As it wages a civil war to determine whose lifestyle will dominate the country, Egypt has become the focus of global concern. Rampant intolerance has led to mass killings. The cause of the conflict, however, contradicts former President Anwar Sadat’s 1979 prediction that, “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”
His opinion was one shared by another famous Egyptian:
In 1988 then-Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who later became the United Nations’ Secretary-General, predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be fought over the waters of the Nile, not politics. Rather than accept these frightening predictions, we must examine them within the context of the Nile River basin and the relationships forged among the states that share its waters.
They were obviously both wrong in this instance. Water is not the point of contention in the present upheaval in Egypt. However, according to Thomas Friedman from the New York Times, it is the cause of the situation in neighboring Yemen:
I am in the Yemen International Hospital in Taiz, the Yemeni city in the central highlands that is suffering from such an acute water shortage that people get to run their taps for only 36 hours every 30 days or so, they have to fill up as much as they can and they rely on water trucks that come through neighborhoods and sell water like a precious commodity. I am visiting Mohamed Qaid, a 25-year-old laborer from the nearby village of Qaradh who was struck the night before in the hand and chest by three bullets fired by a sniper from Marzouh, the village next door. The two villages have been fighting over the rapidly dwindling water supply from their shared mountain springs. Six people have been killed and many more wounded in clashes since 2000 that have heated up of late. One was killed a night ago. Qaid is in pain, but he wanted to tell people about what is happening here. I have one question: “where you really shot in the fight over water?” He winced out his answer: “it wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about the Muslim Brotherhood. It was about water.”
It seems almost ironic that people must deal with water shortage and water stress, given that 70% of Earth’s surface is comprised of oceans, some of which reach depths of more than six km (close to 4 miles).
When speaking of global water availability, we must take into account the Water Cycle: through various processes such as evaporation and precipitation, water rotates between oceans, land, various reservoirs, and the atmosphere. This means that water is conserved within the cycle, not “lost” entirely. Water stress doesn’t come from a shortage of water in general, but rather, refers to the shortage of fresh water suitable for direct human consumption and the irrigation of crops needed for food production. To increase our allotment of fresh water and distribute it to where we need it takes energy, and therefore costs money. One of the toughest problems is figuring out who will pay for this, and what kind of energy we can use to do this most efficiently. This is a very complicated issue but is a central component of managing humankind’s sustainability.
Not surprisingly, the impact of climate change on water stress occupied a dominating role at the Mauritius conference attended recently (See the July 2 blog for the program). The range was broad: it spanned from computer projections of global water scarcities, given a predicted 2.50C temperature rise, to current effects of water scarcity on food supply and agricultural employment in Africa.
Once I came back, I was immediately confronted with the many aspects, both local and global, of the interrelations between energy use, climate change and water scarcity, as well as the need for comprehensive solutions that acknowledge all three. I will try to address this issue in the coming blogs.