It's been called the 'next oil'. In the coming decades, the supply of water has the potential to influence geopolitics, diplomacy and even conflict.
Why ‘hydro-politics’ will shape the 21st Century
Experts agree: if there was no access to water, there would be no world peaceIn many areas of the world, bodies of water run through several countries or brush up against many countries’ borders. That’s where something called "riparian water rights" come into play. In the case of a river, upstream countries – where the river originates – enjoy inherent power and leverage over the downstream countries. These kinds of riparian hotspots abound. And they’re often in places that are already fraught. In the Middle East, the Jordan River basin is the primary water source for many regions, including Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, regions of long-standing political tensions. In Syria, meanwhile, the worst drought in close to a millennium has been partly blamed for the country’s generation-defining civil war and radicalisation that led to the formation of so-called Islamic State. Egypt and Ethiopia have sparred over development of water from the River Nile for centuries: the iconic river originates in Ethiopia but ends in Egypt, which sets up an inherently combative relationship. In 2015, Egypt and Ethiopia put enough differences aside to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the river, which is Africa’s largest dam and is due to open in July. The countries also signed a deal that strives to ensure fair river access. Tata points to many developed or emerging markets that have had similar challenges: “Take the example of Malaysia’s 99-year deal with Singapore, giving them paid access to fresh water from the Johor River,” Tata says. “Singapore is arguably one of the most progressive nations on our planet, but without sufficient fresh water resources within its boundaries, all industry, trade, commerce and culture would all stand still."
The answer might lie in how countries with more food and water export those supplies to other countriesAccording to the Pacific Institute, a California-based water resource information nonprofit, there have been dozens of water-related conflicts worldwide from 2000BC to present day. So how do we make sure everyone gets enough water – and thus keep relative world peace in the 21st Century? The real answer won’t lie in countries controlling others’ water supply in what’s been dubbed so-called "water wars" – rather, the answer might lie in how countries with more food and water export those supplies to other countries.
While water presents obvious potential conflict, it could also accelerate global cooperationSo that’s why at Oregon State University, Wolf helps organise the Program in Water Conflict Management – where they try to identify where hydro-diplomatic tensions are going to rise in the next three to five years. For example, Afghanistan is an upstream country to many nations in the region, and is trying to use that advantage to develop its economy. For a country that’s been subjected to decade upon decade of war and upheaval, the political power of water sources like the Kabul River could be a boon. That’s why there’s growing academic desire for an increased awareness of not just hydro-politics, but hydro-diplomacy – that while water presents obvious potential conflict, it could also accelerate global cooperation. “We’re building the next generation of hydro-diplomats,” says Wolf. A solution? Pay farmers more But amid all these changes in the aqua political landscape, experts urge us to remember that not all water exists in rivers and lakes and even oceans. There’s water in the soil – the soil that farmers use to grow vegetables, crops and feed for livestock. And the water from that soil is transferred into these products – whether it is wheat or beef – before they get shipped from water-surplus nations to deficient ones. This is known as “virtual water”, a phrase coined by John Anthony Allan at King’s College London, whose specialities include water issues, policy and agriculture. "Virtual water" is going to play a huge role in the 21st Century. 40% of this "virtual water" comes from outside the continent. Here’s the problem: farmers are underpaid for the critical role in that transaction. And by the time the food reaches the destination country, its politicians use subsidies to keep food prices low. The reason? Politicians want to maintain peace among their people – they want their citizens to live under the assumption that they’ll be able go to the store and expect food on the shelves.
160 countries depend on imported food – and the water needed to make it“Governments go to great lengths to make sure there is enough affordable food on the market,” Allan says. “There are forces in places that will bring the prices down – there’s pressure to keep food cheap." For water-surplus countries like the United States or Canada, they sell these products to more water-deficient countries at a low price. Over 60% of the around 220 countries in the world are major food importers. In other words, 160 countries depend on imported food – and the water needed to make it. “The world is at peace because we have virtual water trade,” says Allan. “It’s solved silently. Revealing virtual water trade as a solution is something that politicians don’t want to do because they want to appear as they’re managing their country well.” But in reality, the water that goes into the country's food is being brought in from elsewhere. That’s why hydro-diplomacy is one of the great unsung heroes in maintaining global stability that you never hear about. It’s also why water’s next big challenge isn’t just making sure it’s judiciously and peaceably managed between nations to accommodate the world’s ever-burgeoning population. It’s about helping farmers who live in nations that have lots of water do their jobs successfully, and manage that water and how it’s distributed to drier places. Of course countries need low-priced food, especially in places with lower income citizens. But the public needs to know that imports, exports, and hydro-diplomacy are what really keep countries with imbalanced water sources in balance. In our globalised, 21st Century world, it's not just about where countries fall along the flow of a river. It's about working together to share Earth's most vital resource. So while a James Bond-scale water hostage situation isn’t exactly realistic – there’s nothing unrealistic about needing to maintain worldwide access to water. Even as we use it to slake our thirst and grow our crops, the political power of water shouldn’t be forgotten. It's been around for millennia, and it's not going anywhere. -- Bryan Lufkin is the editor of Future Now. Follow him on Twitter @bryan_lufkin. Source :http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170615-why-hydro-politics-will-shape-the-21st-century