A recent row between two Indian States over rights to the water of a major river they share highlights a problem that will be affecting many more parts of the world as the century progresses.
The Cauvery River rises in Karnataka and flows across southern India, through Tamil Nadu, to empty into the Bay of Bengal. Disputes between the two States over its waters have been a regular occurrence since the colonial era, and flared again earlier this year after India’s Supreme Court ordered the Karnataka State Government to release additional flows to its neighbour.
Initially Karnataka, which controls the river flow mainly through the Kabini Dam, refused citing violent demonstrations in its major city of Bangalore against any additional release. It claimed it needed the water for drinking, while Tamil Nadu required it just for irrigation.
However, when monsoon rains proved better than expected, Karnataka relented and said it would release more water “to protect the interest of its farmers”; in fact much is expected to flow on to Tamil Nadu.
While this may seem little more than a local spat, eventually resolved, the underlying issues have global implications. The journal Science Daily recently reported on a study by Aarhus University in Denmark that predicted there will not be enough water to meet world demand for drinking, irrigation and power generation by 2040.
The author of the report, Benjamin Sovacool said electricity was the biggest source of water consumption as power plants needed cooling cycles in order to function. Worse still, the research showed that most power systems did not even keep count of the amount of water they were using.
“It’s a huge problem if the electricity sector does not even know how much water they consume, and together with the fact that we don’t have unlimited water resources, it could lead to a serious crisis if nobody acts on it soon,” Professor Sovacool said.
But for many of the world’s population, the crisis is already here. More than a billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. Climate change means that once predictable monsoon rains are regularly failing. In the Middle East deserts are encroaching on previously fertile areas.
Announcing a major investment in desalination plants because its fresh water sources were drying up, Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates said water was now more important than oil.
But in poor and landlocked countries, desalination is an impossible luxury. Here lack of clean water leads to inadequate sanitation, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever flourish. The worst casualties are among children, with more than a million dying from these diseases each year.
Most Governments continue to play down the threat of global water shortages, but with a resource which is absolutely vital to human survival, and with the world’s population still rising, the possibility will be ignored at our peril.