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Future Resource Wars: Water!

Posted on November 8th, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

War over water

Source: Newsweek

On November 5, 1913, the first section of Los Angeles Aqueduct began diverting water from the Owens River to the City over a distance of 233 miles. Consequently, agriculture in Owens Valley was damaged to the point of becoming untenable in the 1920’s fueling controversy that continues to the present day.

Chinatown is a 1974 American neo-noir mystery film, directed by Roman Polanski, inspired by the California water wars over the Aqueduct.  Jack Nicholson (“Jake Gittes”) gave up a piece of his nose in the movie and won the Oscar for best leading actor in real life.  Water wars have cost much more than a nose, over time from peoples’ livelihood to murders.  Litigation has lasted into recent decades.

Water, Sweet Water

Chinatown was a fable about a local dispute; national and international water wars are all but certain to cost far more lives.  The looming water wars could engulf numerous countries in domestic and international conflicts. Vast expanses of the world’s lands, once arable, have been slowly stripped of water reserves in the last decades. Regions critical to the peace of the world are being destabilized by the disappearance of the liquid of life.  What is left behind are devastated swathes of parched land leading to misery and displacement of tens of millions of people.

The map published by World Resources Institute (Source: World Resources Institute, in Figure 1 shows the state of water stress around the globe.  Note the red (40-80%) and maroon (>80%) areas of the map including Western USA, Northern Mexico, Southern Brazil, North and South Africa, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China and Australia.  Water reserves have disappeared from these areas because of drought and overuse stemming from population growth and waste.  The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., found, during a seven-year period beginning in 2003, that parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran along the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 144 cubic kilometers of total stored freshwater (Source: That is almost equal to the entire water in the Dead Sea which itself has been drying up rapidly.

Sinas water post 2




Figure 1 Water Stress Around the World (Source; World Resource Institute,

The researchers attribute about 60% of the loss to pumping of groundwater from underground reservoirs.  Only a small fraction of water consumption is due to water usage by people.  Rather agriculture and industries consume the majority of water usually through antiquated water handling systems with little attempt at conservation.  For example, agricultural irrigation consumes 80% of the developed water of California with the balance (20%) going to cities and communities. Available water reserve is shrunk by the increasing pollution’s degradation of freshwater and coastal aquatic ecosystems. And climate change is poised to shift precipitation patterns and the speed of glacial melt thus altering water supplies and intensifying floods and drought.

Examples of Water Conflicts

Goldman Sachs describes water as “the petroleum of the next century”.  Surprisingly water related conflicts could engulf any country whether first or third world.  The nature of those disputes is varied such as:

  1. Water drawn from the Great Lakes affecting surrounding states and Canada. Most recently the City of Waukesha Wisconsin will draw 30 million liters per day of water from Lake Michigan to rectify a radon problem.
  2. Dam constructions flooding inhabited, farmed and ancestral lands, as is the case of China’s Yangtze River. An area equal to the size of California, 0.3% of the world’s total land mass, has been flooded
  3. Diversion of river waters that impact people and lakes such as Israel’s channeling of Jordan River into the Negev Desert in pursuit of the country’s founder Ben Gurion’s dream of “making the desert bloom”. Nearly 85% of all the water in the West Bank goes to Israel leaving Palestinian Nation in a permanent drought. The final destination of Jordan River the Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area.
  4. The dispute between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, over Kashmir is largely about control of the headwaters of the River Indus, on which Pakistan’s agricultural economy downstream has become ever more dependent.

One of the most devastating examples of loss of a water reserve is Aral Sea. The shallow Aral Sea was once the world’s fourth largest body of inland water. The remnants of it nestle in the climatically inhospitable heart of Central Asia, to the east of the Caspian Sea. The Aral Sea and its demise are of great interest and increasing concern to scientists because of the remarkable shrinkage of its area and volume that began in the second half of the 20th century—when the region was part of the Soviet Union—and continued into the 21st century.  That change resulted primarily because of the diversion (for purposes of irrigation of cotton farms) of the riverine waters of the Syr Darya in the north and the Amu Darya in the south, which discharged into the Aral Sea which were its main sources of inflowing water (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica,

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Figure 2 Shrinkage of Lake Aral in the last sixty years: Olive = parched land, Steel = water (Source:

Once a source of prosperous fishing Aral Sea has been reduced to 8% of its size in 1957 (Figure 2). The salinity of water increased gradually to the point that all fish were killed.  Once abundant supplies of sturgeon, carp, barbel, roach and other fish disappeared and took down with it the fishing industry.  The local ecosystem has been destroyed and the climate has become harsher with more extreme hot and cold temperatures.

Sina's water post 5

Figure 3 Abandoned Boats that once sailed on the Aral Sea (Source: Russia Today,

Desalination of ocean water (where 94% of the Earth water is stored) is impractical in regions of the world most in need of water.  There are many problems with mass desalination as a quick fix to water shortage.  Key issues include high cost of the process because desalination plants use enormous amounts of energy. That could exacerbate climate change by raising to the already overburdened carbon loading of the atmosphere.  Many proposed ocean desalination plants are now planning to rely on “once-through” intake structures – an outdated technology to use ocean water to cool the power plant. These intakes kill fish and other organisms that cannot free themselves from the intakes or that get dragged into the plants.  Discharge of the super salty brine into oceans can upset the delicate coastal ecosystems (Source: Food & Water Watch,

Conservation and reuse are the least expensive options for saving precious water.  The first step is consumer education followed by the revision of archaic water allocation laws.  Governments, big agriculture, industries and other large water consumers must enact urgent conservation measures before more of this vital resource is depleted.  A part of that effort must focus on reducing carbon footprint of all commercial activities.

In a world with a growing population food and drinking water are vital necessities.  In the future immense pressure will be placed on all industries and big agriculture, by legislation, to conserve and decrease water consumption.  Given a choice between rationing water for agricultural irrigation or industry, the non-life supporting industries will be the losers.  In a catastrophic drought, life can continue while water, food, medicine and shelter are available in the absence of most consumer goods and things.


All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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