recycled water is one suggestion - and be discouraged from over-using water, perhaps through metering. "You don't leave the house with all the lights on, not because it would bankrupt you to do so, but because it's an unnecessary expense," Prest says. "We should have the same attitude to water."

While discussing solutions to the problem of water shortages, Prest remarks wryly that "none of them are very glamorous". And that is true. It is not surprising that visions of "water wars" make the headlines when the solutions, as presented by specialists, are as mundane as water metering, water recycling and food importing.

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