Friday, March 10, 2006

Water Designers

I remember reading at least 25 years ago that the "real" conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would eventually be understood to be a struggle for water rights, not archaic religious differences or whose land some house would be built upon.

A recent newspaper article listed six areas of the world where conflicts could erupt over water. The Union of Concerned Scientists also published a report that evaluated water scarcity, rising populations, and possible clashes. While one of the areas of concern is the River Jordan, affecting Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, the Nile River basin could be the far more dramatic example.

The Nile is the world's longest river. Approximately 40% of Africa's population and some 10 countries live within the Nile basin or close to it. Water is needed for crop irrigation and industry, as well as for drinking. These countries are now accelerating economic growth and building dams, diverting water resources and servicing an expanding population.

Egypt, with some 60 million people, has one of the fastest growing annual population rates in the world, some two percent per year. Ethiopia, a neighbor in the region, has an annual population increase of 3.2%! The unspoken monster in the closet is global warming. No one knows what this might bring. (Some climate models show that most of North Africa will become one of the driest regions in the world by the end of the century.)

In the United States the U.S. Geological Survey recently reported that all of the rivers and streams it surveyed between 1992 and 2001 contained pesticides. The U.S. uses approximately one billion pounds of pesticides every year. The study pointed out, however, that there was no indication that drinking-water standards were compromised, even though no water samples were analyzed at water intakes.

The problem in the United States at this moment in time is not the lack of technology or even financial resources, but the politicization and weakening of government regulatory agencies and the required political "correctness" pressed upon many scientific bodies. It's a matter of trust. The current American government does not engender very much.

In the U.S. population demands may increase the cost of water by some $14 billion in twenty-five years (aqueducts, infrastructure, etc.). If you decide to add in the potential global warming problem, some estimates go up to $105 billion annually. Yes, water or the lack of is not just an issue for the developing world.

In an article entitled "Big Gulp" published in The New York Times, I learned about a company called Ethos Water. This company gives 5 cents of every bottle of water it sells to "helping children get clean water" throughout the world. This article reported that in 2005 some $250,000 was sent to Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, and some other countries for various water programs. The company's goal is to raise $10 million within the next five years. Starbucks bought the company in 2005 for $8 million. Presumably a big corporation can market Ethos Water on a large scale. Is this not a worthwhile endeavor?

On the other hand, plastic bottles end up in landfills, as well as requiring more than a million barrels of oil to manufacture these bottles each year. There's the cost of shipping, marketing, etc., etc., etc. Finally, as mentioned in other articles, tap water, at least in the developed world, is better regulated than bottled water. Could we not just send the 5 cents to an international agency?

What political choices do we ultimately make? What are we willing to do? Clearly, slowing population growth reduces water "stress." Who do we choose or not choose to represent us--at least among those of us that have the option? Finally, as someone once said, the fact that you can build a Hummer doesn't mean you should. What political choices do we ultimately make?
Potential areas of conflict: Israel, Jordan, Palestine; Turkey and Syria; China and India; Angola and Namibia; Ethiopia and Egypt; Bangladesh and India.

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