Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resourceby Marq de Villiers
In his award-winning book WATER, Marq de Villiers provides an eye-opening account of how we are using, misusing, and abusing our planet's most vital resource. Encompassing ecological, historical, and cultural perspectives, de Villiers reports from hot spots as diverse as China, Las Vegas, and the Middle East, where swelling populations and unchecked development… See more details below
In his award-winning book WATER, Marq de Villiers provides an eye-opening account of how we are using, misusing, and abusing our planet's most vital resource. Encompassing ecological, historical, and cultural perspectives, de Villiers reports from hot spots as diverse as China, Las Vegas, and the Middle East, where swelling populations and unchecked development have stressed fresh water supplies nearly beyond remedy. Political struggles for control of water rage around the globe, and rampant pollution daily poses dire ecological theats. With one eye on these looming crises and the other on the history of our dependence on our planet's most precious commodity, de Villiers has crafted a powerful narrative about the lifeblood of civilizations that will be "a wake-up call for concerned citizens, environmentalists, policymakers, and water drinkers everywhere" (Publishers Weekly).
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Read an Excerpt
Water in Peril
Is the crisis looming,or has it already loomed?
The little mokoro, a boat roughly hewn from a mopane log, drifted
slowly through the waters of the Okavango Delta. It was tiny — hardly
larger than the crocodiles whose snorkel-eyes could sometimes be
seen, mercilessly obsidian. The water was a startling blue with
eddies of silt, drifts of ochre and dun, easy enough to examine, for
the boat rode only a few centimeters above the surface. There were
sudden splashings from a nearby papyrus island as hippos rolled in
You could spend days poling through the Okavango's twisty
hippo-ways in a mokoro and never see anyone. You can clamber out of
your mokoro onto an "island" of swamp grass a meter thick, but if you
were accidentally to plunge through — an easy thing to do — there
would be a couple of meters of water beneath you. Everywhere
improbable vegetation grows prolifically. There are papyrus beds,
swamp grasses sharp as razors, and exposed roots worn smooth by heavy
The Bayei people, swamp dwellers, find their way effortlessly
through this maze of identical channels, but sometimes even they go
into the swamp and never return. A legend says there are legions of
screaming skulls in the muck beneath the islands; at the end of the
world, when the waters dry up, they will be exposed to confirm the
apocalypse so long forecast. At twilight, when the hippos return to
the channels, their heavy, lethal bodies cutting Vs into the water,
it's an easy legend to believe.
Now the Bayei are being told that the end of theirworld may
come earlier — not through catastrophe as prophesied, but through the
thirst of that most voracious and expansionist of species, humankind.
The pipelines, dredgers, and cadres of water management engineers and
the bureaucrats of the water commission draw ever closer, persistent
as a virus with no cure, ready to suck the lifeblood from the delta.
And in 1996, for the first time in many years, the annual Okavango
flood never reached the delta. The rains had failed in Angola, the
Bayei were told.
"How deep is it here?" I asked Kehemetswe, the Bayei who was
poling the mokoro.
"Two meters," he said. "That's fifteen feet," he added
helpfully, getting it wrong.
He wore baggy khaki shorts, a sun visor marked "All England
Tennis Club," and 10-centimeter earrings made of chipped bone and
braided twine.His pole was a skinny thing that bent perilously in the
mud as he pushed us along. He said he would use it to thwack
crocodiles if they became a nuisance. Thwack — it had a reassuring
"Two meters? Is that normal?"
"Last year, three. Year before that, three. Year before that,
three. Three. Always three."
"What does this mean?" I asked, but I already knew the
answer. And the next year I saw him quoted in a Johannesburg
newspaper: "Namibia wants to build a pipe to take water from the
river through the desert," he said. "If the water dries up, it will
be the end of our lives. All the things of our lives solely depend on
The Okavango, the third-largest river in southern Africa, rises in
the moist tropical hills of Angola, where it is known as the Cubango,
and flows for about 1,400 kilometers through Namibia and into
Botswana; there it soaks into the .at plains of the Kalahari and
spreads out in a dazzling array of channels that make up Africa's
largest oasis and the world's most spectacular inland delta.
Once the Okavango Delta was a lake, but a geologic era ago
some slight tectonic shift in the earth's crust drained the water
into secret crevices. The Okavango River continued to pour down
across what is now the Caprivi Strip from the moist hills of Angola's
Benguela Plateau as it always had, but the lake had disappeared. The
river became tangled in thickets of reeds, giant papyrus, and mud,
and then just vanished. Riviersonderend, the Afrikaners called it,
River Without End. There are many such rivers in the wild and
desolate north, the Great Thirstland, but the Okavango was the
grandest, most fertile, and most beautiful of all.
In good years the waters still overflow the marshes into the
Boteti River and reach the parched, arid surface of the Makgadigadi
Pans to the southeast. In the best years of all they seep
northeastward into the even more remote and mysterious Linyanti
lagoons. This marsh is one of the grandest places on earth. So many
legends, so entangled with mundane and exotic fact! The munu, the
black tree baboons that folklore says stalk Okavango women, longing
for the day they might be men again. Lions hunting at night. Lagoons
boiling with hippos. Endless forests of thorn acacia and mopane
trees, home to leopards, cheetahs, wild dogs, Cape buffalo, giraffes,
a shopping cart full of monkey species, the greatest migrations of
zebras on earth, and huge herds of elephants. These 60,000 elephants
are the subject of bitter controversy. The Botswanan government
prohibited all elephant hunting in 1983, to universal acclaim, but
since then the herds have proliferated, causing massive habitat
destruction. And they are now being culled: some 15,000 elephants
will have to be shot, here and in Zimbabwe and Angola, to end their
own suicidal eating binge.
The Okavango Swamp has other enemies: drought, for one. In
the 1990s the Kalahari region and Angola suffered from the worst
drought of the century, and no one knows whether the marsh will
recover. El Niño was blamed, but when the disturbance ended and the
rains still did not come, human-induced climate change became the
cause of choice. Mostly, the inhabitants were reduced to praying for
rain, but the water levels continued to shrink. Now from the south,
from Botswana's orderly and well-managed cities, comes an enemy even
worse than drought: growing human populations and their demands for
more, more, more. And from neighboring Namibia, too. Namibia is a
desert country and always parched. But its population is growing, and
in 1996, with the country's reservoirs standing at 9 percent of
capacity, Namibian authorities turned their eyes eastward, to
Botswana's Okavango Delta.
By 1997 there were already threats of a "water war" between
Namibia, which wanted to take 20 million cubic meters a year from the
Okavango system, and Botswana, whose own dams and reservoirs were
critically low after ten years without rain. In all likelihood this
talk of war was mere hyperbole. Still, there were threats of sabotage
if a pipeline proposed by Namibia were ever to be built. Late in 1997
residents of Maun, in Botswana, walked out of a conciliatory meeting
called by the Namibian government, and both countries went to the
International Court of Justice at The Hague to dispute a minor
boundary issue, a sure sign of internation fractiousness.
In 1996, when the annual floods failed, Maun was put immediately at
risk — not just tourism but the villagers, too, who need the river
for washing, for fish, and for the water lily roots and reeds they
use to build houses. The town's drinking water, drawn from boreholes,
was also drying up. Botswana's hydrologists scrambled to find out
just how rapidly the water table was dropping. Alarmist stories were
heard everywhere. Namibia's pipeline would mean permanent drought,
residents were told. Wells and boreholes would go dry.
Namibia, in turn, had its anxieties. Few places on earth are
drier than Namibia. Of the meager rain that does fall, four-fifths
evaporates immediately. Only 1 percent recharges groundwater tables.
Worse, Namibia has no perennial rivers, only seasonally flowing ones
that are reduced to a trickle for several months and dry up
completely in others.
To augment the water supply, Namibia has been tinkering with
other options, including desalination and pumping groundwater from
its fossil aquifers. But desalination, expensive enough anywhere, is
prohibitive in Namibia, where most of the population centers are
inland. Overpumping groundwater has also caused dangerous increases
in water and soil salinity, as well as the rapid depletion of the
This chronic water shortage prodded Namibia to launch a
planning process to extend its already massive network of supply
pipelines and aqueducts, the Eastern National Water Carrier, to the
Okavango River, which runs throughout the year along its northeastern
border with Angola. The first phases of the plan would divert an
estimated 20 million cubic meters of water annually (700 liters a
second) from a point on the Okavango River near Rundu in northern
Namibia — well before the river gets to Botswana — and pump it uphill
through a 250-kilometer pipeline to Windhoek, the capital. Namibia
sees the pipeline as the only feasible solution to keep pace with the
water demands of its growing urban centers. Clearly, the need for
both governments to negotiate a long-term solution is urgent.
Not surprisingly, the Namibians have defended their plans and
maintain that the amount they will be taking is negligible, even
though they intend to quadruple or quintuple it to somewhere around
100 million cubic meters a year. Even that, they maintain, would draw
off only 1 percent of the water flowing through the Okavango system.
Richard Fry, Namibia's deputy secretary of water affairs, was
blunt. "The severity of Namibia's water crisis leaves us with little
option," he said after the Okavango floods failed in 1996. The dams
supplying Windhoek and the central areas of Namibia were at an all-
time low, and were expected to run completely dry in a year or two.
Namibia's senior water engineer, a bluff Afrikaner called Piet Heyns,
was blunter still: "If we don't build the pipeline and the rains fail
again . . . we'll be in the shit," he told the press.4 The corpses of
60,000 head of cattle, dead of thirst, littered the landscape.
What, indeed, are the alternatives? It's not that Namibia
isn't trying. If desalination is too expensive, and pumping water
from disused mines is only a temporary solution, what is left?
Namibians are not profligate users of water. In the last few years,
Windhoek's residents have been cutting back water use, achieving a 30
percent saving. The city's annual consumption of 17 million cubic
meters has not increased significantly since independence in 1990,
despite a growth in population from 130,000 to 220,000, and is now
only one-third of the water consumed per capita in another desert
city, Las Vegas. Significant increases in the efficiency of use —
what Sandra Postel has called poetically the "last oasis" — are
therefore unlikely, and, despite conservation, the country's water
needs are expected to double by 2020.Where is this water to come
from? Namibia has agreed to an extensive environmental impact study
before spending more than half a billion dollars to dip its pipeline
into the Okavango. But what happens if the study says the delta would
be irreparably harmed? What happens if Botswana furiously objects?
Richard Fry believes that Botswana will see Namibia's water crisis in
the light of "humanitarian need" and will ultimately respond
sympathetically to the pipeline project. But if it doesn't, what are
the Namibians to do? And if the Namibians go ahead despite
objections, what are the Botswanans to do?
The nagging questions remain: Is it safe to interfere with
the delta's only supply of water? The Okavango is robust enough to
survive anything except the water being turned off. If that happens,
a Garden of Eden would return to Kalahari dust, the wildlife would
migrate or die, and 100,000 humans would be reduced to slum dwellers
in cities already unable to cope. If it isn't safe to divert the
water, is it necessary? Where, in the balance of competing interests,
does natural justice lie? At what point does man's stewardship of the
planet and its resources collide with man's own needs? What is the
ethical position? Has it come to this: a stark choice between human
misery and the destruction of one of the planet's most magnificent
And perhaps the most difficult question of all: In any
ecology, beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom
diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the
finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of the Okavango
elephants or of gas molecules in a sealed .ask. The human question is
not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of
existence is possible for those who do survive.
Why should the world care what happens in this obscure debate between
two minor-league African nations? Both countries are interesting
enough, but hardly worth the world's concentrated attention. Namibia
is, after all, the most arid country in the southern end of an arid
continent. And Botswana? It is also a curiosity: a democratically
run, sensibly governed, economically sound country that has eschewed
grandiose development projects in favor of small-scale enterprise,
schooling, and decent housing. But this is a country that has only
one and a half rivers. It too is mostly desert. Of course these two
places will squabble over water. What has that to do with the water-
As we shall see, the Okavango is the world in miniature. All
the great themes that are being played out on the global scale with
water — diminishing aquifers, dropping water tables, alarm about
sustainability — all the issues that are facing more populous places
much more critical to global peace, are here being traced in sinewy
outline. Here is a rapidly growing population placing a strain on a
fragile and finite resource — just as it is in North Africa, China,
many parts of Asia, sections of Europe, and the southwestern United
States. Here are humankind's competing imperatives, for food and
for "development." Here is a simple example of the transboundary,
supranational nature of water basin and water resource debates — just
as is happening along the Nile, the Mekong, the Ganges, the Tigris
and the Euphrates, the Jordan, the Rhine and the Danube, the
Colorado, Rio Grande, and Columbia. Here is a small-scale example of
growing interstate tensions over an increasingly anxious need for
life's most critical resource. Here, poignantly, is the imminent and
probably unpreventable destruction of a superb and precious
ecosystem, with all its intended and unintended consequences — much
like the Three Gorges on China's Yangtze River. Here are human
politics brutally undisguised, and a sign that necessity will always
trump ethics — as the Americans have done to the Mexicans over the
Colorado. Here engineers are trying to solve problems not of their
own causing, with predictably dismal results — as in China, Libya, or
the planet's most expensive welfare system, California's waterworks.
Yet here also, by way of contrast, is the possibility for
international cooperation: water wars are not inevitable. Namibia,
Botswana, and Angola have set up a commission to discuss water
rights, just as the Indians and Bangladeshis have done in their
squabble over the Ganges.
I was in the Kenyan town of Narok the night a group of Maasai morans,
warriors going through their rites of passage to tribal elder,
clashed with the thuggish national police of Daniel Arap Moi. The
cause of the ferocious riot that followed is of no consequence —
warrior exuberance had gotten out of hand, and the police had
overreacted — but, to be safe, I left them to rattle their sticks and
truncheons at one another and took refuge in a nearby village. There
I was invited in by a family of Gabbra, who lived in a tiny four-hut
complex 3 kilometers from the nearest well.
The senior woman of the household, Manya, invited me to stay
and pressed on me unwanted gifts of food she couldn't afford. It was,
I knew, a typical African welcome.
In return, I picked up one of the four yellow plastic drums
piled in front of the hut — it had started its life as a bulk
container for vegetable oil in some far-off industrial city — and
offered to help her fetch water. The family laughed, politely, but it
was obvious what they were really thinking: white people, mzungu, are
so inept. Fetching water was woman's work. So I stayed behind with
the men, who were smoking on a wooden bench outside one of the huts.
Later that evening Manya and her daughters returned, each
with a 15-liter pail balanced on her head. They swayed down the
trail, singing one of their working songs to pass the hours, as they
had done that morning, and as they would do on the days that
followed, and as they expected to do, if they thought about it at
A little later we ate corn mash and fried banana and sucked
on mangoes. I declined the water, partly out of politeness and partly
out of fear. The well was an old one and had originally been used by
fifty families. Now, four times as many drew water from it, and they
had to go down farther every year. A few months earlier, Manya said,
two men had descended into the well and had passed up the muck in
buckets, deepening the well by the height of a man. The water was
muddy and smelled unclean.
All over East Africa — indeed, all over Africa — it is normal
for people to walk a kilometer or two or six for water. In the more
arid areas, people walk even greater distances, and sometimes all
they find at the end is a pond slimy with overuse. More than 90
percent of Africans still dig for their water, and waterborne
diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, bilharzia, and cholera are
common. The bodies of many Africans are a stew of parasites. In some
areas the wells are so far below the earth's surface that chains of
people are required to pass up the water.
In Mali a few months later I stayed in a village in which an
American non-government organization (NGO) had installed a solar-
energy pump and a galvanized storage tank; it was still working
perfectly five years after it was put in place. In Niger, across the
border, a similar pump had broken, and one night a child had opened
the stopcock on the tank and the water had all run out, soaking into
the parched earth. The child was beaten, but it was too late. The
water was gone and the villagers all moved. They never returned.
A year after that I visited a family of walnut growers in
California's Central Valley. They had a drilled well out back, but
had recently had to refurbish it because the water had run dry. They
were down to 230 meters before they struck water again. They didn't
mind. Their trees and gardens were irrigated by water brought in from
the California Aqueduct and supplied to them at 10 cents a cubic
meter, far below the cost of either collecting or transporting it.
They were careful water managers, however, and meticulously metered
the amount of water given to each tree — not like their neighbors,
who let the water flow freely in furrows and frequently forgot to
close the sluices. Yet they were members of the local golf club,
whose fairways and greens were watered and fertilized all summer to
preserve the lushness that golfers demand. They saw nothing
incongruous in their behavior.
The rainfall in that part of the Central Valley was only 15
to 18 centimeters a year, the same as on the Kenyan plains. The water
table was even lower. No one in Kenya could afford to install the
kind of pumps that would deplete a subterranean aquifer, or "draw it
down" at unsustainable rates, faster than it could be naturally
replenished. Same climate, same rainfall, similar families. But when
Bonnie Schuch, the walnut grower, wanted to fill her swimming pool,
she turned the faucet without a second thought. Manya had never seen
a swimming pool. Lazing in the water had never figured in her dreams.
The trouble with water —and there is trouble with water — is that
they're not making any more of it. They're not making any less, mind,
but no more either. There is the same amount of water on the planet
now as there was in prehistoric times. People, however, they're
making more of — many more, far more than is ecologically sensible —
and all those people are utterly dependent on water for their lives
(humans consist mostly of water), for their livelihoods, their food,
and, increasingly, their industry. Humans can live for a month
without food but will die in less than a week without water. Humans
consume water, discard it, poison it, waste it, and restlessly change
the hydrological cycles, indifferent to the consequences: too many
people, too little water, water in the wrong places and in the wrong
amounts. The human population is burgeoning, but water demand is
increasing twice as fast.
The environmental movement, accustomed by now to fits of
gloomy Malthusian soothsaying, has forecast increasingly common
collisions between demand and supply. Even officials of so sober an
institution as the World Bank have joined the chorus. Ismail
Serageldin, the bank's vice president for environmental affairs and
chairman of the World Water Commission, stated bluntly that "the wars
of the twenty-first century will be fought over water." Although he
was roundly criticized for this opinion, he refused to disavow it,
and has frequently asserted that water is the most critical issue
facing human development. Former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros
Ghali said something similar about water wars. So did Jordan's late
king Hussein, who had obvious cause to mean it. Egypt has more than
once threatened to go to war over diversions of the Nile. Water is in
crisis in China, in Southeast Asia, in southwest America, in North
Africa — indeed, in much of Africa except the Congo, Niger, and
Zambezi basins. Even in Europe there are shortages. Drought is no
longer a word alien to England, where water tables began dropping in
the early 1990s. In many parts of Europe, downstream towns and cities
are feeling the consequences of the careless alteration of age-old
hydrological ecosystems, as rivers suddenly rage out of control,
wetlands dry up, and contaminants enter the groundwater. Yes, even in
Europe there is a crisis in water supply and management, as
groundwater tables sink and rivers are reduced to a trickle or
increased to a destructive flood.
Of course, there are skeptics, just as there are those who
don't believe in the widespread notion that one generation is simply
the earth's steward, holding it in trust for generations to come.
These skeptics believe that the problem is overblown, and even if it
isn't, it will surely be solved through human ingenuity and
technological advances in the future.
But these people are a constantly shrinking minority.
Everywhere you look, there are signs that the water supply is in
• The level of the Dead Sea has plummeted more than 10 meters over
the last hundred years. The river Jordan has been reduced to little
more than a drainage ditch. In northern Israel, the Sea of Galilee,
which gives much of the south its water, is shrinking and threatening
to turn saline. In Gaza, overpumping is reducing the hydrological
pressure, which is letting the seawater in, and the wells are
producing water that is less and less potable. Already Jordan,
Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Cyprus, Malta, and the Arabian Peninsula
are at the point where all surface and ground freshwater resources
are fully used. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt will be in the
same position within a decade.
• About 250 million people inhabited the earth 2,000 years ago. By
2020 there will be 400 million along the North African shores and in
the Middle East alone. And the water supply is shrinking as fossil
aquifers are used up.
• The Sahara is expanding. A trivial few thousand years ago, hippos
played where there is now only stone and scrub.
• Lake Chad — once, it was supposed, one of the sources of the Nile —
is shrinking at a rate of nearly 100 meters a year. Already, in dry
years, humans can wade across it safely, if they are wary of
crocodiles and hippos.
• Water supplies in the Nile Valley itself — the cradle of
civilization — are in peril. Egypt is an efficient user of water, but
Egyptians are consuming virtually all the available supply, and the
population is growing at more than 3 percent per year. There are a
million new Egyptians every nine months.
• In millions of hectares of northern China, the water table is
dropping at a rate of 1 meter a year. Irrigation — and its wasteful
runoff — is blamed. Beijing can now supply itself only by diverting
water from farmers, who give up farming and retreat to the cities —
adding to the water demand there. Huge diversion schemes are afoot to
bring in water from the water-rich and flood-prone south, but this
may not be enough, or may not be in time to match need to supply.
• In the Punjab and in Bangladesh, where there is flooding almost
every year, the rate of drop in the water table is even faster than
in China. Too many people, too little retained water.
• The water level in the once pristine Lake Baikal, the deepest
freshwater lake in the world, is sinking steadily. At the same time,
the quality of its water is deteriorating as effluent from
unregulated factories pours into it.
• In Europe, although there are successes, most of the major rivers
carry industrial and human wastes to the sea. Even in remote parts of
continental Europe, the water from streams can be unfit to drink. In
many parts of Slovakia, Poland, and western Russia, the rivers run
yellow with industrial poisons.
• "There is far less good water to drink in England and Wales than
was previously supposed, the Environment Agency claims in a report
issued today." In these words the British media, in March 1998,
reported that a supposed buffer supply of about 1 billion liters of
water did not in fact exist. The study, which looked closely at
rainfall patterns over recent years, found the northwest, Thames
Valley, and west of England and Wales to be the hardest-hit areas,
though there has been an increasing incidence of drought in general,
and certain critical aquifers are shrinking. In the fourth year of
the major drought of the early 1990s, The Economist reported, the
margin between supply and demand in England had shrunk alarmingly to
3 or 4 percent. England — England! — was facing droughts.
• In the southwestern United States, politicians have notched the
rhetoric up and are beginning to view northerners' reluctance to
divert water southward as an act of ecological aggression — not just
from northern California, Oregon, and Washington, but from Alaska and
Canada, too. Some of the grandest rivers of northwestern Canada, in
this view, are being "wasted" — allowed to flow uninterrupted into
the oceans instead of being channeled southward to irrigate parched
farmland. Las Vegas is demanding a greater share of the waters of the
Colorado River. Many places in the High Plains are overdrafting the
aquifers on which the region's farmers depend.
• Entrepreneurs in Colorado and other states have run into furious
and passionate opposition to their plans to "mine" water; the private
control of water resources is more and more an issue. In 1974, Roman
Polanski's movie Chinatown had as its underlying theme the
willingness of politicians and developers to murder for the right to
bring water to the American Southwest — so valuable a resource did it
appear. Since then, there have been several celebrated real-life
civil trials involving the crucial question: Who controls supply?
It's now, of course, just a small curiosity of American
history, but the last time one state took up arms against another was
over water. In 1944 Governor Benjamin Moeur, a politician with a .air
for the dramatic, dispatched the Arizona National Guard to the
Colorado River during the construction of the Parker Dam, his
declared intention being to stop California's "theft" of Arizona's
water. A one hundred–man unit with machine guns mounted on trucks
appeared at the dam site, and construction stopped, as well it might.
The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled in favor of Moeur's claim
that California had been acting illegally in expropriating water
without Arizona's permission. But Congress set the decision aside by
passing a retroactive bill to legalize the theft, and that was the
end of that.
At a 1998 UNESCO conference, "Water: The Looming Crisis," Peter
Gleick, a short, neatly bearded, precise fellow who exudes a
justified air of authority and competence, was up on the platform
arguing passionately for different ways of looking at water. The
crude global or continental measures are all very well, he was
saying, but they tell us nothing about the human costs. Even national
figures can be misleading, as we know. Parts of Bangladesh may be
flooded, others parched. Or a country can be underwater one month and
stricken with water shortages a few months later. Water availability
is one measure, certainly. Actual water use — withdrawals from the
system — is another, and it tells us different things, some of them
difficult to interpret. A further way of looking at water is to see
how we can provide for the basic water needs of all citizens. "The
actual amount you give to each individual — the number of liters — is
not that important," he said, "only that we move from zero to
Gleick paused and leaned forward on the lectern. "You ask me
about costs?" he demanded. "I can tell you the cost of not providing
basic water for drinking and sanitation will far outweigh the cost of
doing so." These costs, he said, were currently running between $100
and $200 billion a year for health care and social welfare
alone. "About half the modern world doesn't have the same basic
amenities the ancient Romans took for granted."
Gleick recommended that UNESCO adopt a "human entitlement" of
50 liters of water per person per day. "Drinking water, 5 liters;
sanitation water, 20 liters; bathing water, 15 liters; food
preparation, 10 liters. Total, 50 liters." These figures, he pointed
out, are far below even the minimal average withdrawals per capita in
the most water poor of countries. "This is not a technological issue.
The technology is easily available. It is a political and
organizational issue. Water is a social good — we all agree on that.
People should pay for its use, to encourage efficiency and as a
recognition of its value. But perhaps a universal 'lifeline rate'
should be established, and anything above that should be priced much
higher. To water a lawn, for example, should be truly expensive."
I was only half listening. I was still puzzling over
something else he had said about the amount of water withdrawals on a
continentwide basis. Most hydrologists accepted Malin Falkenmark's
notion that 1,700 cubic meters per person per year was the cutoff
between a country being water stressed and reasonably comfortable.
Yet when I looked at Gleick's figures for actual water use, as
opposed to available water, no one was really using the full 1,700
cubic meters. Even the Americans and Canadians, the greatest water
hogs, were using only 1,693 cubic meters a year, out of a resource
much greater than that. In descending levels of use, Oceania (the
Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji)
used 907 cubic meters, Europe 726, Asia 526, South America 376, and
Africa a puny 244.
And I had just that morning finished reading a pamphlet put
out by Population Action International which had dealt with revised
UN population estimates for 2050, projections made in 1996 that were
sharply lower than those the United Nations had been gloomily
forecasting only two years earlier. Even with the downward revision
of population forecasts, the "medium projection" numbers showed that
in a world of 9.4 billion people in 2050, a billion people would be
in "water scarcity" and 970 million in "water stress." Another
report, published by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, had found
that "caught between the growing demand for fresh water supplies on
the one hand and limited and increasingly polluted supplies on the
other, many countries are making difficult choices." How to square
When Gleick's lecture was over and he made his way to the
coffee machine in the lobby, trailed by a wake of hydrologists from a
dozen countries, I stopped him and asked about the slipperiness of
the numbers. "Your book is called Water in Crisis," I said. "This
conference is called 'Water: The Looming Crisis.' How do you match
this 1,700 cubic meters a year with actual consumption and come up
with a crisis?"
"First of all," he said, "you have to be careful with these
numbers. To some degree, water statistics are a technocratic
illusion. A thousand cubic meters a year doesn't necessarily mean
water stress. Israel is well below that, at about 300 cubic meters
per person per year, and while they're on the edge, no one at present
suffers from a lack of basic amenities. In Nigeria, which has lots of
water, more than half the population goes without safe drinking
water." If a country draws less than its available resources, he
suggested, it doesn't mean that it is living thriftily. It might
simply mean that the infrastructure is a shambles. He'd just been
approached, he said, by National Geographic magazine, which was
planning a major feature on water and wanted to use some of his
data. "They made the same point to me. 'No one uses 1,700 cubic
meters,' they said. But that's only one way of looking at it. They
were ignoring, for instance, the use of rain-fed agriculture. When
that's added in, many, many places approach 1,700 meters." He
shrugged. "You have to look at total resources, renewable resources,
usable renewable resources, the ability to transfer water from water-
rich to water-poor places, the development level of the economy, the
annual consumption, and the deprivation level, all matched against
population trends and economic resources. When you do that, you'll
see that there are crises in many places.
"And another point. Forecasts should be scrutinized carefully
and used cautiously. In the 1960s, water consumption in America was
forecast to increase by up to 150 percent by the year 2000. This has
not happened for a number of reasons. A fundamental change in
attitude, for one thing. A shift from profligacy to conservation has
stabilized demand, and withdrawals are in fact shrinking slightly."
Just before he turned to walk away, he repeated a point he'd
made on the podium. "It is difficult," he said, "to see the abyss
before you fall into it. Are we really on the edge? Take Mexico City,
for example. They're providing basic water needs for their citizens.
But we already know that unsustainable pumping of the local
groundwater has caused parts of the city to subside by nearly 20
meters. They're now bringing water in from 300 kilometers away,
pumping it uphill a substantial distance. Population is still growing
explosively. How close to the edge are they? How close to
catastrophe? That's why we should be looking at these things. In many
places, unpleasant surprises are inevitable."
The human "need" for water depends on definitions. The crisis, real
though it be, is to some degree a management problem, a matter of
allocation and distribution, and not just a pure problem of supply,
although in some places — North Africa, the Middle East — it is that,
too. Peter Gleick defines water needs as "access to basic drinking
water and water for sanitation needs," which seems straightforward
enough. By this test, and according to the latest data, most of
Africa, most of Asia, and western South America fail. More starkly,
over 1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water, and
more than 2.9 billion have no access to sanitation services. The
reality is that a child dies every eight seconds from drinking
contaminated water, and the sanitation trend is getting sharply
worse, mostly because of the worldwide drift of the rural peasantry
to urban slums. Of course, Gleick's measure is personal and
humanitarian, and doesn't factor in agriculture or industry. Other
water experts define needs differently. Population Action
International, for example, maintains that the number of people
living in "water stress and water scarcity" was 436 million in 1997,
and projects that the percentage of the world's population without
enough water will increase fivefold by 2050. UN figures show it will
be worse than that. Per Pinstrup Anersen, director of the
International Food Policy Research Institute, says that one in every
five countries is likely to experience a severe shortage within
twenty-five years. Malin Falkenmark, whose figure for "water stress"
of 1,700 cubic meters per person per year has been adopted by most
hydrologists, nevertheless suggests that any nation with less than
1,000 cubic meters per person per year is "water scarce"; it takes
1,100 cubic meters to grow the food needed for one person's
nutritious but low-meat diet for a year.
I reviewed my notes.
Europe has, on the whole, plenty of water, about 4,066 cubic
meters per person per year, based on a 1998 population of 498
million. In only isolated instances are Europeans without access to
safe water, and those are generally caused by civil war or by
temporary pollution problems. But of course the average is skewed by
the Scandinavian countries, which have water to spare (90,000-plus
cubic meters per person in Norway, and a whopping 624,000 in
Iceland). In the south, the situation is much more dire. Spain has
only 2,800 cubic meters, much lower in the east and south, where
consumption is passing critical levels. The south of France is not
much better off, and the situation is compounded by the serious
industrial pollution pouring down major rivers into the
Mediterranean. The French, with two of the largest private water
companies in the world, are beginning to charge realistic delivery
costs to the affluent, with their swimming pools and Jacuzzis, in the
hills of Provence.
North and Central America have, at first glance, water to
spare. For a population of 427 million, there is an available and
renewable water supply of 6.945 million cubic kilometers of water, or
16,260 cubic meters per person per year. But, again, the figures are
crude. Canada has more water than the United States, by about half a
million cubic kilometers, with a tenth of the population. Many parts
of the United States have plenty of water — or would have if people
weren't polluting so much of it. But in other parts they are draining
aquifers by recklessly mining them dry, compounded by a snarl of laws
and regulations designed for a simpler era, when natural resources
seemed to be limitless. The United States has a theoretical
availability of over 9,000 cubic meters per person per year, more
than five times the stress level. Yet there are water shortages.
Virtually all the available rivers have been dammed, and already more
water is being shifted from one place to another than in any other
country on earth, and major wetlands have been thoughtlessly drained.
Still, there are positive signs: demand has been dropping — in
certain places, such as Boston, substantially — and more thought is
being given not only to the natural functions rivers perform but also
to the restoration of wetlands, most notably in Florida.
Mexico is relatively parched, with a potential supply of a
little less than 4,000 cubic meters per person. Parts of Mexico were
always desert, but these areas are spreading throughout the northern
part of the country because of misuse. Other human-caused deserts are
extending in many parts of the Americas, including southwestern Utah
and Oklahoma, parts of southern California, the southern half of
Arizona, most of New Mexico, western Texas, and southern Nevada. The
remaining soil in many of the same regions is rapidly becoming
saline, impossible to cultivate even if the water were available.
South America averages a hefty 34,960 cubic meters per person
per year for a population of 296 million, but the figures are
hopelessly skewed by the Amazon Basin, the greatest reservoir and
rain forest on earth and the greatest source of the planet's
biodiversity. Paraguay is the only American country where less than
50 percent of the population has access to safe water. Peru has the
least water in South America, with a mere 1,700 cubic meters per
person of potential availability, and little Suriname the most.
Suriname's admittedly tiny population of 420,000 people is awash in
468,000 cubic meters of water each.
Africa has a disturbingly low water resource potential of
6,460 cubic meters for each of its 650 million people, and even this
paltry amount is inflated by the Congo River and the moist tropics.
Africa also has the greatest desert on earth, the Sahara, which
covers 8.6 million square kilometers.
Africa also has some of the greatest lakes in the world,
among them Victoria, shared by Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, at 69,484
square kilometers; Tanganyika, shared by Burundi, Tanzania, Congo,
and Zambia, at 32,893 square kilometers; and Nyasa, shared by
Mozambique, Malawi, and Tanzania, at 29,600 square kilometers. Lake
Chad, shared by Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, once measured
more than 20,000 square kilometers, but by the early 1980s it had
been reduced to 17,806 square kilometers and is still shrinking
An average for Asia, with a population of around 3 billion
and available water resources of 10,114 cubic kilometers, represents
another crude measure. Some countries, such as Laos, have more than
55,300 cubic meters per person per year. But others, such as heavily
industrialized Japan, are dependent on only 4,400 cubic meters per
person. The critical countries are China, India, and Pakistan, which
together account for more than 2 billion of the total population, and
there the picture is much more dire: China has no more than 2,295
cubic meters per person, and that mostly in the south; India has even
less, at 2,240, and is heavily dependent on the Ganges and the Indus
rivers in the north.
Most hydrologists lump the Middle East (the Levant, the
Arabian Peninsula, Iran and Iraq, and west to Turkey) in with Asia.
But the politics of the region are unique, and so are its water
problems, the most obvious of which are the fractiousness of Israel
and its neighbors over shared water resources, and Turkey's role as
upstream provider to Iraq and Syria. The region holds about 190
million people, 60 million in Turkey alone, and has a shared water
availability of 370,000 cubic kilometers. Bahrain and Kuwait have no
water of their own; at the other end of the scale, Iraq has 5,430
cubic meters per capita per year.
Australia, at 4.7 million square kilometers, is the sixth-
largest country in the world. It is also the driest inhabited land
mass on earth. It has the least river water, the lowest runoff, and
the smallest area of permanent wetlands on the planet. Australia is
not as barren as the Sahara, nor as arid, for even in the heart of
it, in the region around Lake Eyre, there is still an average of 20
centimeters of rainfall a year. New Zealand has 91,800 cubic meters
But these figures don't necessarily tell us much about the world's
flash points. How should they be calculated? There are a number of
criteria: where the water supply is static or falling; where there is
a dependency on water supplies from outside national boundaries;
where rainfall is unsteady or meager; where populations are
increasing; and where there are incompatible demands for water from
competing internal sources (agriculture, basic population needs,
industry). In Africa alone, by these measures, 300 million people,
one-third of the continent's population, already live under
conditions of scarcity, and this number will likely increase to more
than a billion by 2025. Nine of the fourteen nations of the Middle
East already face water-scarce conditions, and populations in six of
them are projected to double in the first twenty-five years of the
twenty-first century. India could join the list of water-scarce
countries by 2025, almost entirely because of population increase.
China, with 22 percent of the world's population and only 6 percent
of its fresh water, is in serious trouble already: one-third of the
wells in the northwest have gone dry, and more than three hundred
towns have suffered water shortages.
In 1992 Sandra Postel calculated that "if 40 percent of the
water required to produce an acceptable diet for the 2.4 billion
people expected to be added to the planet over the next thirty years
has to come from irrigation, agricultural water supplies would have
to expand by more than 1,750 cubic kilometers per year — equivalent
to roughly 20 Nile rivers, or to 97 Colorado rivers. It is not at all
clear where this water is to come from."
Worldwide, more than three hundred river systems cross
national boundaries. Hardly any of the world's major rivers are
contained within the borders of only one state, and even fewer now
that the world's last great empire, the Soviet Union, has broken up.
Watersheds seldom acknowledge humankind's political conceits and pay
little attention to frontiers. Downstream problems are not always
solvable if upstream is in another country. Were Ethiopia to divert
or use substantial portions of the Blue Nile, Egypt, entirely
dependent on the Nile for its moisture, would be starved of water,
and Egyptian politicians have always made it clear that they would
have no option but war were that to happen.
Wars, or threats of wars, have been made in several riparian
systems. The water resources of the Golan Heights and Gaza have
figured largely in the military minds of Israel and its neighbors.
The Jordan, Yarmuk, and Litani rivers have all been subject to
military planners, and Israel has always treated water as a matter of
national security. Water, and the Indus in particular, has poisoned
relations between India and Pakistan. India and Bangladesh squabbled
for decades over the Ganges, and though both these disputes have been
tentatively resolved, there are several unsettling internal water
issues that have frequently threatened to end in violence and have
several times spilled over into riot, murder, and assassination:
militants from Tamil Nadu state have threatened guerrilla warfare on
neighboring Karnataka, and Sikh separatists have manipulated water
issues to their gain. Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have each mobilized
troops in defense of water rights on the Euphrates and Tigris. In
Europe, upstream "grooming" of the Rhine and the draining of its
safety net, the Rhine wetlands, have caused downstream flooding;
industrial pollution is another irritant. The United States has
essentially "stolen" the Colorado from Mexico, using much of it to
irrigate the deserts of Arizona and California, but a good deal of it
to fill swimming pools in Los Angeles and fountains in Palm Springs.
The Paraná, dammed and flooded, has caused friction between Argentina
Only one-third of the water that annually runs to the sea is
accessible to humans. Of this, more than half is already being
appropriated and used. This proportion might not seem so much, but
demand will double in thirty years. And much of what is available is
degraded by eroded silt, sewage, industrial pollution, chemicals,
excess nutrients, and plagues of algae. Per capita availability of
good, potable water is diminishing in all developed and developing
countries. In the gloomy forecast of an eminent food
bureaucrat, "Worldwide use [of water] has become so excessive that
the implications for irrigated food production are considerable." As
Mostafa Tolba, former head of the United Nations Environment Program
(UNEP), put it in 1998, "Just to match demand, major water projects
will have to be started within the next ten years, or global supply
will be overtaken." But most of the "easy" sources of water have
already been exploited, and much of the water is in places where it
isn't needed. Demand, it seems, will inevitably intersect with
supply. And then what?
Will we find the resources through conservation and increases
in efficiency — Sandra Postel's "last oasis"? Will we find it through
heroic engineering (in bigger dams, longer pipelines, and greater
desalination plants), or in the invention of new technologies such as
Namibia and Botswana will probably not go to war over water.
What would be the use? Botswana will concede a little, Namibia reduce
its demands a little, and the crisis will be staved off. Only the
Okavango — an ecosystem in balance since man was a little hominid
scavenging on the savannas of East Africa — will suffer and be
diminished, a jewel that will glimmer less brightly.
Copyright © 2000 by Jacobus Communications Corporation. Reprinted by
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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