Many conflicts are caused or inflamed by water scarcity. The conflicts from Chad to Darfur, Sudan, to the Ogaden Desert in Ethiopia, to Somalia and its pirates, and across to Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, lie in a great arc of arid lands where water scarcity is leading to failed crops, dying livestock, extreme poverty and desperation.
Extremist groups like the Taliban find ample recruitment possibilities in such impoverished communities. Governments lose their legitimacy when they cannot guarantee their populations’ most basic needs: safe drinking water, staple food crops and fodder and water for the animal herds on which communities depend for their meager livelihoods.
Politicians, diplomats, and generals in conflict-ridden countries typically treat these crises as they would any other political or military challenge. They mobilize armies, organize political factions, combat warlords or try to grapple with religious extremism.
But these responses overlook the underlying challenge of helping communities meet their urgent needs for water, food, and livelihoods. As a result, the US and Europe often spend tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars to send troops or bombers to quell uprisings or target “failed states,” but do not send one-tenth or even one-hundredth of that amount to address the underlying crises of water scarcity and under-development.
Water problems will not go away by themselves. On the contrary, they will worsen unless we, as a global community, respond. A series of recent studies shows how fragile the water balance is for many impoverished and unstable parts of the world. UNESCO recently issued The UN World Water Development Report 2009; the World Bank issued powerful studies on India (India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future) and Pakistan (Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry); and the Asia Society issued an overview of Asia’s water crises (Asia’s Next Challenge: Securing the Region’s Water Future).
These reports tell a similar story. Water supplies are increasingly under stress in large parts of the world, especially in the world’s arid regions. Rapidly intensifying water scarcity reflects bulging populations, depletion of groundwater, waste and pollution and the enormous and increasingly dire effects of manmade climate change.
The consequences are harrowing: drought and famine, loss of livelihood, the spread of water-borne diseases, forced migrations and even open conflict. Practical solutions will include many components, including better water management, improved technologies to increase the efficiency of water use and new investments undertaken jointly by governments, the business sector, and civic organizations.
I have seen such solutions in the Millennium Villages in rural Africa, a project in which my colleagues and I are working with poor communities, governments, and businesses to find practical solutions to the challenges of extreme rural poverty. In Senegal, for example, a world-leading pipe manufacturer, JM Eagle, donated more than 100km of piping to enable an impoverished community to join forces with the government water agency PEPAM to bring safe water to tens of thousands of people. The overall project is so cost effective, replicable and sustainable that JM Eagle and other corporate partners will now undertake similar efforts elsewhere in Africa.