EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 4. Emerging Water Shortages: Water Scarcity Yields Political Stresses

We typically measure well-being in economic terms, in income per person, but water well-being is measured in cubic meters or tons of water per person. A country with an annual supply of 1,700 cubic meters of water per person is well supplied with water, able to comfortably meet agricultural, industrial, and residential needs. Below this level, stresses begin to appear. When water supply drops below 1,000 cubic meters per person, people face scarcity. Below 500 cubic meters, they face acute scarcity. At this level people are suffering from hydrological poverty—living without enough water to produce food or, in some cases, even for basic hygiene. 68

The world’s most severe water stresses are found in North Africa and the Middle East. While Morocco and Egypt have fewer than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya have fewer than 500. Some countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Kuwait, and Israel, have less than 300 cubic meters per person per year. A number of sub-Saharan countries are also facing water stress, including Kenya and Rwanda. 69

While national averages indicate an adequate water supply in each of the world’s three most populous countries— China, India, and the United States—regions within these countries also suffer from acute water shortages. Water is scarce throughout the northern half of China. In India, the northwestern region suffers extreme water scarcity. For the United States, the southwestern states from Texas to California are experiencing acute water shortages. 70

Although the risk of international conflict over water is real, so far there have been remarkably few water wars. Water tensions tend to build more within societies, particularly where water is already scarce and population growth is rapid. Recent years have witnessed conflicts over water in scores of countries. Perhaps the most common of these is the competition described earlier between cities and farmers, particularly in countries like China, India, and Yemen. In other countries the conflicts are between tribes, as in Kenya, or between villages, as in India and China, or upstream and downstream water users, as in Pakistan or China. In some countries local water conflicts have led to violence and death, as in Kenya, Pakistan, and China. 71

In Pakistan’s arid southwest province of Balochistan, water tables are falling everywhere as a fast-growing local population swelled by Afghan refugees is pumping water far faster than aquifers can recharge. The provincial capital of Quetta, as noted earlier, is facing a particularly dire situation. Naser Faruqui, a researcher at Canada’s International Development Research Centre, describes the situation facing Quetta: “With over a million people living there now, many of whom are Afghan refugees, the possibility of confrontation over decreasing water resources, or even mass migration from the city, is all too real.” 72

Not far to the west, Iraq is concerned that dam building on the Euphrates River in Turkey and, to a lesser degree, Syria will leave it without enough water to meet its basic needs. The flow into Iraq of the Euphrates River, which gave birth to the ancient Sumerian civilization, has shrunk by half over the last few decades. 73

Another water flash point involves the way water is divided between Israelis and Palestinians. A U.N. report notes that “nowhere are the problems of water governance as starkly demonstrated as in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Palestinians experience one of the highest levels of water scarcity in the world. But the flash point is as much over inequity in the distribution of water as it is over scarcity. The Israeli population is roughly double that of the Palestinians, but it gets seven times as much water. As others have noted, peace in the region depends on a more equitable distribution of the region’s water. Without this, the peace process itself may dry up. 74

At the global level, most of the projected population growth of nearly 3 billion by 2050 will come in countries where water tables are already falling. The states most stressed by the scarcity of water tend to be those in arid and semiarid regions, with fast-growing populations and a resistance to family planning. Many of the countries high on the list of failing states are those where populations are outrunning their water supplies, among them Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Chad, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Unless population can be stabilized in these countries, the continually shrinking supply of water per person will put still more stress on already overstressed governments. 75

Although spreading water shortages are intimidating, we have the technologies needed to raise water use efficiency, thus buying time to stabilize population size. Prominent among these technologies are those for more water-efficient irrigation, industrial water recycling, and urban water recycling, as discussed in Chapters 9 and 10.

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68. UNDP, op. cit. note 30, p. 135.

69. FAO, AQUASTAT, electronic database, at www.fao.org/nr/aquastat, updated 11 February 2003.

70. Country averages from ibid.; World Resources Institute, Annual Renewable Water Supply per Person by River Basin, 1995, at earthtrends.wri.org/maps_spatial, updated 2000.

71. “World Conflict Chronology,” table in Gleick et al., op. cit. note 11,

pp. 192–213; UNDP, op. cit. note 30, pp. 177–78; “At Least 14 Killed as Kenyan Tribes Clash over Scarce Water Supplies,” Associated Press, 25 January 2005; “Pakistanis Clash Over Water, 12 Hurt,” Reuters, 20 June 2006.

72. Naser I. Faruqui, “Responding to the Water Crisis in Pakistan,” Water Resources Development, vol. 20, no. 2 (June 2004), pp. 177-92.

73. Pete Harrison, “ Iraq Calls for Water Treaty to Avert Crisis,” Reuters, 23 August 2007.

74. UNDP, op. cit. note 30, p. 216.

75. Population projection from U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 1.


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