Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Water woes

By Salama A Salama

Swept away in a tidal wave of chaos, Egypt is losing sight of what really matters. Engrossed in our daily battles, we are failing to keep track of anything not within our immediate scope of vision. One battle demands our attention then another without relief. Port Said was one, then the writing of the constitution, which went out of control in a matter of days.

No wonder we are unable to keep track of major international research that has a direct bearing on our future. The recent reports released about worldwide water shortages, which gained top billing in the international media, went almost unnoticed here.

Reports released on the occasion of World Water Day paint a grim picture of the future, predicting major shortages that may lead to military conflicts, especially in overcrowded Third World countries.

According to these reports, many of which were compiled by intelligence agencies, the water problem may remain dormant for 10 years or so. But as of 2022, the shortages may result in wars or terrorist acts in areas such as the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

The curious -- and scary -- thing about these reports is that they seem to apply to Egypt in particular. The reports speak of turbulence in areas where poverty is widespread and water is being mismanaged, which is fairly close to our situation. And the water crisis is likely to be worst, according to these reports, in countries where governments are weak, conditions are unstable, and crime is widespread, all of which are qualities we have been acquiring of late.

Countries with shared river basins, US experts say, are particularly vulnerable to rivalries leading to war or acts of terror.

As water shortages escalate, differences that were in the past settled through negotiation would become harder to resolve. And upstream countries would be tempted to decrease the volume of water available to downstream ones. In areas inhabited by rebels, water may be used as a weapon by governments challenged by the rebels, or vice versa.

The reports explain to some extent why Egypt is having so much trouble with some of its neighbours, why negotiations run into dead ends, and why bellicose rhetoric has become so common.

Rogue states, or countries with little regard for international law, may attack the water and power plants of their neighbours, or threaten to do so, to achieve political gains.

As war becomes a possible reality, countries in panic may take extreme or costly measures to protect their water supplies.

The reports published so far do not include all the river basins across the world, but among the rivers often cited in the study are the Nile, the Jordan, the Tigris, and the Euphrates, all of which, along with the Mecong in China, are considered potential flashpoints.

Which countries are more likely to get drawn into water conflicts? The question is not addressed by the authors of the report, but they give ample examples of previous hostilities caused by water shortages. These include India and Pakistan, Syria and Turkey, and Palestine and Israel.

The world population will grow by additional two billion people by 2050, according to UN estimates. At which point, water will be scarcer than oil, and water shortages will be translated into food shortages. Suffice it to know that to produce one kilogramme of wheat you need 1.5 litres of water, and to produce a kilogramme of meat you need 15 litres of water.

The vulnerability of our region to this forthcoming form of crisis is not in doubt, and yet we're not doing anything about it. Indeed, we don't seem to care.

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