One of the key lessons we’ve learned from the coronavirus pandemic is that the world is ill-prepared for persistent and slow-moving global crises. We do well with intense, momentary emergencies like an earthquake or a tsunami – we come together, mobilize resources and cooperate across continents. But crises that require sustained cooperation and planning lay bare the coarseness of human nature: we are tribal; we turn on each other.
The next crisis on the horizon is water. Already, shortages of this most essential component of life is in short supply in many parts of the world. And the problem is only getting worse. We will survive the coronavirus outbreak, but can we survive the coming water crisis?
Adnan R. Khan: What’s contributing to the growing water crisis?
Ilter Turan: There seem to be several questions bound together. One is the fact that as increase and as climatic conditions change, there will be less water available in critical parts of the world, including the Middle East.
This is complicated by the fact that countries that were not previously major users of water from river systems also want to use those waters now. Ethiopia, for example, which has built a dam on the Nile river, is angering Egypt. This is a water quantity issue.
A second issue is quality. As populations increase, there is a greater amount of pollution that goes into river systems. Pollution derives from two sources: The first is increasing use of fertilizers and insecticides in farming; the other is that as the population of the world grows, human activity creates more pollution, including sewage and industrial waste. So, insufficient quantities and the low quality of available water come together to lead us to the water crisis.
Adnan R. Khan: Experts have been warning about the coming water crisis for decades. Why are we so ill-prepared?
Ilter Turan: We are facing several types of problems. There is, in fact, a body of rules depicted in the Convention on the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses that are supposed to govern water usage from rivers. But many countries including Turkey do not subscribe to it. It is contested because watercourses are so difficult to classify – every river has its own peculiarities. Understandably, the language of the convention is vague containing terms like “optimal” and “equitable” use which are open to major differences in interpretation. Such expressions are very difficult to operationalize.
There are further practical problems like “users’ rights” that’s gives major advantage to those that began to benefit from the water at an earlier date. Further complications arise from the reality that the power of riparians along a river are highly varied.
But there is also what you might call the problem of mindset. When countries approach negotiations over water, they are often thinking in terms of quantity. Let me give an example from the Tigris River. The major problem at this particular time appears not to be so much an insufficient quantity of water flowing from Turkey into Iraq but that by the time the river reaches, say Baghdad, the quality of water is so bad that it is almost unusable. The prudent approach might be for the riparians to cooperate with international agencies to develop a common program to reduce sewage, industrial and pesticide discharge into the river in Turkey, Iraq and in Iran where there are some major tributaries. At the moment, this is the more important question. But when negotiators have come together, the first thing they have talked about has been quantity. This is a non-starter because everyone thinks all the water should belong to them.
Adnan R. Khan: It’s such a precious resource. Do you see a future where countries fight wars over it, as they’ve done with oil?
Ilter Turan: It’s really difficult to compare the two. The production of oil can be regulated. There are alternative sources of energy. There are effective methods for reducing the demand for energy. Water, on the other hand, is the source of life; societies cannot survive without minimum yet sufficient quantities. Countries that are going to experience water stress can, however, individually and collectively, plan to do things that are useful. Number one, usage may be reduced; it doesn’t make sense, for example, to plan on a future of more and more irrigated farming, particularly downstream. In contemporary use, water economizing technologies may be implemented more intensely. Second, water pollution may be brought under tighter control. Third, as effluent, water may be used more than once. There are many other ways of making better use of the water that is available.
It is also possible to produce fresh water from the oceans. It is an expensive process but it is getting cheaper and cheaper. And at least for human use, that is a possibility. But another thing that we have to recognize is that water is not just God’s gift to man; it is also a commodity, and it has a cost. So apart from meeting immediate minimum human needs, water can be priced so as to regulate its use.
If we want to meet the challenge of water stress, a multi-pronged strategy needs to be adopted where you keep water clean, you adopt economizing measures; you plan your future in a way that involves the less use of water; and you price the water to control the demand.