SKOPJE, Macedonia, May 17 (UPI) -- Growing up in Israel in the 1960s, we were always urged to conserve precious water. Rainfall was rare and meager, the sun scorching, our only sweet water lake under constant threat by the Syrians. Israelis were being shot at while hauling water cisterns or irrigating their parched fields. Water was a matter of life and death -- literally.
Drought often conspires with man-made disasters. Macedonia experienced its second worst dry spell during the last year's civil strife. Benighted Afghanistan is having one now -- replete with locusts. Rapid, unsustainable urbanization, desertification, exploding populations, and economic growth, especially of water-intensive industries, such as microprocessor fabricators -- all contribute to the worst water crisis the world has ever known.
Governments have reacted late, hesitantly, and haltingly. Water conservation, desalination, water rights exchanges, water pacts, private-public partnerships, and privatization of utilities -- such as in Argentina and Britain -- may have been implemented too little, too late.
Rising incomes lead to civic movements and non-governmental organizations exerting political pressure on the authorities to improve water quality and availability. But can the authorities help? According to the World Bank, close to $600 billion will be needed by 2010 just to augment existing reserves and to improve water grade levels.
The U.N. Development Program believes that half the population in Africa will be subject to wrenching water shortages in 25 years. The environmental research institute, Worldwatch, quoted by British Broadcasting Corp., recommends food imports as a way to economize on water.
It takes 1,000 tons of water to produce one ton of grain, and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of the world's water -- though only less than 30 percent in Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, countries. It takes more than the entire throughput of the Nile to grow the grain imported annually by Middle Eastern and North African countries alone. Some precipitation-poor countries even grow cotton and rice, both insatiable crops. By 2020, says the World Water Council, we will be short 17 percent of the water that would be needed to feed the population.
The United States withdraws one-fifth of its total resources annually -- proportionately, one-half of Belgium's drawdown. But according to the OECD, Americans are the most profligate consumers of fresh water, more than double the OECD's average in the 1990s. Britain and Denmark have actually reduced their use by 20 percent between 1980 and 1996 -- probably due to sharp and ominous drops in their water tables.
Stratfor, a strategic forecasting firm, reported on May 14 that Mexico and the United States are in the throes of a conflict over Mexico's "failure to live up to its water supply commitments under a 1944 treaty," which allocates water from the Colorado, Rio Concho, and Rio Grande between the two signatories.
Mexico seems to have accumulated a daunting debt of 1.5 million acre feet over the last eight years, the result of a decade-long drought. Each acre-foot is an acre of water, one foot high. Mexico's reservoirs are less than 25 percent full. Some of the water, though, has been used to transform its borderland into a major producer of fresh vegetables for the American market -- at the expense of Texas farmers.
Faced with the worst drought in more than a century in some states, the Bush administration announced on May 3 that it is considering sanctions, including, perhaps the suspension of water supplies from the Colorado to Mexico. Texas lawmakers demanded to re-open North American Free Trade Agreement and amend it punitively.
Mexico is a typical case. Only 9 percent of its streams and rivers are fit for drinking. Its underground water is almost equally polluted. Its infrastructure is crumbling, leading to severe seepage of more than two-fifths of the water. Half of the rest evaporates in open canals. Moreover, water is underpriced, thus encouraging wasteful consumption, mainly by farmers. Stratfor cites an estimate published in the May 5 issue Fort Worth Star-Telegram -- more than $60 billion will be needed over the next decade to refurbish Mexico's urban and rural networks.
William K. Reilly, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, writing in the "ITT Industries Guidebook to Global Water Issues", mentions the human cost of water scarcity: a million dead children a year, a billion people without access to treated water, almost double this number without sanitation.
More than 11,000 people died in a cholera epidemic induced by polluted water in Latin America in the 1990s. Every year, according to the World Bank, the amount of water polluted equals the quantity of water consumed. In many parts of the world, notably in Africa, people walk for hours to obtain their contaminated daily water rations.
Water shortage hobbles industrial production in places as diverse as Sicily and Malaysia. The lower estuaries of the Yellow River -- China's most important -- are now dry two-thirds of the year. The water table beneath China's fertile northern plain is falling by 1.5 yards a year.
The drought in Sri Lanka is so severe and so prolonged that the International Red Cross had to intervene and launch an appeal for emergency funds. The Mekong River, which flows from China to Vietnam, is being obstructed by seven Chinese dams under construction. Once completed, its flow will be reduced by half.
Close to 200 million people in seven countries will be affected. In a retaliatory move, Laos is planning to hold back about 70 percent of its contribution to the Mekong by constructing 23 dams. Thailand follows with 20 percent of its contribution and a mere four dams. Vietnam is likely to pay the price of this "dam war." Thailand is sufficiently rich to simply buy the water it needs from its truculent neighbors.
Australia is in no better shape. The diversion of the Snowy River inland led to massive salinization of the lands it irrigates -- Australia's breadbasket. Many of the tributaries are now unfit for either irrigation or drinking. In India, the holy river, Ganges, is depleted and impregnated with poisonous arsenic.
A long-running dispute is simmering between India and Bangladesh regarding this dwindling lifeline, recent progress in negotiations notwithstanding. This is reminiscent of a low-intensity conflict that has been brewing along the banks of the Nile between an assertive Egypt and the encroaching Sudan and Ethiopia since the Nile Basin Initiative was signed in 1993.
A July 2000 conference of the riparian states, backed by the likes of the World Bank and the United Nations, eased the tension somewhat by making a workable plan to redistribute the African river's throughput. The emphasis in the February 2001 meeting of the International Consortium Cooperation on the Nile, though, was on hydropower rather than the contentious minefield of water usage rights.
This is the first part of a three-part analysis of the world's water economy. Parts 2 and 3 will appear Monday and Tuesday.
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TEL AVIV, Israel, May 17 (UPI) --Nobel Energy of Houston, which discovered Israel's big gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, is pressing the government to decide soon on an energy export policy as the prospect of an undersea pipeline to Turkey gains credibility.