The Coming Water Crisis
Nearly three-quarters of our earth is water of which only 2.5% is fresh water, and the remainder 97.5% is salt water. Of this fresh water nearly 70% (or 1.75% of total water) is frozen in the icecaps of Antarctica and Greenland. The remainder 0.75% of the total water is perhaps the world’s most important resource that is found in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, underground aquifers and other sources.
Water demand is increasing rapidly worldwide. Of the fresh water consumed by humans, nearly 70 percent is used to produce food (e.g., in the agriculture sector). Fresh water is also used in the industry for a variety of other reasons. As world population rises, while water consumption per capita increases with urbanization and the rapid development of manufacturing industries, the fresh water sources are increasingly becoming smaller with contaminated lakes, rivers and groundwater aquifers and reservoirs.
Large parts of the world are running out of water. A paper presented by the World Bank entitled “the Aftermath of Current Situation in the Absence of Work” concluded that Yemen will run out of water in the period between 2020 and 2050.
Sana — the capital of Yemen — is likely to be the first capital city to completely run dry in a few years. Some 60 percent of China’s 669 cities are already short of water and the current record drought in several of China’s region is directly linked to their problems with water scarcity. In northern China, rivers now run dry in their lower reaches for much of the year. In parts of Pakistan and India, groundwater levels are falling so rapidly that from 10 percent to 20 percent of agricultural production is under threat.
The division of the river basin water has created friction among the countries of South Asia, and among their states and provinces. The Indus River Basin has been an area of conflict between India and Pakistan for about four decades. Spanning 1,800 miles, the river and its tributaries together make up one of the largest irrigation canals in the world. Dams and canals built in order to provide hydropower and irrigation have dried up stretches of the Indus River. India and Bangladesh have also dispute over Ganges/Padma River water and India is resorting to water theft there as well. Nepal and Bangladesh are also victims of India’s water thievery. India had dispute with Bangladesh over Farakka Barrage, with Nepal over Mahakali River and with Pakistan over 1960 Indus Water Treaty. As I have noted elsewhere, the damns and barrages built inside India on many of the common rivers have made navigation during the dry seasons almost impossible.
India is busy building dams on all rivers flowing into Pakistan from occupied Kashmir to regain control of water of western rivers in violation of Indus Water Treaty.
This is being done to render Pakistan’s link-canal system redundant, destroy agriculture of Pakistan which is its mainstay, and turn Pakistan into a desert. India has plans to construct 62 dams/hydro-electric units on Rivers Chenab and Jhelum, which would render these rivers dry by 2014. Using its clout in Afghanistan, India has succeeded in convincing Karzai regime to build a dam on River Kabul and set up Kama Hydroelectric Project She has offered technical assistance for the proposed project, which will have serious repercussions on the water flow in River Indus.
China has built some 20 dams on the eight great Tibetan rivers while some 40 more are planned or proposed for construction in coming years. China has admitted that it is building a dam on the Yarlung Zangbo River, which will rise to 3,260 meters, thus making it world’s highest dam. The river originates in Tibet, but then flows into India and Bangladesh where it is called Brahmaputra and is a major water source for millions of people.
Ethiopia is building three dams, two of them large and one controversial, for environmental reasons. Of these, the Great Millennium Dam, along the Nile River about 25 miles from the Sudan border, will cost nearly $5 billion. The dam will section off a larger portion of the Nile than is used now by Ethiopia. The new Egyptian government has instructed its military to prepare for any eventuality regarding a crucial water dispute with neighboring Ethiopia.
Violent incidents over wells and springs take place periodically in Yemen, and the long-running civil war in Darfur owes partly to the chronic scarcity of water in western Sudan. The Six-day War in the Middle East in 1967 similarly was partly prompted by Jordan’s proposal to divert the Jordan River. And water remains a divisive issue between Israel and its neighbors to this day. Israel extracts about 65% of the upper Jordan, leaving the occupied West Bank dependent on a brackish trickle and a mountain aquifer, access to which Israel also controls. In 2004 the average Israeli had a daily allowance of 290 liters of domestic water, while the average Palestinian less than 70.
International river basins extend across the borders of 145 countries, and some rivers flow through several countries. The Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi are each shared among 9 to 11 countries, and 19 countries share the Danube basin. The 1569 mile long Ganges/Padma River is shared by both India and Bangladesh. The longer Brahmaputra River is shared between China, India and Bangladesh. Adding to the complications is the fact that some countries, especially in Africa and south Asia, rely on several rivers, e.g., 22 rise in Guinea. Some 280 aquifers also cross borders.
Just as wars over oil played a major role in 20th-century history, there is growing evidence that many 21st century conflicts will be fought over water. In “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization,” journalist Steven Solomon argues that water is surpassing oil as the world’s scarcest critical resource.
From Turkey, the southern bastion of NATO, down to Oman, looking out over the Indian Ocean, the countries of the Middle East are worrying today about how they will satisfy the needs of their burgeoning industries, or find drinking water for the extra millions born each year, not to mention agriculture, the main cause of depleting water resources in the region. All these nations depend on three great river systems – Nile, Tigris/Euphrates and Jordan, or vast underground aquifers, some of which are of `fossil water’ that cannot be renewed.
World water use in the past century grew twice as fast as world population. Solomon writes, “We’re going to have to find a way to use the existing water resources in a far, far more productive manner than we ever did before, because there’s simply not enough.” Water is irreplaceable. According to Solomon our world is divided into water haves and have-nots. China, Egypt and Pakistan are just a few countries facing critical water issues in the 21st century.
Societies in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and northern China separately began mastering the hydraulic arts of controlling water from large rivers for mass-scale irrigation, and in so doing unlocked the economic and political means for advanced civilization to begin. Ancient Rome rose as a powerful state when it gained dominance over the Mediterranean Sea, and developed its flourishing urban civilization at the heart of its empire on the flow of abundant, clean freshwater brought by its stupendous aqueducts. The takeoff event and vital artery of China’s medieval golden age was the completion of its 1,100-mile-long Grand Canal, which created a transport highway uniting the resources of its wet, rice-growing, southerly Yangtze region with its fertile, semiarid Yellow River northlands. Islamic civilization’s brilliance was sustained by the trading wealth that accompanied the opening of its once-impenetrable, waterless deserts by long-distance camel caravans that spanned from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.
Open oceanic sailing was the West’s breakthrough route to world dominance, which it built upon through its leadership in steam, hydraulic turbines, hydroelectricity, and other water technologies of the industrial age.
According to Solomon, that control and manipulation of water should be a pivotal axis of power and human achievement throughout history is hardly surprising.
Water has always been man’s most indispensable natural resource, and one endowed with special, seemingly magical powers of physical transformation derived from its unique molecular properties and extraordinary roles in Earth’s geological and biological processes. Through the centuries, societies have struggled politically, militarily, and economically to control the world’s water wealth: to erect cities around it, to transport goods upon it, to harness its latent energy in various forms, to utilize it as a vital input of agriculture and industry, and to extract political advantage from it.
Solomon says: “Every era has been shaped by its response to the great water challenge of its time. And so it is unfolding—on an epic scale—today. An impending global crisis of freshwater scarcity is fast emerging as a defining fulcrum of world politics and human civilization. For the first time in history, modern society’s unquenchable thirst, industrial technological capabilities, and sheer population growth from 6 to 9 billion is significantly outstripping the sustainable supply of fresh, clean water available from nature using current practices and technologies.”
Freshwater is an Achilles’ heel of fast-growing giants China and India, which both face imminent tipping points from unsustainable water practices that will determine whether they lose their ability to feed themselves and cause their industrial expansions to prematurely sputter. “The lesson of history is that in the tumultuous adjustment that surely lies ahead, those societies that find the most innovative responses to the crisis are most likely to come out as winners, while the others will fall behind. Civilization will be shaped as well by water’s inextricable, deep interdependencies with energy, food, and climate change… By grasping the lessons of water’s pivotal role on our destiny, we will be better prepared to cope with the crisis about to engulf us all.”
But has our generation grasped that lesson that is so critical for our survival? Few agreements have been reached about how the water should be shared; most of those agreements are seen as unjust: upstream countries believe that they should control the flow of the rivers, taking what they like, if they can get away with it.
Thus, it is not too surprising to hear India’s protest about Chinese thievery of Brahmaputra water, while she herself is stealing water from Bangladesh on some other rivers that originate from India.
In his lecture at the Geneva conference on Environment and Quality of Life in June 1994, Adel Darwish said, “International law is not clear on the right of upstream countries to control either surface or ground water.” It is also not clear on the shared water courses, rivers or cross border aquifers. That situation, regrettably, has not improved.
The non-clarity of international law remains a matter of grave concern. There are few, if any, precedents that the UN international law commission or the International court of justice could be cited to establish some rules to arbitrate on water sharing; but so far no country has volunteered to do so.
If we want to avoid wars of the future, culminating from water, international laws must be formulated that allows survival of the lower riparian downstream countries. The sooner the better!
The Yellow River only accounts for 2% of the total water volume in China. However, it feeds 12% of the population and irrigates 15% of lands in China. Moreover, it has the responsibility to dispatch water to the outer-basin area, such as Qingdao, Tianjing, Hebei Province, etc. Currently, the exploitation rate of the Yellow River exceeds 50% and is beyond the internationally agreed limitation which is 40%.
Since 1970s, river dry-up occurred from time to time in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. Since 1985, the lower reaches of the Yellow River have almost dried up annually. Due to the Yellow River’s dry-up, from 1992 to 1996, the direct economic loss in the Yellow River basin was 26.8 billion Yuan; Due to the Yellow River’s dry-up, there were 7.042 million mu of drought-affected farmland in Shandong and Henan provinces and caused 10 billion kg crop failure; Due to the Yellow River’s dry-up, in 1996, the Shengli oil field had to use the sea water to replace the industry water use and suffered the serious erosion of the oil equipment. Due to the Yellow River’s dry-up,millions of people in the city and rural area along the Yellow River faced the serious drinking water crisis. In 1992, the Yellow River dried up for two months. In Dongying city, the estuary of the Yellow River, the drinking water could only sustain for 7 days even though the water supply to the industry was cut off. In Binzhou city, in case of cutting off all the industrial and agricultural water supply, a total population of 500 thousand people and 270 thousand livestock still had difficult access to the drinking water; Due to the Yellow River’s dry-up, the wetland environment was imbalanced in the Yellow River delta wetland. In the Yellow River delta wetland reserve, more than 8000 aquatic organisms, hundreds of wild plants and 180 kinds of birds’ life and breeding were seriously threatened by the water shortage. In 1997, the zero flow lasted for 226 days in the lower reaches of the Yellow River. The dry-up section went upstream to somewhere near Kaifeng, Henan province and broke the new record of the dry-up history. The life of the Yellow River faced the crucial water crisis.
The Yellow River has played an essential role in the development of Chinese civilization. She is called “the cradle of Chinese civilization”and the mother river of the Chinese nation.As early as 1.1 million years ago, Lantian man had multiplied in the Yellow River basin. The prosperous ancient Chinese civilization such as famous Yangshao Culture, Longshan Culture, Dawenkou Culture, Majiayao Culture, etc boomed in this vast cradle….Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Tang and Song and other dynasties had set up their capitals in this prosperous region. Undoubtedly, without the Yellow River, there is no Chinese nation.
“The Yellow River water comes from the heaven and enters into the sea without returning”. The overwhelming Yellow River is the symbol of Chinese nation. No other rivers like the Yellow River could capture the soul of the Chinese nation. The Yellow River has the same relationship with China as the relationship between the Nile and Egypt. Without the Yellow River, the consequences would be far beyond the disaster of feeding 150 million people, it would be China’s sorrow and the pain in the heart of all the Chinese people forever. Save the Yellow River, protect the Yellow River, and keep our root.
Traditionally, the Yellow River basin is mainly the agricultural production area. In the past 20 years, with the industrial and urban development in the Yellow River Basin and the urban population explosion, the industrial pollution, urban living pollution and agricultural non-point source pollution is being aggravated continually. The water pollution crisis presents gradually. At present the total amount of the wastewater discharged into the Yellow River has reached 4.2 billion m3 each year, which doubles the amount in the 1980s, the pollutants entering into the Yellow River has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Yellow River.
Based on the recent water quality monitoring data, only 1,750 km of the river channel, or 13.9 percent of the river, where the water quality is classified as type IandII with good quality; 2,160 km of the river channel, or 17.2 percent of the river, where thewater quality is classified as type Ⅲ, suitable for drinking; 4,280 km of the river channel, or 34.1 percent of the river, where the water quality is classified as type IV, only suitable for industry; 2,010 km of the river channel, or 16.0 percent of the river, where the water quality is classified as type V, only suitable for farming; 2,350 km of the river channel, or 18.7 percent of the river, where the water quality is classified lower than type V, the water body function basically lost. In general, the length of the river with sufficient multi-function is less than 1/3 of the total river length evaluated.
The discharge of a large amount of sewage has caused the Yellow River being overwhelmed. The sewage caused the extinction of one third of the wild fish in the Yellow River and the long polluted section is even not suitable for irrigation. The waterway is full of harmful toxins, about 50 percent of the Yellow River section can cause the death of organisms, and have brought harm to the health of residents in the region. The cases of cancer, birth defect and aquatic infectious diseases along the river are increasing rapidly.
If we do not control the discharge of polluted water into the river, the Yellow River will lose its ability to shield us. The water of the Yellow River will become the deadly poisonous water, causing disastrous consequences for the future generations. We will drink the poisonous water brewed by ourselves and come to a chronic suicide.
The origin of the Yellow River’s embarrassment starts from the source area, Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. With abundant underground water and glacier, Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau is known as the Chinese “water tower” and nearly 50% of the Yellow River water comes from this area. But now, warming and arid climate are threatening seriously the ecosystem of the upper reaches of the Yellow River and have caused the unbalance of the biological chain. As a result of this unbalance, rat disasters on the grassland of the Plateau have caused degeneration of grass and then the decline of fertility of the soil and its ability to conserve water. More and more lakes are drying up; the water flowing into the Yellow River has been decreasing gradually. therefore, how long the Yellow River can survive without the source?
“I lived in the Loess Plateau, winds from the slope scratched……”, this song of “the Loess Plateau” make the people feel the heroic features of the Loess Plateau, however, due to the biting wind and the sand, numerous people lost their home. Affected by man-made and natural factors, the environment degeneration of the regions along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River is being accelerated. A lot of land has been “covered” by deserts and the expansion of deserts has been forming a dust bowl area, which is the source of sandstorms.
With an area of 640,000 km2, the Loess Plateau is from the Riyue Mountain in the west to the Taihang Mountain in the east, the south border is the Qinling Mountain and the north border is Yin Mountain. It is an area in China or even in the world with the most extensive soil erosion and the weakest environment. Especially, the section from Hekouzhen to Tongguan, which is classified as coarse sediment laden area, it is the main source of the Yellow River sediment (more than 90％of the Yellow River sediment comes from this area). In recent years, with degeneration of ecological environment, the circumstance of the fragile Loess Plateau has been getting worse, for instance, lots of lakes and rivers, which supply water to the Yellow River, have been drying up, mass farmlands have been becoming desert and soil erosion has been intensified. The Loess Plateau is losing its “blood”.
If the Yellow River lacks water incessantly, the environment balance of the Yellow River Delta will be destroyed. As a result, the survival and multiplication of over 8000 species of aquatic organisms, over 100 species of wild plants and over 180 species of birds will be threatened badly. If the Yellow River lacks water incessantly, more sediment will gradually silt in the river channel and meanwhile the less sediment will be brought to the Delta, as a result, the seawater will erode the land and the Delta will shrink. If the Yellow River lacks water incessantly, severe losses to agriculture and industry of the Delta will be incurred，moreover, drinking water will suffer from shortage, and then the local inhabitants have to leave their home, even turbulence might be unavoidable.