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Water Use - Where Water Is Power—internationalwater Wars?

middle world oil river

As usable water becomes rarer because of increasing population and the pollution of water supplies, it is expected to become a commodity like iron or oil. Some experts have predicted that at some point water will be more expensive than oil. Of the 200 largest river systems in the world, 120 flow through two or more countries. All are potential objects of world political power struggles over this critical resource.

Three areas of the world are particularly short of water—Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Other dry areas include the southwest of North America, limited areas in South America, and large parts of Australia.

The countries of the Middle East, where rivers are the lifeblood of an arid region, are especially threatened as growing nations compete for a shrinking water supply. Freshwater has never come easily to the area. Rainfall FIGURE 2.9
Projected percent change in population, by state, 1995–2025
SOURCE: "Most of the Fastest-Growing States Are in the West," in Census and You, vol. 31, no. 10, U.S. Census Bureau, October 1996
occurs only in winter and drains quickly through the parched land. Most Middle Eastern countries are joined by common aquifers—underground layers of porous rock that contain water. The United Nations has cautioned that future wars in the Middle East could be fought over water.

Since April 2001 tensions between Israel and Lebanon have been escalating over the Lebanese construction of a pumping station along the Hasbani River. The Hasbani accounts for 14% of the flow into the Sea of Galilee, which is Israel's primary freshwater reservoir. In 2001 Israel was undergoing a water crisis, and the sea was at its lowest level ever. Tensions periodically arise as droughts tighten supply in the area, but as of the middle of 2005 the tensions between Israel and Lebanon regarding Lebanon's pumping of water from the Hasbani River have been handled diplomatically, with the assistance of the European Union and the United Nations.

The oil-rich Middle Eastern nation of Kuwait has little water, but it has the money to secure it. To use seawater, Kuwait has constructed six large-scale, oil-powered desalination plants. Saudi Arabia, farther down the Arabian Peninsula, leads the world in desalination. As of August 2000, its twenty-seven plants were producing 30% of all the desalinated water in the world. It is also a leader in the pumping of fossil water—water accumulated in an earlier geologic age. Mining nonrenewable water is like extracting oil—someday the source will run out.

In April 2001 the Australian National Land and Water Resources Audit reported that one-third of the nation's groundwater reserves and 25% of its surface waters were being overused. With fourteen million acres of farmland already affected by salinity, another forty-four million acres were expected to be salt-affected by the middle of the twenty-first century. As fields are irrigated and trees are cleared along rivers, water tables rise, bringing salt naturally present in the soil to the surface. The salt contaminates the agricultural land. Australia's Murray-Darling River Basin, which produces most of the country's food and export crops, was and remains at great risk.

Water quality and water shortages are just two of the problems facing the world in the years to come. After the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, concerns about bioterrorism increased. On June 12, 2002, Congress passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Act of 2002. Title IV of the Act (Drinking Water Security and Safety) mandates that every community water system that serves a population of more than 3,300 persons must:

  • Conduct a vulnerability assessment.
  • Certify and submit a copy of the assessment to the EPA Administrator.
  • Prepare or revise an emergency response plan that incorporates the results of the vulnerability assessment.
  • Certify to the EPA Administrator, within six months of completing the vulnerability assessment, that the system has completed or updated their emergency response plan.
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