[West Australian / 2001 Aug 15]

Water wars tipped to flow from shortages


SCIENTISTS have warned that more people may be fighting over water than oil this century.

A report issued at the United Nations-sponsored World Water Forum in Stockholm, Sweden, said that one in three people would not have enough access to water by 2025. It was unlikely that traditional agriculture could feed the world's population by then.

Water shortages already affected about 450 million people in 29 countries, and tensions over water rights in Asia and Africa could erupt into serious clashes, the report warned. Governments must find new ways to better use existing supplies.

"Water could become the new oil as a major source of conflict," Dutch Crown Prince Willem-Alexander, a patron of the 1999 World Water Forum, said after opening the conference on Monday.

"Increasing scarcity, competition and arguments over water in the first quarter of the 21st century will dramatically change the way we value and use water and the way we mobilise and manage water resources."

From clashes over the use of local watering holes and disagreements between countries over the right to dam a shared river to corporations' desire to privatise water distribution water has become a source of strife. While few wars have been fought over water outright, political disagreements are intensified when such essential resources become scarce.

Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project, based in Massachusetts, said that innovations had lowered the cost of water treatment. But more than a billion people still lacked safe drinking water.

"We're running as fast as we can just to stay in one place," she said.

Rural areas were threatened the most, the report said. Global warming, wasteful practices and pollution meant that major rivers that millions had traditionally relied on were running dry for part of the year.

China's Yellow River, the Nile in Africa and the Indus and Ganges in south Asia do not always reach the sea in the dry season, leaving farmers high and dry. Agricultural scientists are struggling to find ways to grow more food with less water in order to prevent famine in the next 25 years.

"There's not enough water available to produce enough food -- that's the problem," said Peter Gleick, the director of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, California.


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