During the last week, the AlertNet news service of the Thompson-Reuters Foundation provided special coverage of global water issues under the "Battle for Water" banner. While conflict and "battles" may sell stories to those who don't pay frequent attention to water issues, some of us perceive that the battle often lies in the sheer scope of the problem and getting the evidence of these issues into the public attention. With such an approach, it was the detail and diversity in AlertNet coverage that held my interest. The special coverage provided a snapshot view on the state of water cooperation and emerging regional and transboundary issues today. For many who insist that water has never sparked international conflict, and thus never will, the collected issue coverage could be a sobering primer that hints at future possibilities if nothing is done to alleviate tensions. However, readers would be mistaken to conclude from any such coverage that these tensions remain solely in the political and international arena.
Nevertheless, AlertNet's four days of special coverage began with an overview of several points of conflict and sarcity around the globe. Most of the usual regional conflicts were described: the Nile River basin, the Jordan River, the Tigris and Euphrates River basins, the Mekong River, and the Brahmaputra and Indus River basins (including the bellwether conflict in Kashmir). Some areas of historical and growing stress and scarcity were covered as well: the Middle East and East Africa, South Asia, and parts of China. It was interesting to see some attention given to the often-neglected legacy of resource abuse in the Amu Darya and Syr Darya basins in Central Asia. There remain, of course, hundreds more transboundary river systems that were not singled out for coverage, either because of largely cooperative neighbors in those basins or because the population, supplies and usage are not trending toward levels of crisis. There remain numerous additional river basins and groundwater resource areas around the world where boundaries do not raise issues of politics, but where the paths of development and resource use are causing plenty of problems. As AlertNet's coverage indicated, many of these issues have arisen because of, and are exacerbated by, numerous factors: burgeoning populations and the inadequacy of existing political institutions, allocations of land use leading to food insecurity and environmental degradation, infrastructure problems arising from dam building and deficient resource access (especially in poor and rural areas), and the problems brought about by global and regional climate change. As a consequence of the quest for continued economic development, water security is coming to the forefront of attention as water itself becomes a "strategic resource" to which even national intelligence communities, especially in the US, are giving increasing attention. Even the "water rich" can accrue risk for acute water stress and scarcity in regions of resource pressure.
The privatization of water management, and the commodification and commercialization of water supply, is a growing issue in many nations. This "liquid gold" is increasingly a target of profit-generating ventures not just for industrial and commercial growth, but also in the process of resource supply and quality management. While political support for the public-private partnership model is growing in some areas, increasing disparities in the level of water availability with close correlation to personal wealth and political influence have arisen in numerous developing nations. The appropriation of water for hydropower generation, still a growing use in Africa and parts of Asia, is yet another way in which river resources have been diverted for "development" to the detriment of those for whom the land and water resources formerly provided sustenance and livelihood. Proposals aimed at reform in water allocation and regulation of water demand are abundant, but such responsibility falls too often on the shoulders of incapable political actors with other, seemingly greater priorities. Conflict between citizens and their "representatives" over the the greater good is leading to a growing dissatisfaction in political leadership over environmental issues, particularly short-sighted political decisions that have long-term impacts on the quality of life at the scales of the family and the village or neighborhood community.
Water is not merely a sufficient condition for life and a fundamental need for society. Water is a foundational requirement and necessary condition for the existence of humans and their social systems. Despite this, we humans do so many things to defeat our own existential support: chemical and biophysical and thermal pollution, commercial misallocation, supply overallocation, legal support for non-beneficial uses, and other activities. Water scarcity can arise not just because of climatological conditions and regional drought, but also because an otherwise adequate resource is rendered unavailable through contamination and less-beneficial consumptive uses. Too often we look to solve our problems with increased acquisition of new resources, instead of correcting our use of existing resources at home. The tensions are not just political, across international boundaries, but also societal, inside individual nations with their own (and sometimes regional) business practices and regulatory systems.
I have mixed feelings about the "human right to water," not as a concept, but as the idea is currently presented and debated at international levels. That is a large-scale political effort at something far more fundamental to the subsistence and sustainability of people at a more local level, and the effort remains endlessly complicated by commercial interests that seemingly transcend those scales. Fixing the problem means getting a handle on all of the problems and actors and interests at all scales of concern, an effort at which our existing political and diplomatic institutions have demonstrated incapability. My deep-seated fear is that this situation is just a hint at the real truth, that such capability in fact does exist, but that the political will is absent, and that the actual root of the problem is disinterest.
The special coverage included brief mentions of cooperative political efforts and greater emphasis on technological progress in rural regions and for agricultural communities, the growing need for coordination in urban areas, and increased awareness of the issues among people, politicians and organizations. Cooperation at local levels in the Jordan River basin is a great example of the ways that progress is being taken from the still hands of national politics. AlertNet should justifiably be commended for this aspect of their coverage, which so many authors and news organizations ignore in favor of a salacious and visceral focus on the conflict to be witnessed. To be certain, some attention to the conflict is essential for progress: it is one of the ways that people will become aware of the problems, to a point that forces change in the system. At a still-to-be-identified "tipping point" in local/regional/global efforts at water sustainability, political leaders will again derive their mandate from the people that they represent, and will bring regulatory and budgetary decisions into alignment with the needs of their constituents. Overcoming that absence of will to action, with proper information and foresight and an honest evaluation of opportunity cost, is the principal battle to be fought over water.