Water is life. Water is the new oil. Water is power.
Fresh, life-sustaining water is draining away. It’s becoming an increasingly scarce resource across the globe through overuse and pollution. As these issues become more acute, tensions that have already begun will escalate, and this will affect us all.
Some say water is the new oil. But unlike oil, water is essential for survival.
A deep dive into the planet’s water situation reveals that in the coming decades, every country, including the United States, will have to determine how to treat water as an economic good, a human right, and a depleting resource.
A look at three key areas—United States, the Middle East, and China—shows the range of challenges.
America is simultaneously water-rich and experiencing prolonged drought. Cases of contaminated drinking water are increasing, as are tensions with neighbors over shared water resources.
By 2025, it is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in water-stressed areas, concentrated in the Middle East, North Africa, and western Asia, according to the World Resources Institute. Water scarcity, now recognized as a key contributor to the war in Syria, will almost certainly create more conflict and more water refugees.
China, the world’s most populous nation, is also the world’s worst water polluter. After decades of communist development policies based on the Maoist slogan “make the high mountain bow its head, make the river yield the way,” the giant nation is running out of fresh water and running out of options.
In recognition that fresh water might no longer be considered a renewable resource, the United Nations declared access to clean water and sanitation a human right in 2010. And included in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals—agreed to by all 193 member states last year—is a commitment to achieving universal access to safe water by 2030. The World Bank estimates this will require in excess of $1.7 trillion to achieve.
Trying to paint a picture of water stress across North America is complicated, with pollution, drought, and border disputes all playing a part. Issues range from deteriorating infrastructure in New York City to emptying aquifers in the Midwest.
The United States is a “high stress” region according to the World Resources Institute, while Canada is a “low stress” region.
In Canada, which has 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, it’s taboo for politicians to even hint at supporting bulk water exports.
However, the lax restrictions on Canada’s domestic water trade may open it up to accusations of violating rules of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which prevents countries from treating domestic companies more favorably than foreign companies. Canada may thus be forced into bulk export as the global, and particularly the American, water situation becomes more desperate.
Gary Doer, former Canadian ambassador to the United States, predicted in 2014 that in the next couple of years, U.S.–Canada disputes over water will become so intense it will make the Keystone XL pipeline clashes “look silly.”
Two major water resources—the Colorado River and the Rio Grande—are shared by the United States and Mexico. Treaties define how much water is allotted to each country from these sources. But shortages in deliveries from Mexico in recent years have angered some American stakeholders, who say Mexico prioritizes its own water use while the United States prioritizes the agreed-upon deliveries to Mexico.
On the other hand, Mexican stakeholders have been angered in the past by low-quality water deliveries from the United States that have been inadequate for drinking or agricultural use. The water is “delivered” by releasing it into reservoirs and by limiting how much is diverted for use in either country.
Community Versus Corporation
Bottling facility proposals have faced community resistance across North America. McCloud, California, is one example of a small town with a pristine water source coveted by Nestlé, one of the biggest bottling companies, which owns 56 brands.
Nestlé’s initial proposal in 2003 was to build the largest bottling plant in the country (1 million square feet), which would extract profuse amounts of water from McCloud’s watershed for 50 years. It would have also brought hundreds of trucks through the town daily, carting away the water while creating air and noise pollution. The company scaled back its plan and finally dropped it in 2009, after six years of local resistance.
Nestlé spokesperson Christopher Rieck made the point via email that bottled water is a reliable source of safe drinking water in the event of an emergency. Moreover, he said that water use for bottling is no different from “others in industry [that] use water to make foods, drinks, and manufactured products.”
The Bottled Water Association notes that bottled water accounts for only a tiny portion of America’s water use, accounting for only 0.02 percent of the all the water used in California every year.
Water pollution is not confined to taps in Flint, Michigan—it is a nationwide problem. While lead-laden tap water has dominated headlines, a study by the Environmental Working Group of water samples collected over five years found over 300 pollutants—two-thirds of which are “unregulated chemicals”—in the nation’s tap water. Waterways are subjected to chemicals from agricultural runoff and leaks from failing septic systems, such that 40 percent of rivers and 46 percent of lakes in America are too polluted for fishing, swimming, or aquatic life.
Agriculture drinks up about 80 percent of water consumed in America and over 90 percent in Western states.
Irrigation provided by the Ogallala Aquifer, which sprawls below parts of eight states from South Dakota to Texas, nourishes more than a quarter of all irrigated land in the United States used for cattle, corn, cotton, and wheat. It is what has made the Midwest the so-called breadbasket of America.
But the Ogallala is a prime example of a source of water once thought to be endless that now shows signs of major strain due to unsustainable drainage. In 1960, it was depleted by 3 percent; by 2010, it was down by 30 percent. In another 50 years, 69 percent will be gone, if current trends continue, say researchers at Kansas State University.
Conservation efforts are starting, but it’s not a quick fix. “Once depleted, the aquifer would take an average of 500 to 1300 years to refill,” found KSU modeling, as stated in their report.
Deteriorating waterline infrastructure is a problem throughout the country. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 240,000 water main breaks occur every year nationwide. There are roughly 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows discharging billions of gallons of untreated wastewater, thereby contaminating recreational waters and causing roughly 5,500 cases of illness. Drinking water infrastructure will require more than $384 billion over 20 years to continue providing safe water to the public.
California is in its sixth year of severe drought. Alongside other conservation policies, in April 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state’s first ever mandatory restrictions on drinking water, looking for a reduction of 25 percent.
Drought is also affecting the Southeast and Northeast regions, to the extent that nearly 47 percent of the nation is now affected—and another dry winter is expected.
Efficiency and Conservation
California is one of the most drought-stricken states, but Los Angeles was named the second-most water-efficient city in the world (after Copenhagen), according to the 2016 Sustainable Cities Water Index by consultancy Arcadis. San Francisco also ranks highly. Both cities boast high levels of reuse.
Conservation is also an important solution. California’s metering regulations and tools to pinpoint water loss have had a big impact on this.
Recycling wastewater is often the most cost-effective solution to water stress.
Cynthia Lane, American Water Works Association’s director of engineering and technical services, is a big proponent of recycling wastewater for drinking water, though she noted “the general public is not exactly enamored with treated wastewater.”
Desalination faces more complications with permits, Lane said, because it takes place on the coast. The cost of disposing of the leftover brine can also be high, Schneider explained. Bulk imports are another solution, and each region has to determine for itself which is more beneficial in terms of economic, social, and environmental costs, Lane said.
For outsiders, Middle East issues seem to swirl around war, oil, and human rights. Inside the region, it’s known that water is just as key to stability and prosperity. Eight out of the 10 most “water-stressed” countries in the world are in the Middle East. They are subject to desertification, falling water tables, yearslong droughts, cross-national disputes over water rights, and poor water management practices—all of which are adding volatility to an already tense region.
Water Is Politics
In the Middle East, politics and water are closely wed. Typical trans-boundary agreements treat water as a divisible resource. But according to natural resource economist David B. Brooks, while agreements can help prevent conflict in the short term, they don’t guarantee sustainable and equitable water management in the long term.
Case in point is the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. During the hot summer of 2016, the West Bank’s nearly 2.8 million Arab residents and local leaders repeatedly complained of being denied access to freshwater. Israel blames the Palestinians for not sitting down to negotiate how to upgrade outdated infrastructure. According to the Oslo accords, Israel controls the water resources. A joint Israeli–Palestinian committee meant to work on these issues hasn’t convened in over five years.
Such a complex overlap of politics and basic human needs is par for the course in much of the Middle East.
Jordan River Basin
The Jordan River system—which flows through Lebanon, Syria, Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan—is the focus of one of several persistent interstate conflicts over water. It has been a source of tension between Israel and the Arab states for over 60 years.
In 1953, Israel initiated the National Water Carrier project, an 81-mile pipeline to carry water from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Negev Desert in the south. A decade later, when the mega project was complete, Syria attempted to block Israel’s access to large amounts of that water through the Headwater Diversion Plan. Israel attacked those diversion efforts, which proved to be a key factor leading to the Six-Day War in 1967.
The ability of those in charge to meet basic water needs can be thwarted by conflict, which adds pressure to already strained situations.
The World Health Organization puts the baseline minimum for daily water per person at about two gallons a day. Many describe falling below that as “water poverty.”
The amount of water needed doubles in an emergency, such as war. To maintain personal hygiene and properly handle food, even more is needed: about 5.3 gallons a day. The number goes up for washing clothes and bathing.
Yemen Running Out
Although Yemen is not technically as water-stressed as many of its neighbors, it has a special problem: Its capital, Sanaa, and other cities are in imminent danger of running out of water. Estimates range between one year and one decade, if nothing is done.
Most water in Yemen comes from underground aquifers. Traditional irrigation methods drew on that water at a sustainable rate, but a growing urban population and a preference for growing more water-intensive cash crops (particularly qat, a mild narcotic) are causing the nation’s water table to fall by roughly 6.6 feet per year.
The country’s water woes have been exacerbated by the ongoing civil war and humanitarian disaster. Three-quarters of the population—roughly 20 million people—lack access to clean drinking water and/or proper sanitation.
The term “water refugees” has been used to describe what could happen to the capital city’s 2.9 million residents if the current situation continues.
Syrian Drought and Civil War
The Middle East has yet to see a war fought explicitly over water, but water scarcity has aggravated other factors leading to conflict.
While the devastating war in Syria is now a global problem, the connection between conflict and drought has only recently entered mainstream consciousness.
From 2006 to 2010, Syria was struck by an epic drought—the worst in 900 years. It devastated livestock, drove up food prices, and pushed some 1.5 million farmers from their parched lands into the cities. The influx of water refugees, as well as high unemployment and other tensions, fueled the civil unrest that eventually led to civil war, according to recent scholarship.
The crisis was in part created by an ill-conceived policy 30 years earlier. In the 1970s, President Hafez al-Assad (father of current President Bashar al-Assad) decreed that Syria should be agriculturally self-sufficient. Farmers dug deeper and deeper wells to tap from the country’s water tables, until eventually the wells ran dry.
Poor water management practices have created at least some of the region’s water woes, but many experts agree that smarter approaches could help reverse some of those effects. For example, studies are needed to determine the number of livestock the land can support. Conservation could be encouraged through the use of water pricing. In Syria, one experimental drip irrigation project quickly caught on after farmers saw they could use 30 percent less water to produce 60 percent more output.
Desalination has been part of the solution for over 50 years in the Middle East. Given that 97 percent of the planet’s water is salt water, it’s an attractive option, but it comes with drawbacks. For one, it’s highly energy-intensive, thus most plants were built in oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain. For another, the salt it leaves behind often gets dumped back into the ocean, harming marine life.
Israeli researchers recently developed a much more efficient system called reverse-osmosis desalination, which uses membranes with microscopic pores that allow water to pass through, but not larger salt molecules. The system has been revolutionary in Israel, now providing 55 percent of the nation’s water.
According to Buddhism, the four elements of water, fire, wind, and earth compose everything in the cosmos. Yet one of the four elements has been so badly abused in China that a quarter of the Middle Kingdom’s population has no access to clean water.
Official reports in China generally try to avoid making the state look bad. But when it comes to the dire state of China’s water resources, little can be said that’s positive.
Authorities estimate that about 80 percent of China’s surface groundwater is not fit for drinking, and 90 percent of the groundwater in urban areas is contaminated. They rate nearly two-fifths of China’s rivers as being unsuitable for agricultural or industrial use.
More than 360 million people, or about a quarter of the country’s population, do not have access to clean water.
Since 1997, water disputes have resulted in tens of thousands of protests each year.
The main sources of water pollution in China come from manufacturing—chemical, fertilizer, paper, and clothing.
According to an official report, 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are so polluted that they cannot sustain marine life. Pollution in the Yangtze, China’s longest river, has caused the extinction of the baiji dolphin, a mammal native only to the Yangtze.
The second biggest river, the Yellow River, is known as the cradle of Chinese civilization. It is also called the River of Sorrows because of its history of devastating floods. Today, this refers to sorrow of a different kind. The 4,000 petrochemical plants on its banks have polluted its waters beyond recovery.
China is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. China has a fifth of the world’s population, but less than 7 percent of its fresh water.
Most of that water, some 80 percent, is found in the south. And yet Northern China has most of country’s agriculture and manufacturing, plus large population centers like Beijing.
While a map may show hundreds of rivers and streams flowing into Beijing, on the ground virtually all have dried up. As recently as the 1980s, Beijing’s groundwater was considered inexhaustible, but that too is being pumped faster than it can be replenished, having dropped by nearly 1,000 feet in the last 40 years.
In 2005, Wang Shucheng, a former minister of water resources, predicted Beijing would run out of water in 15 years.
South–North Water Transfer Project
The regime’s attempt to fix the north’s water scarcity is the South–North Water Transfer Project—a canal system covering about 2,700 miles, or the equivalent of transporting water from New York City to Los Angeles.
The project—considered a prestigious engineering feat by the regime—has been widely criticized for its high cost ($81 billion so far) and for the forced relocation of hundreds of thousands of locals living in the way of construction.
In 2010, thousands protested in Hubei Province when officials forcibly removed them from their homes with virtually no notice. Those who resisted were arrested.
Environmentalists say that transporting polluted water in the south won’t solve the north’s issues anyway. One Chinese official even noted that the project will create new environmental problems and is “not sustainable at all.”
Origins of Water Woes
Most of China’s water problems are seen as the legacy of Communist Party policies.
Make mountains bow and the rivers yield, rang a popular propaganda slogan during the reign of Mao Zedong (1949–1976). To this end, dikes were built on the Yellow River to improve shipping, and water diversion reservoirs were constructed upstream. The number of dams rose in China from 22 in 1949 to over 87,000 today.
The Maoist state sought to “wring every last drop of water from the North China Plain,” wrote David Pietz, professor of Chinese History and the UNESCO Chair of Environmental History at the University of Arizona.
China’s nascent attempts at mass industrialization during Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1957–1962) produced huge amounts of sewage and waste, and these pollutants were discharged untreated into rivers.
For example, into the Hai River, which connects Tianjin Province to Beijing, 674 sewers discharged 1,162 gallons of polluted water per second, causing the Hai to turn turbid, salty, black, and smelly.
Post-Mao Economic Drive
Attempts to reform the economy and agricultural sector in the post-Mao era worsened China’s water problems.
As industry sprouted up across the country, more and more water was consumed. Owing to a lack of environmental regulation, industrial waste was commonly dumped untreated into rivers and other water bodies.
China’s increasing population and rising standards of living also put pressure on Chinese farmers to grow more food. Villagers squabble over access to irrigation canals, and tensions have given rise to acts of sabotage.
In 1997, the Yellow River finally surrendered—the river ran dry from the mouth of the river at the Bohai Sea to about 400 miles inland.
A 2008 report by Sun Yat-sen University notes that 13,000 out of 21,000 petrochemical plants on the Yangtze and Yellow rivers discharge billions of tons of wastewater per year.
Rise of Cancer Villages
The amount of chemical fertilizers, untreated sewage, heavy metals, and other carcinogens discharged into China’s water bodies have given rise to the phenomenon of “cancer villages,” or communities with above average rates of cancer. A 2005 investigative report found that the incidence of cancer in some cancer villages is 19 to 30 times higher than the national average.
Although news of cancer villages first emerged in the 1990s, the Chinese regime only acknowledged their existence in 2013. Xinhua, the state mouthpiece media, reported there could be over 400 cancer villages.
One example is Yantou village in Zhejiang Province, where cancer mortality rates have increased at an alarming rate: from 20 percent from 1991 to 1995; to 34 percent from 1996 to 2000; to 55.6 percent from 2001 to 2002. The timing of the rise in cancer coincided with the establishment of a pharmaceutical factory near the village.
Trouble on the Mekong
The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Southeast Asia, flowing from the Tibetan plateau, down through Cambodia, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Through expansive damming projects, particularly those built on the upper Mekong River, China has a chokehold on the region’s water and is being blamed for aggravating the effects of droughts.
Tensions around water remain high in the region with a variety of factors contributing: an overall lack of transparency (China is not the only nation building dams), a first-come-first-serve approach to water management, and the lack of an effective coordinating mechanism.
Talk of solutions for China is an endless exercise, given the scope of the problems and the fact that political will is the starting point for any meaningful action.
However, a recent study by The Nature Conservancy sees an opportunity in the fact that less than 6 percent of China’s land mass provides 69 percent of the country’s water. It therefore suggests focusing efforts on the smaller catchments that supply urban areas. Solutions for improving water quality for these catchments include forest restoration, more efficient agricultural practices, and other conservation best practices.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article incorrectly identified the name of the cancer village in China. Epoch Times regrets the error.