Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Mixing water and oil as global resources dwindle

By Matthew Wild - posted Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Oil and safe drinking water are on parallel courses to depletion - a scarcity that will lead to starvation, disease and warfare.

It sounds counter intuitive to compare the two, considering the global cycle of evaporation and precipitation. But the issue here is drinking water, which is fast becoming a geopolitical resource to rival oil - a flashpoint at various places around the globe. There are currently calls for international mediation over the flow of the Indus (India and Pakistan), Ganges (India and Bangladesh), Nile (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia), Jordan (Syria, Israel and Jordan), Tigris-Euphrates (Turkey, Syria and Iraq) and the Mekong (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam), and less aggressively stated diplomatic tensions between many other nations (Canada, US and Mexico) over shared access to drinking water. In addition, a July 2010 report states that the continental USA will face a water crisis by mid century.

With 80 countries and 40 per cent of the world's population currently facing chronic water problems, billions around the globe arguably regard the availability of water as more critical than that of oil. But can the two be compared in this way? The concept of peak oil, based on the work of M King Hubbert, is simple enough: a bell chart curve plotting the point at which half of the world’s oil will have been extracted; it marks the time of maximum production, which can only be followed by diminishing output. But peak water? At first, it sounds laughable. Three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is water.


But the issue is drinking water - 97.5 per cent of all the Earth’s water is not suitable for human use. Freshwater makes up the remaining 2.5 per cent, but the vast majority of this is inaccessible - 99 per cent of it is either frozen in the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica, present as soil moisture, trapped deep underground or in the atmosphere. Only about 1 per cent of the world’s fresh water, less than 0.01 per cent of all of the world’s water, is available for human use. And it is not fairly distributed. A 2005 Wired magazine article on peak water observed:

Like oil, water is not equitably distributed or respectful of political boundaries; about 50 percent of the world's freshwater lies in a half-dozen lucky countries.

Freshwater is the ultimate renewable resource, but humanity is extracting and polluting it faster than it can be replenished. Rampant economic growth - more homes, more businesses, more water-intensive products and processes, a rising standard of living - has simply outstripped the ready supply, especially in historically dry regions. Compounding the problem, the hydrologic cycle is growing less predictable as climate change alters established temperature patterns around the globe.

And it’s happening right before our eyes. According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2006 (PDF 7.88MB):

Access to water for life is a basic human need and a fundamental human right. Yet in our increasingly prosperous world, more than 1 billion people are denied the right to clean water and 2.6 billion people lack access to adequate sanitation. These headline numbers capture only one dimension of the problem. Every year some 1.8 million children die as a result of diarrhoea and other diseases caused by unclean water and poor sanitation. At the start of the 21st century unclean water is the world’s second biggest killer of children …

At any given time close to half the people in the developing world are suffering from one or more of the main diseases associated with inadequate provision of water and sanitation such as diarrhoea, guinea worm, trachoma and schistosomiasis … These diseases fill half the hospital beds in developing countries.

Ismail Serageldin, a World Bank official, famously warned in 1995: “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water.”

A current flashpoint is the Indus, which flows some 2,900km from Tibet to the Arabian Sea through India and Pakistan. The source of the conflict dates back to colonial times, when British engineers constructed an irrigation network that turned the Punjab into the Subcontinent’s “breadbasket”. This fertile region was divided between India and the newly formed Pakistan in 1947, with both agreeing to maintain water supplies at pre-independence levels. The first water dispute arose as early as 1948. A treaty was signed in 1960, but things are becoming tense, with Pakistan accusing India of stealing its water and India accusing Pakistan of attempting to hide its own mismanagement behind angry rhetoric.


An item in the Globe & Mail newspaper of July 2010, "Pakistan’s drinkers of the dust", expands on the issue:

Water scarcity in the Indus basin may be the world’s most dangerous environmental phenomenon. If anything will cause a civil war in Pakistan, or a conflict with its nemesis, India, many analysts believe that it will be water.

Civilization in this region depends on snow melting from the Himalayas, feeding tributaries that join the Indus. These pour into the largest continuous irrigation system on the planet, transforming the desert into fields of rice and wheat.

But the system is breaking down. Dry conditions in the past few years have prompted bitter conflicts: Southern Pakistan accuses the north of grabbing more than its share of water; many in the northern regions, in turn, blame their upstream neighbours in India for stealing water. In the mountains that give birth to the rivers, struggles over hydroelectricity are spurring rebellion in Kashmir.

The current ongoing flooding in Pakistan, which the UN believes has affected 3 million people, is for now obscuring the long-running tensions over water supply in the area - but it hasn’t gone away.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. All

This is an edited version of an article first published at Peak Generation on August 12, 2010.

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

2 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Matthew Wild is originally from England, he relocated to Vancouver, BC in 2001. His background is newspaper journalism and he's been reporter, senior reporter and editor, and more recently a freelancer. Mstthew is currently in a communications position, and freelancing news stories to a number of titles in the BC Lower Mainland. He blogs at Peak Generation.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Matthew Wild

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 2 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy