The Guardian (London) June 28, 2011
Water use in China and the Middle East is an environmental Ponzi scheme
Earth's water-stressed nations are borrowing (stealing) against the future, as rising populations use stocks faster than they are replaced
[NOTE: They are not borrowing from nature and the future since there is no intent or ability to pay it back. TGH]
By Damian Carrington
Find water and you find life. This simple maxim guides scientists
searching distant planets for aliens. But if the astrobiologists were
to reverse their telescopes and look at our own globe, they would
find a conundrum: billions of people living in places with little or
That unsustainable paradox is now unravelling before our eyes in the
Middle East and north Africa. The 16 most water-stressed states on
Earth are all in that troubled region, with Bahrain at the top of the
ranking from risk analysts Maplecroft. Libya, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia
and Syria follow not far behind.
All are built on an environmental Ponzi scheme, using more water than
they receive: 700 times more in Libya's case. The unrest of the Arab
spring of course has many causes, but arguably the most fundamental
is the crumbling of a social contract that offered cheap water - and
hence food - in return for subservience to dictators.
The region's population is rocketing - there are 10,000 new mouths to
feed each day - just as grain production plummets. The deep, ancient
aquifers that enabled crops to green the deserts are almost
exhausted, and the oil that fires the desalination plants to make up
the loss is dwindling too.
It's a perfect storm of water, food and energy crises and has arrived
two decades sooner than even the most sober analysts expected. And
while the Middle East is the first region to feel the wrath of that
storm, across the world warning signs are flashing - from the sinking
of Mexico City as its aquifers are sucked dry to the docking of
freshwater tankers in Barcelona.
The world's population tripled in the 20th century, but the thirst
for water grew six-fold, the large majority sprinkled on fields. The
UN predicts that, by 2025, two-thirds of us will experience water
shortages, with nearly two billion suffering severe shortfalls. Today
China, struck by terrible droughts in its agricultural heartlands, is
the world's biggest importer of "virtual water": the billions of
tonnes of water used to produce the food and other goods brought into
the world's most populous nation.
China, along with other water-stressed nations such as Saudi Arabia
and South Korea, has sought to cut out the middlemen and acquire land
in wetter places for themselves in order to grow and send food home.
The so-called "land grabs" across the global south are the result.
From Australia to Hong Kong to India to Spain, nations caught between
the stormy equator and the damp high latitudes are running out of
water. Global warming will evaporate more moisture into the air, but
in all likelihood this will fall in harder downpours in already wet
areas rather than bring relief to arid lands. Increasingly, warming
will lead to "global weirding" of the weather, with freak events
uprooting thousands of years of farming knowledge.
Desalination - with 14,000 plants already in existence - is one
solution that is growing fast, but is energy-intensive, expensive and
heavy on carbon. Even the few trials of solar-powered desalination
plants will leave hypersaline water polluting the seas.
Mega-engineering projects, such as China's 50-year south-north
water-diversion scheme, might also offer relief, at vast cost. And
none of these address the other water problem: the lack of clean
water and sanitation in wet nations too poor to provide them.
Ultimately, as appears to be happening in the Middle East, Ponzi
schemes crash. Fresh or virtual water can be imported from distant
rainy nations, but only at a price many cannot afford. The ultimate
solution is as simple as it is challenging: plug leaks, recycle waste
and treasure each drop. Only when the water consumed is less than the
water falling from the sky will nations have stopped borrowing