Will Future Wars Be Fought Over Water?
In his new book, "Tapped Out," former U.S. Senator Paul Simon paints a grim future where nations will cross swords over the most basic of commodities: water.
Simon and other futurists are convinced within the next few decades many nations will be so hard-pressed for water that many will go to war to avoid catastrophe.
"Wars have been fought over water for centuries, so it's certainly nothing new," says Dr. James Hairston, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System water quality scientist. In recent centuries, causes of most international conflicts have stemmed from differences over politics and religion, Hairston says. But, with population growth rapidly outstripping existing water resources in many regions of the world, the ancient struggle for water will crop up again - perhaps even sooner than we think.
Hairston believes most of these conflicts will take place in underdeveloped countries, where concerns over water appear to be most acute.
"Population is increasing at an astounding rate - about 80 million a year by some estimates," he says. "And 95 percent of this growth is in underdeveloped countries where serious shortages already have occurred." Even developed countries aren't immune to problems. In the Southeast, where water always has been abundant, states are skirmishing over water issues.
In Atlanta, rapid population growth is outpacing existing water supplies. This has left municipal authorities scurrying to find other sources of water.
Atlanta's growing demand for water, has provoked water skirmishes with Alabama. To satisfy Atlanta's growing thirst, some experts even have called for pumping water out of the Tallapoosa River system that runs into Alabama, thereby depriving Alabamians of water they consider belonging to them.
In the water-starved West, many communities are recycling gray water --water used for washing that contains traces of detergents. While it's not suitable for drinking, scientists have discovered it can be recycled and used for irrigating plants.
Gray water recycling alone won't solve all water shortages associated with the West. With many lakes and streams already pumped dry, localities in the region have become dangerously reliant on groundwater resources, and this has many experts, including Hairston, concerned.
"In the future, the major issue will be groundwater, and the West isn't alone in this respect. People the world over are tapping into these reserves," Hairston says.Considering it took centuries for many water supplies to be formed from the slow trickle-down effect in the soil caused from rainfall, Hairston says people shouldn't take these resources for granted. Unfortunately, most do, he says.
"The technology that has enabled us to pump millions of tons of oil also has enabled us to pump groundwater," Hairston says. "The major difference is while you have alternatives to oil, such as solar power, there is no alternative to water. Another difference is you can't drink oil, so water is a more precious commodity than oil."
Unfortunately, Hairston says, many nations won't take note of the problem until water supplies are seriously depleted. Then it's too late to do anything. There are numerous examples of civilizations that thrived in areas of low rainfall and inadequate water supplies. They didn't understand the water cycle and the ecological implications of what they were doing, so they destroyed their capacity to produce foods.
The Middle East often is called the graveyard of empires and for good reason.
"Centuries ago, people of this region changed their climate and failed to understand the implications involved, and ended up paying dearly for it," Hairston says. "It should be a lesson for the 20th century as well."