Cost of Water Shortage: Civil Unrest, Mass Migration and Economic Collapse
Analysts see widespread conflicts by 2015
but pin hopes on technology and better management
Cholera may return to London, the mass migration of Africans could
cause civil unrest in Europe and China's economy could crash by 2015
as the supply of fresh water becomes critical to the global economy.
That was the bleak assessment yesterday by forecasters from some of
the world's leading corporate users of fresh water, 200 of the largest
food, oil, water and chemical companies.
Analysts working for Shell, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Cargill and
other companies which depend heavily on secure water supplies, yesterday
suggested the next 20 years would be critical as countries became
richer, making heavier demands on scarce water supplies.
In three future scenarios, the businesses foresee growing civil unrest,
boom and bust economic cycles in Asia and mass migrations to Europe.
But they also say scarcity will encourage the development of new water-saving
technologies and better management of water by business. The study
of future water availability, which the corporations have taken three
years to compile, suggests water conflicts are likely to become common
in many countries, according to the World Business Council on Sustainable
Development, which brought the industrial groups together.
Lloyd Timberlake, spokesman for the council, said: "The growing demand
for water in China can potentially lead to over-exploitation and a
decline in availability for domestic, agricultural, industry and energy
production use. This inevitably leads to loss of production, both
industrial and agricultural, and can also affect public health - all
of which in turn will ultimately lead to an economic downturn. The
question is how can business address these challenges and still make
The corporations were yesterday joined by the conservation group WWF
and the International Water Management Institute, the world's leading
body on fresh water management, which said water scarcity was increasing
faster than expected. In China, authorities had begun trucking in
water to millions of people after wells and rivers ran dry in the
east of the country.
"Globally, water usage has increased by six times in the past 100
years and will double again by 2050, driven mainly by irrigation and
demands of agriculture. Some countries have already run out of water
to produce their own food. Without improvements ... the consequences
will be even more widespread water scarcity and rapidly increasing
water prices," said Frank Rijsberman, director of the institute.
The institute, funded by government research organisations, will report
next week that a third of the world's population, more than 2 billion
people, is living in places where water is overused - leading to falling
underground water levels and drying rivers - or cannot be accessed.
Mr Rijsberman said rising living standards in India and China could
lead to increased demand for better food, which would in turn need
more water to produce. He expected the price of water to increase
everywhere to meet an expected 50% increase in the amount of food
the world will need in the next 20 years.
According to the institute's assessment, Egypt imports more than half
of its food because it does not have enough water to grow it domestically
and Australia is faced with water scarcity in the Murray-Darling Basin
as a result of diverting large quantities of water for use in agriculture.
The Aral Sea in central Asia is another example of massive diversion
of water for agriculture in the Soviet era causing widespread water
scarcity, and one of the world's worst environmental disasters.
Researchers say it is possible to reduce water scarcity, feed people
and address poverty, but the key trade-off is with the environment.
"People and their governments will face some tough decisions on how
to allocate and manage water," says the institute's report.
In a further paper, WWF said yesterday that water crises, long seen
as a problem of only the poorest, are affecting the wealthiest nations.
"In Europe, countries along the Atlantic are suffering recurring droughts,
while water-intensive tourism and irrigated agriculture are endangering
water resources in the Mediterranean. In Australia, salinity is a
major threat to a large proportion of its key agricultural areas",
said Jamie Pittock, director of WWF's freshwater programme.
In the United States, Mr Pittock said, large areas are already using
substantially more water than can be naturally replenished. "This
situation will only be exacerbated as climate change is predicted
to bring lower rainfall, increased evaporation and changed patterns
of snow melting."
Three visions of the future
1. Misery and shortages in the megacities and drought in Africa
By 2010, 22 megacities with populations larger than 10 million face
major water and sewerage problems. The situation is gravest in China,
where 550 of the country's 600 largest cities are running short. Growing
demand for water by industry leads to serious over-exploitaion with
less and less water available for consumers and farmers. This leads
to a fall in Chinese food production, which in turn leads to more
imports and impacts on other countries. Friction and unrest grow worldwide
as the middle classes struggle to pay bills. Businesses are exposed
to charges of moral culpability and litigation over water use. Waves
of immigrants flood in to Europe from increasingly drought-torn Africa
2. China leads recycling rush as world moves to a new hydro economy
By 2010, the water shortage in many developing countries is recognised
as one of the most serious political and social issues of the time.
Lack of water is stopping development and in many countries the rural
poor suffer as their water and other needs take second place to those
of swelling cities and industry. Local government worldwide is increasingly
distrusted over water allocation, and historical divides between rich
and poor are exacerbated by water shortages. However, by 2025 a worldwide
hydro economy is developing, led by China. Vast new investments are
made in recycling water and the cost of desalination is greatly reduced.
Innovative small-scale water treatment processes become the norm
3. Water is the means of social control as floods and disease devastate
Water becomes a key symbol of protest around the world and is seen
as the most serious social and political issue of the generation.
By 2015, multinational companies are accused regularly of taking too
much water in developing countries, cholera breaks out in London,
and governments start to use water as a form of social control, subsidising
some sectors and rationing it to others. Great floods follow each
other in quick succession. Deforestation leads to massive mudslides
in Asia and increasing flooding affects Europe, damaging industry.
A second New Orleans flood destroys the city again. Global focus grows
on the "export" of water via crops such as wheat or fruit
FAIR USE NOTICE. This document contains copyrighted material whose use has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. India Resource Center is making this article available in our efforts to advance the understanding of corporate accountability, human rights, labor rights, social and environmental justice issues. We believe that this constitutes a 'fair use' of the copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law. If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use,' you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.