Thirsty World

I am pleased that Environmental Protection has an annual international theme for its publication. There is no way that one community or one state or one nation can solve the environmental problems. We have to be working together.

When I say "working together," that means those of you who are technicians in the environmental field and those of us who may have some voice in policymaking. One of our problems is that too often the people in technology and the people in policymaking are not working with one another. On many occasions I have experienced the benefit of people who differ sitting down together, working toward an agreed-upon answer. An example not far from where I live in southern Illinois: we had environmentalists and farmers vying with one another in less than cordial terms on the Cache River Basin, and policymakers got caught between them. We were able to get people to talk and work together and while we did not satisfy everyone, we did make significant progress and we were able to reach a conclusion that was satisfactory to almost every environmentalist and almost every farmer.

Nothing illustrates the need for working together better than the problems that will soon face us in connection with water internationally. For most of the history of civilization we had 10 million people on the face of the earth. Around 1830 it hit one billion and about 1930 two billion, and now we are well over six billion. I was born in 1928, near the two billion mark, and if the actuaries are correct about my likely life span I will see the world population quadruple in my lifetime. Forecasts -- depending on which one you accept--suggest that we will double or come close to doubling the world's population in the next 50 to 90 years. While that is a reality, another reality is that our fresh water supply is constant. The World Bank says that today 300 million people live in areas of serious to severe water shortage and 25 years from now it will be three billion. Three hundred million is not necessarily a volatile figure. Three billion is explosive.

If we wait on stability before the nations sit down and work out a strategic plan, the water crisis will explode.

In December the U.S. intelligence agencies made a projection for President Bush of what the world would be like in 15 years and they said the great resource shortage would be water, not oil and that regional wars are likely to be fought over water.

I had just returned from a trip to Jordan and Syria in August when I wrote this commentary, trying to persuade the leaders of those governments that sitting down and working out long-range regional planning is in their best interest. Every Middle Eastern leader is knowledgeable about water. Few American leaders are. While the Middle Eastern leaders are knowledgeable about water and know that the already grim picture is going to get worse, there are emotional barriers to sitting down and working out problems and doing joint planning.

What too many of the leaders in those areas say is that we will sit down with Israel and Palestinians and the Jordanians and the Syrians once we have a stable situation in the Middle East. As someone who has visited that region many times over the years, it is unlikely that we are going to have a stable situation. My instinct is that it will be much like the stock market, going up and down. There will be a few days of peace, a few of violence, a few days of peace and a few days of violence, and that pattern will continue. If we wait on stability before the nations sit down and work out a strategic plan, the water crisis will explode.

Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is correct in saying that water will either be a catalyst for peace or a catalyst for war. Right now it is more likely to be a catalyst for war, but that can change. It may be that readers of this publication are in contact with counterparts in the Middle East and can help persuade key people in that area that it is clearly in their self-interest to sit down and work the water problems out even as other barriers to peace remain.

I know from experience in dealing with labor-management problems here in the United States that if you can get hostile sides working on something where they recognize a common need to work out a solution, once they work together on the solution of one problem it is easier to get them to work on solutions to other problems.

The answers to the region have to be short-term and long-term -- plus there is a crucial role to be played by technicians.

Israel's foreign minister, Shimon Peres, is correct in saying that water will either be a catalyst for peace or a catalyst for war.

The short-term answers include greater efforts on conservation. That sounds almost cruel when people in Damascus today are able to turn their tap on only one day a week. In some areas it is even worse. But without conservation (which includes reuse), even the short-term picture becomes more grim.

Short-term working on problems of pollution also becomes more and more important. As aquifers decline, which they are doing now, and as rivers shrink, which they are doing now, the same amount of pollution going into either source makes that water sometimes less usable. The problems with water quality and water quantity are intimately entwined.

Short-term there will also have to be other answers, such as bringing large plastic bags of water from Turkey to the areas of need. This is expensive and not a long-term answer but right now, Norway is supplying Cyprus with water in this way, and that will have to be part of the short-term picture for water-strapped nations of the middle east.

Long-term there will have to be much more reliance on desalination. The cost of desalinated water is gradually coming down, and the cost of fresh water is gradually going up. With each desalination plant that is built, whether in Saudi Arabia or Tampa or Trinidad, we learn a little more and improve the price picture. But we ought to be doing more to encourage research in this area. Legislation, which I introduced, passed during my last year in the Senate and President Clinton signed it into law. But funding for desalination research is still slim, far below what it was during the Kennedy-Johnson years when we faced nowhere near the kind of problem we face today.

Ninety-seven percent of the earth's water is saltwater and of the remaining three percent two-thirds is tied up in icebergs and snow. We will have to tap-in to the 97 percent much more aggressively than we are at this point.

And when done properly, desalination of seawater presents no environmental problems. Desalination in the interior of a country does present serious environmental problems, problems that can be overcome but problems that have to be faced candidly.

Long-term there will have to be much more reliance on desalination.

One of the desalination projects that has caught the imagination of many people is a Red Sea to Dead Sea joint venture between Israel and Jordan which would use gravity to provide energy for desalination, electric energy, and could replenish the diminishing waters of the Dead Sea. People who are experts in this field are divided on its wisdom. I am frankly not enough of a technician that I know what the right answer is. But many new ideas need to be explored.

We also ought to be exploring new technologies more thoroughly than we are. Some of these new technologies will be in the area of desalination, but there will be other developments in conservation and areas we simply don't imagine today that can be developed. To the extent that the private sector can do this I am all for it. But my belief is that the U.S. Department of Interior (or perhaps some other department--during my years in the Senate the Department of Interior strangely was less interested in water technology than the Department of Defense or the intelligence agencies) or some other agency ought to appropriate a few million dollars for either a center for exploration of patents that have been developed or ideas that seem promising, and make evaluations both for the public and for the private sector.

Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has shown an interest in this field and my hope is that he can lead on this. Readers of this journal who write to their Senate and House members in Washington D.C. urging the development of a center like this will be performing a great public service.

Family planning is obviously critical. We simply cannot have the type of population growth -- even though it is slowing -- that is projected without having serious environmental and security problems.

Finally, there is an area where readers of this article could play a crucial role. There needs to be an international corps of technicians to monitor water agreements. And we will have to have an international water court, somewhat similar to the water courts some of our western states have. The reality is that water problems are technical enough that the International Court of Justice at the Hague in the Netherlands simply isn't equipped to handle these things.

The reason for the international corps of technicians to monitor water agreements is perfectly illustrated in the Middle East. Even if the nations of that area were to meet together tomorrow (a highly unlikely prospect) and come to an agreement on water, it is apparent that there would quickly develop serious misunderstandings. Even today with a limited number of formal and informal accords on water that exist between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Syria, a traveler in that area hears constantly that this nation or that nation is violating the accords. These things are difficult enough to monitor under the best of circumstances and when you have agreements that are followed by a drought and even without the drought by shrinking rivers and declining aquifers, you have the potential for trouble. When agreements are reached between nations where there are antagonisms -- and that is true of several of the areas where we will have water problems -- some international system of monitoring will be needed.

There needs to be an international corps of technicians to monitor water agreements. And we will have to have an international water court.

I am writing in the hope that there will be one or two or three or more people who will be stimulated to actually do something. And one of the areas where we desperately need leadership is toward international monitoring.

My hope is that there may be an organizational follow-through or letters to the editor by people who have reflected on this and some effort to combine technical know-how in the field of environment with responsible citizenship. People who know what needs to be done should not be mute.


United Nations Environment Program --

International Institute for Infrastructural, Hydraulic and Environmental Engineering --

American Water Works Association --

Water Environment Federation --

This article appeared in the November 2001 issue of Environmental Protection, Vol. 12, No. 11, on page 12.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

Monica A. Hauser is managing editor of Environmental Protection magazine.

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