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Water wars?

Posted by Flux on 

2 February 2021

70% of our planet is covered by water. However, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh and two thirds of this is either in frozen glaciers or unsuitable for human use. In August 1995, Ismail Serageldin, a former World Bank Vice-President, warned that “if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water — unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource”. While there have been no wars fought over water, there have been increasing tensions as a result of water scarcity. 

Climate change, overpopulation and polluted waterways are the drivers behind this phenomenon. 

Increased tensions

Tensions are already brewing in parts of the world where the borders between nations are across bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes. 

Turkey has built dams to control the flow of water of the Tigris-Euphrates River, affecting  Iraq and Syria. Iraq is seeking a monthly water quota but, according to the country’s water resources minister, Turkey has requested two months to study the situation further while Baghdad is considering using its $15 billion import trade deal with Turkey as leverage. If the situation remains unresolved, experts warn of further conflict. 

The recent drought in the Western Cape has highlighted our dependence on and the fragility of our water supply. In 2018 residents in the southern suburbs of Cape Town began fighting among themselves while waiting in line to collect water. The Eastern Cape has also experienced severe drought conditions in recent times.

Rain stealing

Some countries, China being the most active, have used cloud seeding as a form of weather modification to induce rainfall. Beijing plans to expand its modification programme to cover an area of over 5.5 million square kilometres –  more than 1.5 times the total size of India. This has led to neighbouring countries accusing Beijing of ‘rain stealing’. In addition to the geopolitical tensions that arise, this process uses chemicals that can harm plants and animals.

In a presentation at the end of 2019, Minister of Water and Sanitation, Lindiwe Sisulu, said that South Africa is especially vulnerable to water scarcity as we receive less than the world average rainfall. Included in the multifold plan was cloud seeding.

Water futures

Nicknamed ‘blue gold’, investors are now trading water futures on the stock exchange like gold or oil. In December 2020, the first ever water futures were traded. Tied to the Nasdaq Veles California Water Index, this will bring greater transparency and price certainty to the water market. In dry years, when prices are higher, buyers can use futures contracts to offset these higher prices.

Water as a basic human right

In 2010 the United Nations formally recognised the human right to water and sanitation.This is meant to encourage governments and citizens to enhance their efforts to make water available for all in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals which were set in 2015. Since then, there have been a multitude of humanitarian efforts to help eradicate water poverty but there is still a long way to go. According to the UN, by 2030, water scarcity will displace between 24 million and 700 million people. 

What does the future look like?

Mass water conservation educational campaigns – similar to that of plastic recycling – will most likely become more commonplace. Cape Town’s recent response to the drought is a bellwether for this. There will be more water agreements between countries to share and manage water resources and avoid conflict. The price of water could increase as it becomes scarcer. Restricted water usage in affluent regions of the world may be used to manage this scarce resource. Desalination efforts, cloud seeding and other technological advancements are being researched and implemented and should yield results in the next five to ten years.

Have you factored water scarcity into your business risk?

What commercial opportunities are there to address water scarcity?

How can your company contribute to conserving water?

This trend is one of our cards in our Ideation Game pack of cards used in our “Strategic Games” Foresight Workshop

By Faeeza Khan

Image credit: Jong Marshes

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