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The stresses that are rearranging the world’s maps, uprooting populations, destroying nation-states and destabilizing the planet have less to do with extreme “-isms,” geopolitics, hegemony or nuclear armaments than they do with water. Overuse, misuse and pollution of water, combined with spreading drought, a consequence of climate change, are imposing on larger and larger regions of the world an inexorable sequence of deprivation leading to desperation, then disintegration. About halfway through the progression, as desperation begins to bring on disintegration, the violence begins, and from then on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride hard.
The increasing scarcity of water is the unacknowledged cause of the so-called Arab Spring collapses of the governments of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. It was the spark that lit the fuse of the rebellions in Syria (when protesters in Daraa protested corrupt allocations of scarce water) and Yemen (when citizens of Taiz, the thirstiest city in the country, erupted in 2011).
It is only when we recognize this causality (keeping in mind that high costs, and scarcity, of food are almost always a consequence of scarce water) that we can appreciate how much trouble we are in. What happened to these failed and failing states is under way in:
- Southeastern Brazil, racked by the worst drought in a century, is the site of the largest, most drought-afflicted city in the world so far — Sao Paulo. Its 20 million people, without tap water for days at a time, face imminent, total exhaustion of their water reservoir, and are desperately digging wells on city lots and in basements. A trickle of climate refugees have already abandoned the city, and the trickle is expected to become a (metaphorical) flood.
- Venezuela, which is demonstrating that water scarcity does not only affect food and drink. The country is dependent on hydroelectric power, which cannot be maintained when insufficient water is flowing through the turbines. Also suffering from the collapse of oil prices, on which the country depends, it is now, in its hottest year ever, suffering from blackouts, brownouts and power rationing as well.
- Iran, whose former agriculture minister said recently that the country has only enough water to support 30 million people, and predicted that unless conditions change about 50 million people will become refugees. “Which countries,” he asked, “are ready to accommodate (them)?
- India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, have been at or near war for decades over Kashmir, aka the headwaters of the Indus River, whose water is Pakistan’s life blood and whose flow is shrinking (as the region’s glaciers shrink) while Pakistan’s population is swelling.
- Israel, having diverted the Jordan River and occupied the Golan Heights where it rises, has taken for itself 85% of its water, seven times more per capita than it has left the Palestinians, and to say there are hard feelings over this is a colossal understatement. To say that there is any hope for a peace process that does not deal with the water situation is a colossally stupid statement.
The list of countries approaching mortal crisis because of water scarcity goes on, and on. It has to include California, Arizona and Nevada, states whose mummification by dry desert air is proceeding apace.
In the shadow of this real and present danger to the world, politicians and talking heads continue to prattle about religion, ideology, ethnicity, world domination — indeed, any distraction imaginable — apparently to avoid having to confront reality. Despite their best efforts at obfuscation, however, it is clear that reality is about to confront us.