Saturday, 28 April 2007

Water Wars?

John Petersen of the Arlington Institute recently brought to our attention an article on Live Science that forecast a future in which nations across the globe would compete for water as a scarce resource (see article). This would result, the authors claim, in a world in which was "even more prone to wars, terrorism and the need for international intervention". Is this something that should worry us?

It would seem that the forecast relies upon two key assumptions. First, that water will become more scarce in the future, and, second, that conflict will be the appropriate response to water shortages. Each of these assumptions deserves further scrutiny.

Much of the argument that has been applied to Peak Oil is curently being applied to water as a resource. If the current rates of growth in demand and the current rates of growth in supply continue, then water will become a very scarce resource. Of course, in reality, this is unlikley to happen in quite this way. The models that predict this future tend to be linear and static, whereas the future is very often better explained by non-lienar and dynamic models. Our future may involve a scarcity of water, but the forecasts of desertification may prove to be a little too exaggerated.

Even if the linear forecasts are correct, does it necessarily follow that violent conflict will result from competition for water as a scarce resource? One the one hand, we could argue that it will. We could point to events of the summer of 2006, when many commentators felt that the Israeli push towards the Litani River was more to do with securing a watershed than anything else. Indeed, we could argue that the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights is about securing a key water source.

On the other hand, we can see that violent conflict will not necessarily result from competition for water as a scarce resource. For example, if we take a nation in water deficit (e.g. the United States) that has a common border with a nation in water surplus (e.g. Canada), then surely it would be absurd to suggest that the water shortage in the US will result in military intervention in Canada to secure water assets? This might provide an interesting wargame, but any serious proposal along these lines is based in a world of fantasy.

It is easy for those who think in linear terms to arrive at a future that is quite undesirable for us all. However, there are feedback loops in the system, such as market based pricing mechanisms, which ensure that the system behaves in a non-linear way. Those golf courses in Arizona may well stay green through the use of Canadian water, but just how expensive will that water be?

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