Growing up in Israel in 1960's, we were always urged to conserve precious water. Rainfall was rare and meager, sun scorching, our only sweet water lake under constant threat by Syrians. Israelis were being shot at hauling water cisterns or irrigating their parched fields. Water was a matter of life and death - literally.
Drought often conspires with man-made disasters. Macedonia experienced its second worst dry spell during civil strife of last year. Benighted Afghanistan is having one now - replete with locusts. Rapid, unsustainable urbanization, desertification, exploding populations, and economic growth, especially of water-intensive industries, such as microprocessor fabs - all contribute to worst water crisis world has ever known.
Governments reacted late, hesitantly, and haltingly. Water conservation, desalination, water rights exchanges, water pacts, private-public partnerships, and privatization of utilities (e.g., in Argentina and UK) - may have been implemented too little, too late.
Rising incomes lead to exertion of political pressure on authorities by civic movements and NGO's to improve water quality and availability. But can authorities help? According to World Bank, close to $600 billion will be needed by 2010 just to augment existing reserves and to improve water grade levels.
The UNDP believes that half population in Africa will be subject to wrenching water shortages in 25 years. The environmental research institute, Worldwatch, quoted by BBC, recommends food imports as a way to economize on water.
It takes 1000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of world's water - though only less than 30 percent in OECD countries. It takes more than entire throughput of Nile to grow grain imported annually by Middle Eastern and North African countries alone. Some precipitation-poor countries even grow cotton and rice, both insatiable crops. By 2020, says World Water Council, we will be short 17 percent of water that would be needed to feed population.
The USA withdraws one fifth of its total resources annually - proportionately, one half of Belgium's drawdown. But according to OECD, Americans are most profligate consumers of fresh water, more than double OECD's average in 1990's. Britain and Denmark have actually reduced their utilization by 20 percent between 1980 and 1996 - probably due to sharp and ominous drops in their water tables.
Stratfor, a strategic forecasting firm, reported on May 14 that Mexico and USA are in throes of a conflict over Mexico's "failure to live up to its water supply commitments under a 1944 treaty", which allocates water from Colorado, Rio Concho, and Rio Grande among two signatories.
Mexico seems to have accumulated a daunting debt of 1.5 million acre-feet over last 8 years - result of a decade long drought. Each acre-foot is c. 1.2 million liters. Mexico's reservoirs are less than 25 percent full. Some of water, though, has been used to transform its borderland into a major producer of fresh vegetables for American market - at expense of Texas farmers.
Faced with worst drought in more than a century in some states, Bush administration has announced on May 3 that it is considering sanctions, including, perhaps suspension of water supplies from Colorado to Mexico. Texas lawmakers demanded to re-open NAFTA and amend it punitively.
Mexico is a typical case. Only 9 percent of its streams and rivers are fit for drinking. Its underground water is almost equally polluted. Its infrastructure is crumbling, leading to severe seepage of more than two fifths of water. Half of rest evaporates in open canals.
Moreover, water is under-priced, thus encouraging wasteful consumption, mainly by farmers. Stratfor cites an estimate published in May 5 issue Fort Worth Star-Telegram - more than $60 billion will be needed over next decade to refurbish Mexico's urban and rural networks.
William K. Reilly, former administrator of EPA, writing in "ITT Industries Guidebook to Global Water Issues", mentions human cost of water scarcity: a million dead children a year, a billion people without access to treated water, almost double this number without sanitation.
More than 11,000 people died in a cholera epidemic induced by polluted water in Latin America in 1990's. Every year, according to World Bank, amount of water polluted equals quantity of water consumed. In many parts of world, notably in Africa, people walk for hours to obtain their contaminated daily water rations.
Water shortage hobbles industrial production in places as diverse as Sicily and Malaysia. The lower estuaries of Yellow River - China's most important - are now dry two thirds of year. The water table beneath China's fertile northern plane is falling by 1.5 meters a year.