Monday, December 15, 2008

Drop of Life

A person can live without food for three weeks, but only three days without water.

Water is vital to the metabolic process, aiding in the digestion, absorption, and transportation of nutrients in the body. The recommended daily water intake is eight
glasses of water or about two liters. This, however, is just the minimum. Depending on the activity, location, and temperature in the area, a person may actually need more than that.

Unfortunately, water scarcity affects four in ten people and the World Health Organization predicts that the number of affected people may rise given the growing global population. While much of the earth is surrounded with water, only three percent are considered freshwater; the rest are too saline for human consumption.

Agricultural demand for water
There are varied factors for the depletion of water sources, including climate change and environmental degradation, but a major culprit was agriculture. With about 70 percent of the world’s water supply consumed by the agriculture sector, it is easy to see why. In the Asia-Pacific region alone, 81.3 percent of freshwater is utilized for agricultural purposes.

While potable drinking water is a key element in nutrition, the paradox is that huge amount of it is required by the agricultural industry to produce food items. Increased agricultural output has been at the forefront of the global fi ght against food insecurity. As the demand for food rises, so is the demand for water needed to
produce these items. While the daily water requirement for each individual is just about two to four liters, the amount of water needed to produce a person’s daily food
requirement ranges from 2,000 to 5,000 liters.

The solution to this problem is not to limit agricultural output, but rather the adoption of sustainable farming practices, as well as a change in food consumption pattern.

When it comes to food consumption pattern, there is a global shift to a meat-based diet, which means more water is needed to produce meat product. As a comparison, producing a kilo of wheat requires about 1000 liters of water. A kilo of meat, on the other hand, requires fi ve to ten times more water to produce.

The next conflict point?
In Tajikistan, people in the town of Taboshar are leaving the community due to acute water shortage, with the local water agency hardly able to meet even just 15 percent of the town’s water needs.

There are two confl icting views on whether water may be the next fl ash points for geo-political confl icts. The US Central Intelligence Agency is but one of the groups
predicting that this might very well be the case; after all, the UNESCO said that one-third of 262 international river basins are shared by two or more countries.

In the Middle East, five countries are sharing the Jordan River basin: Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. In 2001, tension erupted between Lebanon and Israel when the former attempted to build a pipeline on the Wassani River, which contributes 150 cubic meter of water to the Jordan River. Only the timely intervention of the international community prevented the tension from escalating.

Although there is no major war fought over the control of a water source, there have been periodic clashes, which tend to be localized. In 2000, Chinese police and farmers in Shandong province clashed over the planned diversion of irrigation water to cities and industries.

The other view is more circumspect; water is so vital that nations would benefit more from cooperation in the management of a water source, rather than fi ghting a war for its absolute control.

Prof. Asit Bikwas, a 2006 Stockholm Water Prize awardee, argued that the main issue is not really water scarcity but “bad water management.” He is not alone in this assessment. In the book “Water, a shared responsibility,” the UNESCO – World Water Assessment Programme, acknowledges that “the problem we face today is largely one of governance: equitably sharing this water while ensuring the sustainability of natural ecosystems. At this point in time, we have not yet achieved this balance.”

Addressing the threat of a global water shortage does provide a glimmer of hope, with countries willing to sit down and come up with a compromise on how to better
share a water source. However, it also highlights once more the vulnerability of the poor.

Indeed, when it comes to water allocation, the poor, as always, are left holding an empty jerry can.

Source: Health Alert Asia Pacific, Issue 13, 2008