Our Life’s Blood: The War for Water

“Water is the driving force in nature.” –Leonardo da Vinci

“People today have forgotten they’re really just a part of nature. Yet, they destroy the nature on which our lives depend. They always think they can make something better. Especially scientists. They may be smart, but most don’t understand the heart of nature. They only invent things that, in the end, make people unhappy. Yet they’re so proud of their inventions. What’s worse, most people are, too. They view them as if they were miracles. They worship them. They don’t know it, but they’re losing nature. They don’t see that they’re going to perish. The most important things for human beings are clean air and clean water.” –Akira Kurosawa, Yume

“In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.” –Rachel Carson

“Acknowledging the physical realities of our planet does not mean a dismal future of endless sacrifice. In fact, acknowledging these realities is the first step in dealing with them. We can meet the resource problems of the world — water, food, minerals, farmlands, forests, overpopulation, pollution — if we tackle them with courage and foresight.” –Jimmy Carter

“Globalization was supposed to break down barriers between continents and bring all peoples together. But what kind of globalization do we have with over one billion people on the planet not having safe water to drink?” –Mikhail Gorbachev

“By 2015, according to estimates from the United Nations and the United States government, at least 40 percent of the world’s population, or about three billion people, will live in countries where it is difficult or impossible to get enough water to satisfy basic needs. “The signs of unsustainability are widespread and spreading,” said Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass. “If we’re to have any hope of satisfying the food and water needs of the world’s people in the years ahead, we will need a fundamental shift in how we use and manage water.” –Douglas Jehl

“A nation that fails to plan intelligently for the development and protection of its precious waters will be condemned to wither because of its shortsightedness. The hard lessons of history are clear, written on the deserted sands and ruins of once proud civilizations.” –Lyndon B. Johnson

“Multinational companies now run water systems for 7 per cent of the world’s population, and analysts say that figure could grow to 17 per cent by 2015. Private water management is estimated to be a $200 billion business, and the World Bank, which has encouraged governments to sell off their utilities to reduce public debt, projects it could be worth $1 trillion by 2021. The potential for profits is staggering: in May 2000 Fortune magazine predicted that water is about to become ‘one of the world’s great business opportunities’, and that ‘it promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th’.” –John Louma

“The wars of the twenty-first century will be fought over water.” –Ismail Serageldin, World Bank Vice President for Environmental Affairs

“Over 1 billion people have no access to clean drinking water, and more than 2.9 billion have no access to sanitation services. The reality is that a child dies every eight seconds from drinking contaminated water, and the sanitation trend is getting sharply worse, mostly because of the worldwide drift of the rural peasantry to urban slums.” –Marq de Villiers

“I believe water will be the defining crisis of our century, the main vehicle through which climate change will be felt—from droughts, storms, and floods to degrading water quality. We’ll see major conflicts over water; water refugees. We inhabit a water planet, and unless we protect, manage, and restore that resource, the future will be a very different place from the one we imagine today.” – Alexandra Cousteau


When most people think of water they don’t see it as it truly is which is finite and depleting even though many professionals across many disciplines have warned that the number one threat to human life and the future of the human race has and may always be water. This substance in its many forms is essential for life and provides several functions for organic life. It’s distribution through fresh and salt water covers roughly 71% of the Earth lending to its other name “blue planet” with only 1% directly usable by humans in the form of fresh water. While water is the basis of organic life on Earth, the focus for purposes of this article is humans which according to Hill and Kolb are made up of 66% water by weight making it the universal solvent for life or poignantly named “the matrix of life” by Nobel Laureate A. Szent-Gyorgy. The water provides a solvent for sodium chloride or salt and other substances making humans “a walking bag of sea water” as Hill and Kolb explains. In addition, water serves as a suspension liquid for red blood cells that carry much needed oxygen to the cells, a solvent for electrolytes and nutrients needed for cells to work properly and a solvent for waste material to be carried away from the cells. Beyond the human body, water provides a finite resource for the ecosystem humans and other organic life forms live in together. Even though we live in a rather large enclose ecosystem we call Earth, the actions of each inhabitant impacts the system itself. As humans continue to live with a false sense of security, the water we drink continues to move through a polluted environment leaving humans only to speculate where the water has come from or gone through to reach us without thinking about the pollutants we cannot see.

As Sylvia Herbach article explains, Water: It is Our Life’s Blood, the continued stress on the finite water resource has led to an overburdened system with water performing its main function quite beautifully. Water aids greatly in the contamination process as a natural solvent adept at attracting foreign particles making it a great cleaner of sorts. Unfortunately, over the years with an increase in population, the water supply has struggled to contend with greater human activity as people are producing more industrial, agricultural, chemical, organic and pharmaceutical waste which eventually makes its way into the water systems. With only 1% of the 71% of water usable for humans, it has led to competition between agricultural, domestic, commercial, industrial and environmental needs as across the globe consumption has tripled in the last 50 years. The global community must learn to manage the supply and availability of water as it has become one of the most critical natural resource issues. Homes use more than half the publicly supplied water in the U.S. accounting for more than either business or industry use e,g, a family of four uses 400 gallons of water every day depending on location as some areas use more than others. In the last five years, nearly every region of the country has experienced a water shortage with 36 states anticipating local, regional or statewide water shortages by 2013 even under non drought conditions according to Herbach.

According to the United Nations Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs, water scarcity already affects every continent with 1.2 billion people living in areas of physical scarcity, 500 million people approaching this situation and 1.6 billion people facing economic water shortage defined by a lack of the necessary infrastructure to take water from rivers and aquifers. The water scarcity problem has become the main problem faced by many societies and the world in the 21st century. As water use grows at double the speed of population growth in the last century, many regions are experiencing chronic water shortages as part of a natural and human made phenomenon. In reality, the freshwater on the planet initially was enough for six billion people however due to the uneven distribution and too much waste, pollution and poor management, the water left is no longer enough. Hydrologists evaluate water scarcity conditions using the population water equation. An area experiencing water stress sees the annual water supply drop below 1,700 m3 per person, while water scarcity is defined as annual water supplies that drop below 1,000 m3 per person and absolute scarcity occurs below 500 cubic meters. Water scarcity may be a social construct e.g. product of affluence, expectation and customary behavior or a consequence of altered supply patterns due to climate change for example. Some facts to keep in mind:

  • Around 700 million people in 43 countries suffer today from water scarcity.
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity, and two-thirds of the world’s population could be living under water stressed conditions.
  • With the existing climate change scenario, almost half the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030, including between 75 million and 250 million people in Africa. In addition, water scarcity in some arid and semi-arid places will displace between 24 million and 700 million people.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number of water-stressed countries of any region.

Water scarcity involves water stress, water deficits, water shortage and water crisis with water stress pertaining to the difficulty of obtaining sources of freshwater for use because of a depleting resource, while water crisis is  a situation where available potable, unpolluted water within the region is less than the demand. Economic scarcity will briefly be mentioned as it also pertains to water scarcity due to a lack of investment in water or insufficient human capacity to satisfy the demand for water. Symptoms of this form of water scarcity involve inadequate infrastructure leading to people fetching their own water from rivers for domestic and agricultural uses e.g. large parts of Africa . The take home lesson to realize is that these critical conditions commonly manifest in poor and politically weak communities living in dry environments. Fifty years ago, when there were half as many people on the planet as today, people were not as wealthy, ate less and consumed fewer calories therefore less water was needed to produce food using only one third the volume of water presently taken from rivers. The competition for water today has changed as seven billion people now inhabit the planet along with their big appetites, water thirsty meat, and vegetables which is all competing for water from industry, urbanization and biofuel crops. The freshwater supply also has mother nature to contend with as climate change has led to receding glaciers, reduced stream and river flow and shrinking lakes. In addition, many aquifers have been over-pumped making it harder to recharged these sources. The crisis for fresh water has become increasing troublesome as much of the remaining fresh water supply has become polluted, salted, unsuitable or unavailable for drinking, industry and agriculture. This has forced many global communities as well as industry to find effective ways to use water and farmers to strive for increase productivity to meet the food demand using less water more effectively. When not enough potable water is available to meet the demand, a water crisis is realized as in the case of the United Nations and other world organizations who consider water a global concern after many regions of the world have been classified as areas experiencing a water crises. According to the Wikipedia article, water scarcity, there are several principal manifestations of the water crisis:

  • Inadequate access to safe drinking water for about 884 million people.
  • Inadequate access to water for sanitation and waste disposal for 2.5 billion people.
  • Groundwater overdrafting (excessive use) leading to diminished agricultural yields.
  • Overuse and pollution of water resources harming biodiversity.
  • Regional conflicts over scarce water resources sometimes resulting in warfare.

Waterborne diseases and lack of sanitary domestic water are one of the leading causes of deaths worldwide with waterborne diseases for children under five being the leading cause of death for that age group. In addition, according to the World Bank, 88 percent of all waterborne diseases are caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene with half the world’s hospital beds at any one time being occupied by patients with a waterborne disease. A 2006 United Nations report on the current water crisis points to governance as the main issue stating “There is enough water for everyone” and “Water insufficiency is often due to mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of investment in both human capacity and physical infrastructure”. In addition, official data also shows a clear correlation between access to safe water and GDP per capita. Economists have claimed that current water situation has occurred because of a lack of property rights, government regulations and subsidies in the water sector making prices low and consumption high.

Due to the global consumption of water, it has become apparent in the vegetation and wildlife that the freshwater supply is rapidly depleting causing wetlands to disappear and ecosystems to vanish. In the case of wetlands, considerable areas have been leveled to house the increasing human population and productivity has diminished due to a decrease in freshwater inflow as upstream sources are diverted for human use. In seven states of the U.S. over 80 percent of all historic wetlands were filled by the 1980s, when Congress enacted a “no net loss” of wetlands. In addition, Europe has also suffered extensive loss of wetlands resulting in a loss of biodiversity e.g. many of Scotland’s bogs have been developed or diminished due to human populations as is the case in Portlethen Moss in Aberdeenshire. In Madagascar’s highland plateau, during 1970 to 2000, the slash and burn agriculture eliminated about ten percent of the total country’s native biomass turning a heavily forested area to a barren wasteland. The chain reaction led to erosion that produced heavily silted rivers that run red decades after leading to large amounts of unusable freshwater leading to the destruction of river ecosystems of several large west flowing rivers resulting in the extinction of several fish species.

Over the past 25 years, politicians, academics and journalists foresee that water will be at the center of future wars, while others believe water provides a way to collaborate across borders. According to Wikipedia, commonly cited quotes include: “that of former Egyptian Foreign Minister and former Secretary-General of the United Nations Boutrous Ghali, who forecast, ‘The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics’; his successor at the UN, Kofi Annan, who in 2001 said, ‘Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,’ and the former Vice President of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, who said the wars of the next century will be over water unless significant changes in governance occurred.” The water wars theory originated with research on a small number of transboundary rivers such as the Indus, Jordan and Nile where they have experienced water related disputes e.g. Israel’s bombing of Syria’s attempts to divert the Jordan’s headwaters and military threats by Egypt against any country building dams in the upstream waters of the Nile. However, while some links made between conflict and water were valid, they did not necessarily represent the norm. Water stress has led to conflicts at the local and regional level specifically in the downstream areas of distressed river basins e.g. lower regions of China‘s Yellow River or the Chao Phraya River in Thailand. Gradual reduction over time in quality and quantity of fresh water add to the instability of a region by depleting the health of the population, obstructing economic development and exacerbating larger conflicts. However, according to the International Water Management Institute and Aaron Wolf at Oregon Sate University, a majority of the world’s shared basins approximately 300 has been largely positive with hundreds of treaties in place guiding the use of waters between nations sharing water resources. While some have found a peaceful way to ensure that their people are free from conflicts, the fact still remains of every 10 people in 2002:

  • roughly 5 have a connection to a piped water supply at home (in their dwelling, plot or yard);
  • 3 make use of some other sort of improved water supply, such as a protected well or public standpipe;
  • 2 are unserved;
  • In addition, 4 out of every 10 people live without improved sanitation.

To counter the water issue, the Earth Summit 2002 governments approved a Plan of Action to:

  • Halve by 2015 the proportion of people unable to reach or afford safe drinking water. The Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report (GWSSAR) defines “Reasonable access” to water as at least 20 liters per person per day from a source within one kilometer of the user’s home.
  • Halve the proportion of people without access to basic sanitation. The GWSSR defines “Basic sanitation” as private or shared but not public disposal systems that separate waste from human contact.


Hydropolitics or water politics deals specifically with the above where water and water resources impact politics as part of a necessity for all life forms and human development. The availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking as previously stated with the root cause coming from different sources such as local scarcity, limited availability and population pressures, but also human activities of mass consumption, misuse, environmental degradation and water pollution, as well as climate change.With predictions of a clean water being the next oil, countries like Canada, Chile, Norway, Colombia and Peru who have an abundant amount of this resource will become the water rich countries in the world holding most the power. As the Wikipedia article on hydropolitics reports:

“The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. Currently, 40% of the world’s inhabitants have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought. In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds from easily preventable water-related diseases; often this means lack of sewage disposal; see toilet. The United Nations Development Programme sums up world water distribution in the 2006 development report: “One part of the world sustains a designer bottled water market that generates no tangible health benefits, another part suffers acute public health risks because people have to drink water from drains or from lakes and rivers.” Fresh water — now more precious than ever in our history for its extensive use in agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, and energy production — is increasingly receiving attention as a resource requiring better management and sustainable use.

Riparian water rights have become issues of international diplomacy, in addition to domestic and regional water rights and politics. World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin predicted, ‘Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water unless we change the way we manage water.’ This is debated by some, however, who argue that disputes over water usually are resolved by diplomacy and do not turn into wars. Another new school of thought argues that ‘perceived fears of losing control over shared water might contribute towards a constant preparedness to go to war among riparian nations, just in case there is one.'”

Water politics has led to some encounters between countries, states and groups over access to water resources as the United Nations reports that water disputes can result from opposing interests of water users, public or private including territorial disputes, a fight for resources and strategic advantage. Conflicts commonly arise over freshwater resources specifically potable water due to the fact that it is unevenly distributed impacting the living and economic conditions of a country or region. For example, the lack of cost effective water desalination techniques in areas such as the Middle East and various other components to the water crises can put severe pressures on all water users at all levels of government, corporate and the individual leading to tension and possible aggression. Recent humanitarian catastrophes, Rwandan Genocide and the war in Sudanese Darfur, can be linked to water conflicts in the region. As of recent, 11% of the global population or 783 million people are without access to improve drinking water providing a potential catalyst for potential water disputes. Water is essential to life, but also necessary for proper sanitation, commercial services and the production of commercial goods. The wide range of water disputes makes them difficult to address as international law, commercial interests, environmental concerns and human rights questions complicate possible solutions. Even with a solution at hand, the potential for a large number of parties involved can make a single dispute hard to enforce by the courts and lawmakers. According to Aaron Wolf at Oregon State University, there were 1831 water conflicts over transboundary basins from 1950 to 2000. Each dispute fell in one of the following categories:

  • No water-related events on the extremes
  • Most interactions are cooperative
  • Most interactions are mild
  • Water acts as irritant
  • Water acts as unifier
  • Nations cooperate over a wide variety of issues
  • Nations conflict over quantity and infrastructure

John Kemp, a Reuters market analyst, warns of a much larger problem on the horizon for the United States energy supply in his article US Energy Supplies Imperiled by Water Shortages (May 1, 2013). As Kemp states, power plants are the largest users of water in the United States while substantial amounts of energy are needed to run our everyday lives such as homes, farms and factories even treat waste water prior to safe disposal. Policymakers’ agenda have had to adapt to the changing water climate as water consumption has increased in the hydraulic fracturing industry and the production of biofuels coupled with severe droughts in Texas in 2011 and across more than 60 percent of the continental United States in 2012. The threat to hydroeletric is evident as droughts during 2007-2009 put the water supplies of 24 out of the nation’s 104 reactors at nuclear plants at risk. In 2011, more than 3,000 megawatts of thermal generating capacity in Texas could of been shut down if the drought continue forcing many Texans to conserve water to keep the lights on. However, the state was spared these blackouts because of high output from wind farms. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS) report on “Estimated use of water in the United States” published in 2009, the United States used 410 billion gallons of water from aquifers, rivers and the ocean every day in 2005 with 350 billion from freshwater and 60 billion from saline or brackish water. The cooling systems for nuclear plants and power plants using coal, gas or oil accounted for 41 percent of freshwater and 49 percent of all water withdrawals with irrigation a close second at 31 percent overall and public supply to homes and offices in third at 11 percent. The remaining 10 percent accounts for industry, mining, livestock and aquaculture. Not to be outdone, water for biofuel production and for drilling, fracking oil and gas wells has increased dramatically in total consumption. According to the Congressional Research Service, the energy sector will continue to be the fastest growing water consumer accounting for 85 percent of the growth in domestic water consumption between 2005 and 2030.

Water conservation is an equally important part of the water politics debate on water scarcity as the policies, strategies and activities to manage fresh water are a direct result of shortage and demand. Water conservation will help current policies plans for future human demand as well as current demand taking into account population, household size and growth and wealth which affect how much water will be used. In addition, factors such as climate change will directly effect the availability of natural water resources in manufacturing and agricultural irrigation. The goals of water conservation are as follows according to Wikipedia article, water conservation:

  • Sustainability. To ensure availability for future generations, the withdrawal of fresh water from an ecosystem should not exceed its natural replacement rate.
  • Energy conservation. Water pumping, delivery and waste water treatment facilities consume a significant amount of energy. In some regions of the world over 15% of total electricity consumption is devoted to water management.
  • Habitat conservation. Minimizing human water use helps to preserve fresh water habitats for local wildlife and migrating waterfowl, as well as reducing the need to build new dams and other water diversion infrastructures.

Some cost effect strategies include:

  • at the local level: public outreach campaigns, tiered water rates, restriction on outdoor water use, or installing a natural landscape in dry climates, universal metering ( The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that metering alone can reduce consumption by 20 to 40 percent. In addition to raising consumer awareness of their water use, metering is also an important way to identify and localize water leakage. Water metering would benefit society in the long run it is proven that water metering increases the efficiency of the entire water system, as well as help unnecessary expenses for individuals for years to come. One would be unable to waste water unless they are willing to pay the extra charges, this way the water department would be able to monitor water usage by public, domestic and manufacturing services. (Wikipedia))
  • Conservationists have urged the removal of subsidies in order to force farmers to grow more water efficient crops and adopt less wasteful irrigation.

Household improvements:

  • Low-flow shower heads sometimes called energy-efficient shower heads as they also use less energy,
  • Low-flush toilets and composting toilets. These have a dramatic impact in the developed world, as conventional Western toilets use large volumes of water.
  • Dual flush toilets created by Caroma includes two buttons or handles to flush different levels of water. Dual flush toilets use up to 67% less water than conventional toilets.
  • Saline water (sea water) or rain water can be used for flushing toilets.
  • Faucet aerators, which break water flow into fine droplets to maintain “wetting effectiveness” while using less water. An additional benefit is that they reduce splashing while washing hands and dishes.
  • Wastewater reuse or recycling systems, allowing:
    • Reuse of graywater for flushing toilets or watering gardens
    • Recycling of wastewater through purification at a water treatment plant. See also Wastewater – Reuse
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • High-efficiency clothes washers
  • Weather-based irrigation controllers
  • Garden hose nozzles that shut off water when it is not being used, instead of letting a hose run.
  • using low flow taps in wash basins
  • Swimming pool covers that reduce evaporation and can warm pool water to reduce water, energy and chemical costs.
  • Automatic faucet is a water conservation faucet that eliminates water waste at the faucet. It automates the use of faucets without the use of hands.
  • Water can also be conserved by landscaping with native plants and by changing behavior, such as shortening showers and not running the faucet while brushing teeth.
  • Use waste water for growth of plants and trees

Commercial improvements:

  • Waterless urinals
  • Waterless car washes
  • Infrared or foot-operated taps, which can save water by using short bursts of water for rinsing in a kitchen or bathroom
  • Pressurized waterbrooms, which can be used instead of a hose to clean sidewalks
  • X-ray film processor re-circulation systems
  • Cooling tower conductivity controllers
  • Water-saving steam sterilizers, for use in hospitals and health care facilities.
  • Rain water harvesting.
  • Water to Water heat exchangers.

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