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Blue Planet: The geopolitics of water

By DAN WHIPPLE, UPI Science News   |   Oct. 18, 2002 at 2:00 PM   |   Comments

In his journals of a turn-of-the-century visit with the Hopi in the American Southwest, photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis described an important ritual the tribe undertook -- the Snake Ceremony.

Curtis participated like a member of the tribe. When they went hunting for snakes, Curtis said, "Fortunately, I was the first to see a snake." He captured it. To make sure of their novitiate's love for snakes, the Hopi had him drape it around his neck before he put it in his bag. "Our bags soon became heavy with the weight of snakes," he wrote -- diamondbacks, sidewinders, bull snakes, whip snakes -- "the majority were rattlers."

The purpose of this collecting was the Snake Dance, by which the Hopi prayed for rain. "Dressed in a G-String and Snake Dance costume and with the regulation snake in my mouth, I went through ... while the spectators witnessed the dance and did not know that a white man was one of the wild dancers."

"If it doesn't rain," he added, "they believe there has been an error in the performance. Thankfully, billowing dark clouds formed over the mountains and the welcome rain began to fall."

As a method of attracting rain, the Hopi Snake Dance is not demonstrably worse than any other. In Bengal villages in the 19th century, for example, honored humans were sacrificed, the locals believing the more tears the victim shed, the more rain there would be.

Cultures as diverse as Utah, Thailand and Kansas have tried cloud seeding with salts and chemicals, with indifferent results. Kenneth Frederick, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C., wrote, "Although it is questionable whether any of these intentional efforts have significantly altered precipitation patterns, the balance of evidence now suggests that humans are influencing the global climate and, thereby, altering the hydrological cycle, however inadvertently."

Frederick, of course, is referring to global climate change, but even this is an unreliable method for redistributing water around the globe. Furthermore, the geography of water is becoming a critical issue in the world environmental picture -- especially if the map is overlain with that of other critical resources, such as oil.

According to "Finding the Balance: Population and Water Scarcity in the Middle East and North Africa," a report by the Population Reference Bureau, only 3 percent of the Earth's water is salt-free, or fresh water. Moreover nearly 70 percent of fresh water is locked in glacier and icebergs and is not available for human use.

The report identifies a number of water-scarce countries in the Middle East and North Africa where there is less than 1,000 cubic meters of fresh water per person per year. Countries in that category include Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. The region has 6.3 percent of the world's population, and only 1.4 percent of the fresh water.

It might strike the observant geography enthusiast that a lot of these countries are the same ones on which the United States relies significantly for its oil. In an article last year in Foreign Affairs magazine, Michael Klare of Hampshire College wrote America shifted its strategic thinking to focus on "problems arising from competition over access to critical materials --- especially those such as oil that often lie in contested or politically unstable areas."

Klare identified three "flash points for resource conflicts:" oil and gas, water, and minerals and timber.

The United States currently imports 60 percent of its oil and 30 percent of total U.S. consumption (or one-half of all imports) comes from the Persian Gulf. In addition to being a flash point of energy conflict, the region is a hotbed of controversy over water. The Nile, Tigris, Euphrates and Jordan rivers all are subject to intense demand.

"These water sources are shared by several countries, all of which want to use as much as they can," Klare told United Press International. "Historically, the countries in that area have viewed this as a security issue around which they are willing to use force."

As Klare pointed out in his article, the Middle East and Asia suffer from persistent water scarcity and the number of countries experiencing such conditions is expected to double over the next 25 years as the world population rises and more people settle in urban areas. "By 2050, the demand for water could approach 100 percent of the available supply, producing intense competition for this essential substance in all but a few well-watered areas of the planet," he wrote.

Most of the fresh water in the world is used for irrigation, which in turn grows food. Another report on the world water situation, issued this past Wednesday under the cheerful title, "Global Water Outlook to 2025: Averting an Impending Crisis," concluded that, in 1995, the world withdrew 3,906 cubic kilometers of water for growing food, industrial purposes, environmental sustainability and municipal and domestic use.

Water withdrawals for all purposes are increasing dramatically worldwide. Between 1950 and 1995, "Global Water Outlook" states, domestic and industrial use quadrupled while agricultural uses doubled.

"By 2025, water withdrawal for most uses (domestic industrial and livestock) is projected to increase by at least 50 percent. This will severely limit irrigation water withdrawal, which will increase by only four percent, constraining food production in turn," according to the report.

The world is ill-prepared to divvy up this water peacefully.

Most agreements covering water distribution, where they exist at all, are many decades old and were concluded in times of relative plenty.

"In many cases, countries have never established clear arrangements for sharing water, particularly in periods of drought, RFF's Frederick told UPI. "There's no doubt the conflicts are going to increase ... One of the major factors in the economics of water is going to be that more affluent countries put higher values on the ecological and recreational services provided by water," he said. "They don't want to see every last river drained. That can take a lot of water -- for instance to maintain the salmon in the Columbia River Basin. There are conflicts between hydropower, diverting it for irrigation and using it for fish."

Policy makers have become interested in international water resource issues only relatively recently. One reason: Water scarcity maps neatly overlay other resource flashpoints.

Iraq (which has been in the news a little bit lately) and Syria have reached an agreement over the Euphrates. But the river rises in Turkey, which has refused to sign a water sharing agreement. In fact, in 1989, Turkey warned Syria it would cut off the Euphrates' flow unless Syria curbed the activities of Kurdish separatists operating from bases inside its territory.

On top of all the other disputes between Israel and its neighbors, it cannot agree with Syria over the Jordan River, takes a lot of its own domestic water from the contested West Bank, and shares precious little with the Palestinian Authority.

All this, and global warming, too. Predicting the future is always a hazardous effort, but without coherent water conservation measures worldwide, the Hopi Snake Dance might be returning to vogue.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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