Water Resources Research Paper

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The planet Earth is inherently short of freshwater, the proportion of which is as little as 3 percent of all available water. The remaining 97 percent of water is saline and is stored in the oceans. Of the 3 percent of water that is freshwater, only 0.3 percent flows through surface water systems such as rivers and lakes; the remaining 2.97 percent is frozen in glaciers and ice caps or held in the ground.

This inherent scarcity has been worsened by the accelerated diversion of water for agricultural, commercial, industrial, and residential uses, which has increased greatly in response to a growing world population that reached 6.5 billion people in 2006. As much as 95 percent of that growth has taken place in the water-deficit developing world, predominantly in Asia and Africa. Among all human uses, agriculture tends to use 70 percent of the available freshwater. According to experts, 1 ton of grain requires 1,000 tons of water. As agriculture increasingly is becoming dependent on irrigation, especially in Asia, the most populous continent, the availability of water for industrial, commercial, and municipal uses has been shrinking.

Water Scarcity And The Human Condition

The impact of dwindling water supplies on humankind is evident worldwide. According to a 2006 report by the United Nations Development Program, over 1 billion people are without clean drinking water and over 2.4 billion lack basic sanitation. Access to clean drinking water is lowest in Africa, and Asia has the largest number of people without basic sanitation. The human toll of the inaccessibility of water and sanitation runs as high as 2 million child deaths a year (United Nationals Development Program 2006). In all, in the early years of the twenty-first century 12 million people died each year from drinking contaminated water.

In 2003 the United Nations World Water Development Report estimated that $110 billion to $180 billion would be needed each year to provide safe drinking water to the poor in developing countries. Although an annual outlay of that size for water resource development seems prohibitive for low-income nations, the economic benefits of such an outlay would be two to three times as large. Recognizing those benefits, the United Nations Millennium Development Project planned to widen the access of the poor to safe drinking water by 50 percent by 2015. The economic benefits of increased access to safe drinking water in terms of health, longevity, and time saved in fetching water range from $300 billion to $400 billion a year.

Pricing And Privatization Of Water

International development agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) plan to broaden the access of the poor to safe water by pricing water use and privatizing water resources. Water pricing means consumers will pay the fees, taxes, or charges for water supplies they use. It has been argued that water privatization can meet the water needs of the poor effectively. In 2005 Segerfeldt pointed out that public water systems in developing countries tend to serve wealthy and middle-class households, whereas the poor are left to draw from municipal water mains. However, 80 percent of the poorest parts of the population in fifteen developing countries are not served by municipal water supplies (Segerfeldt 2005). Although privatization is intended to bring the entire water supplies and treatment systems of developing countries into the private market, in the first decade of the twenty-first century only 3 percent of the poor worldwide were served by private-sector water supplies.

Critics see water privatization as a “global water grab” with disastrous outcomes in places such as Cochabamba, Bolivia. Between 1989 and 1999 the proportion of Bolivian households connected to the public water system fell from 70 percent to 60 percent. Water was available only sporadically; 99 percent of the wealthier households were receiving the subsidized water, whereas in some poorer suburbs less than 4 percent were receiving water.

Fate Of Privatization In India And China

In 2002 Vandana Shiva blamed the World Bank and the ADB for creating water markets to benefit multinational corporations (MNCs). Privatization, she argued, is preceded by a hike in water tariffs to “secure private sector investment in risky countries” (Shiva 2005). The tariff increase, Shiva asserted, exceeds by ten times the “full cost recovery,” although this is rationalized by privatization supporters. Using the case of her native India, Shiva stated that private operators will harvest public investment of 1 trillion rupees for private gains through water privatization in India (Shiva 2005).

Pricing and privatization of water are intended to rationalize water use. In light of worldwide extreme income inequalities, however, it is feared that privatization will save water by diverting it from the poor to the rich and from rural areas to urban centers. In 2005 Shiva argued that the best way to conserve water is to make a radical shift from water-intensive chemical farming to organic farming, along with a reversal in export-led agricultural production, which amounts to exporting “virtual water” to the rich consumers of the North at the expense of the poor in the South.

Like India, China is poor in freshwater supplies, the per capita availability of which is one-fourth of the world average (Yu and Danqing 2006). The pollution of rivers and groundwater from industrialization and urbanization has exacerbated the water shortage. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, two-thirds of Chinese cities had an insufficient supply of freshwater and 110 of them had critically inadequate access to freshwater.

Beijing’s plan to meet the water needs of urban centers angered Chinese rural residents. On July 6, 2000, thousands of farmers in the Yellow River Basin in eastern China clashed with police over a government plan to recapture runoff from a local reservoir for cities, industries, and other uses (Postel and Wolf 2001). The incident took place in Shandong, the last province through which the Yellow River runs before reaching the sea. Worldwide water disputes have been occurring in the downstream regions of overtapped river basins (Postel and Wolf 2001). The Yellow River has been running dry in its lower reaches on and off since 1972, and its dry spell grew to a record 226 days in 1997. As a result, per person use of water in China, which already was severely low, fell by 1.7 percent in seven years (Yu and Danqing 2006).

Water Conflicts

The Indus Basin Intrastate water shortages have spilled over into interstate water conflicts. In the first decade of the twenty-first century India and Bangladesh were worrying about alleged Chinese attempts to divert the waters of Yarlung Zangbo River (which in India is called Brahmaputra, and in Bangladesh Jamuna) into the Yellow River. The Yarlung Zangbo passes through the Tibet Autonomous Region into the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and into Bangladesh. Even starker conflicts have been simmering between India and Bangladesh over the Ganges River and between India and Pakistan over the Jhelum River. In the 1960s and early 1970s India unilaterally constructed a barrage (dam) on the Ganges River at Farakka, near the border with Bangladesh, to divert more river water to the port of Calcutta (Postel and Wolf 2001). That diversion left Bangladesh with significantly less water for irrigation during the dry season, causing increased migration of its population across the border into the Indian states of West Bengal (Postel and Wolf 2001) and Assam. Although the Indus River Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan of the 1960s has held, the growing water and power needs of each nation are fueling the conflicts as never before. The major conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi has erupted over the controversial construction of Bhagliar Dam over the Jhelum River in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir; that conflict was being arbitrated by the World Bank.

Euphrates and Jordan River Basins Euphrates and Jordan River Basin nations have long argued over their shared surface water systems. Syria and Iraq experienced a reduction of almost 50 percent in the average flow of the Euphrates after the 1970s (Allan 1998). Both countries have been anticipating additional reductions in the flow of Tigris as well. The Euphrates and Tigris rivers originate in Turkey, which has diverted their water by building dams. In the case of the Jordan basin, the river system rises in four tributaries (Lowi 1995): the Yarmouk in Syria, the Banias in Israeli-occupied Syria, the Hasbani in Lebanon, and the Dan in Israel. The Banias, Hasbani, and Dan meet in northern Israel to form the Upper Jordan River, which flows into Lake Tiberias, and then the Lower Jordan. Israel has become the upstream riparian basin on the Upper Jordan system, and Syria is upstream on the Yarmouk. Jordan and the Palestinians, as downstream riparian basins vis-a-vis both Israel and Syria, have remained in the worst positions in the basin (Lowi 1995).

About one-half of Israel’s annual supply of groundwater and one-quarter of its total renewable supply of freshwater originate in two subterranean basins in the West Bank (Lowi 1995). By virtue of its occupation of the West Bank, Israel has been controlling water in the territory. The result has been that approximately 80 percent of West Bank water is exploited in Israel and by Israeli settlers in the territory, leaving only 20 percent for the Palestinian population (Lowi 1995). Although Lowi does not think that water disputes alone could cause active conflict between Israel and the countries of the Jordan River Basin, Adel Darwish (2003) and John Bulloch and Darwish (1993) believe that water disputes underlie the political conflict in the region. King Hussein of Jordan and the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, each of whom signed peace treaties with Israel, vowed never to go to war with Israel except to protect water resources (Darwish 2003). Bulloch and Darwish (1993) claim that water was the hidden agenda for past conflicts and has been a major obstacle to a lasting peace in the region. The Six Day War, they argue, started because Syrian engineers were working to divert part of the water flow from Israel. The Israeli leader Ariel Sharon backed up their argument by saying: “People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six-day war began. That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two and a half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan” (quoted in Darwish 2003).

Possible Solutions

It is feared that global warming will cause further stress in the already water-short nations of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Although bilateral and multilateral water-sharing mechanisms are important to ensure critical water supplies, the significance of conservation and further development of water resources cannot be overemphasized. There are a number of technological means to augment water resources, including but not limited to cloud seeding, desalination, wastewater reuse, rain harvesting, and importing water from relatively wet zones (Postel and Wolf 2001). Of equal importance are a shift from water-intensive chemical farming to less water-intensive farming methods and a reversal in export-led agricultural production, which amounts to the export of virtual water from the water-short South to the water-surplus North (Shiva 2005).


  1. Allan, Tony. 1998. Avoiding War over Natural Resources. Global Policy Forum. http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/docs/resource2.htm.
  2. Bulloch, John, and Adel Darwish. 1993. Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East. London: Victor Gollancz.
  3. Darwish, Adel. 2003. Analysis: Middle East Water Wars. BBC News, May 30. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2949768.stm.
  4. Lowi, Miriam R. 1995. Water and Power: The Politics of a Scarce Resource in the Jordan River Basin. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Postel, Sandra L., and Aaron T. Wolf. 2001. Dehydrating Conflict. Foreign Policy 126: 60–67. http://www.edcnews/Reviews/Postel_Wolf2001.pdf.
  6. Segerfeldt, Fredrik. 2005. Water for Sale: How Business and the Market Can Resolve the World’s Water Crisis. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.
  7. Shiva,Vandana. 2002. Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.
  8. Shiva, Vandana. 2005. Water Privatization and Water Wars. ZNet Daily Communications. http://www.Zmag.org/Sustainers/Content/2005–07/12Shiva.cfm.
  9. United Nations. 2003. First UN World Water Development Report, 2003: Water for People, Water for Life. United Nations: World Water Assessment Program. Paris: UNESCO Publishing.
  10. United Nations Development Program. 2006. Human Development Report 2006: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty, and the Global Water Crisis. Washington, DC: UNDP.
  11. Yu, Au Loong, and Liu Danqing. 2006. The Privatization of Water Supply in China. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Transnational Institute. http://www.tni.org/books/waterchina.pdf.

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