Looking at water crisis through lens of history

Updated: 2010-04-23 08:43
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CHICAGO - Access to clean water has always been a defining mark of advanced societies, author Steven Solomon notes in his new history of water.

But it hasn't always been apparent how central water has been to national and regional conflicts. By tracing the story around the world and through the centuries, Solomon reaches some compelling conclusions about what he calls the "age of scarcity" that is fast rising around us.

"Fresh water is overtaking oil as the scarcest critical resource. In the same way oil gave a shape to geopolitics and the environment and our daily lives in the 20th century, water is starting to do so in the 21st century," Solomon told Reuters in an interview.

Former United Nations Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali "long ago predicted that the wars of the 21st century are going to be fought over water," Solomon said.

"That so far has not happened. In fact, people have cooperated more than they have had conflicts over water. However, now we are depleting resources and populations are growing faster and scarcity levels are becoming greater. Ecosystems are beginning to give out."

Solomon's book, "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization," ranges from antiquity to the present day, telling a story of societies from ancient Egypt and Rome to modern America, Europe, India and China.

He illuminates many current hot spots through the lens of water: a world of "haves" and "have nots" getting worse by the day, seeding violence and instability. But he also argues that the crisis presents an opportunity for capitalist democracies like the U.S. to assert new global leadership.

"The truth is that the legions of the world's water disenfranchised are continuing to swell," Solomon writes of the 2.5 billion people who lack basic sanitation and more than one billion who lack safe drinking water every day.

"When all the Nile Basin countries are counted, some half a billion people -- overwhelmingly young, poor, and bred among continuous violence -- will be struggling to live off the waters of the Nile" by 2025, he says of one area facing water famine.

But he also examines, say, Jordan and Israel through the lens of water. It has driven accords, not just wars.

Citing advances Israel has made with desalination, drip irrigation, and other technology, he writes: "It is possible that with rare statesmanship and sufficient desperation, a Middle Eastern water famine might lead inexorably not to devastating warfare but to a cooperative model of water detente that helps forge regional peace."


Solomon says capitalist democracies blessed with mild climates like the U.S. are best placed to help the water "have nots" survive the perils of the next few decades, as aquifers begin to tap out and melting glaciers reduce river flows.

He says seeing and valuing water content in our modern lifestyles, products, services and resources -- grain, for example, as "virtual water" -- is also vital to new thinking.

"We could be a mini-Saudi Arabia of water, producing the food, the industrial goods that are water-intensive, many of the water-intensive energy products that go into making things, for a world that is increasingly thirsty, if we would accelerate the productivity increases that we've already had in our water resources. The way to do that is to let the market forces operate in the water realm," Solomon said.

But he does not support unfettered free-market water pricing. Government leadership to set fair goals and clear rules for all is key, with market pricing geared to encourage efficiency and conservation for all consumers, big and small.

"You can do it in a tiered price system, where the lower volume users have a lower price and the higher volume a higher price. You have to tackle the agriculture issue, which is a very difficult one because food can't compete on a market level with industry for water," he says.

Solomon said investors are ready and willing to respond to the world water crisis but are awaiting political leadership.

"Government has a critical role to play to force stakeholders to come together," he said. "People are ready to invest. I've been out in New York and talked to private equity people. There's a lot of money sitting on the sidelines and wants to invest in water. But they don't know where and how yet. It reminds me almost of the pre-Dot Com boom period, this interest in clean, sustainable technology. So I'm a little bit hopeful. But we have an immense political problem."