Why Water?

May, 2009
By Ilmas Futehally

In 2002 when we set up Strategic Foresight Group, the main objective was to provide forward looking analysis on social, economic, geopolitical futures. In the last year, we have added a heavy component of environment, especially water to our portfolio. This has raised some questions. Why does an organization that is focused on geo-politics look at water related issues? How is the future of water going to change socio-economic factors? Is water scarcity going to lead to conflict over water? And ultimately how is water going to change the future of our world?

In our report on Global Security and Economy: Emerging Issues, SFG lists 20 issues that are going to change the future of the world. Water scarcity in emerging economies ranked rather high on the list. In fact it was ranked at number 5 out of 20. Emerging economies – particularly India, China, South Africa and Turkey- are expected to face shortage of fresh water in the next decade, undermining their food security, social stability and in some cases, raising the potential of regional conflict.

At an international conference organized by SFG in June 2008 on Responsibility to the Future: Business, Peace and Sustainability, a panel on food and water security discussed how these issues are addressed in diverse countries and recommendations included the need for continuous dialogue and compromise to deal with issues relating to water before they escalate into violent conflicts. The panel also recommended the need for information exchange on shared waters.

An earlier SFG report- The Final Settlement- looked at the relationship between India and Pakistan through three prisms of earth, fire and water. The report argues that any final settlement between the two countries will have to be based on a realistic analysis of the water situation in the Indus River Basin.

And yet earlier, SFG report- Rethinking India’s Future: Prosperity of the Periphery has identified land and water availability as one of the key drivers for the future development of India. The “breakdown” scenario includes mismanagement of water as one of its signposts, while the “breakthrough” scenario includes proper irrigation and good water management for agriculture as a fundamental milestone.

In many parts of the globe, water is perhaps the factor that is most going to impact geo-politics, society and development in the future. The scarcity of water in the Middle East has been recognized as a key issue in many of the peace negotiations over the last few decades. From the Oslo process onwards, water has been given a central role in talks.

International Alert has identified forty-six countries where water and climate stresses could ignite violent conflict by 2025. The World Wildlife Fund has identified the top 10 rivers of the world that are at great risk from pollution and ecological stress and can no longer be assured of reaching the sea. These include the Salween, La Plata, Danube, Rio Grande, Ganges, Murray-Darling, Indus, Nile, Yangtze and Mekong. The basins of all these rivers are home to millions of people, including 400 million who live in the basin of just the River Ganges. Interestingly, the international river basins of the world host about 40% of the world’s population.

Centre for Atmospheric Research in the USA has recently come out with a report that argues that some of the world’s major rivers are losing water because of climate change. The study looks at 925 rivers from 1948 to 2004, and found significant changes taking place in about a third of the world’s largest rivers. Rivers with decreased flow outnumbered those with increased flow by 2.5 to 1.

But there are reasons to be optimistic as well. Dr Aaron Wolf, a renowned expert on trans-boundary water has found that in the last 50 years the incidence of cooperation over water far outweighs that of violence. In fact out of the 37 violent disputes, 30 occurred between Israel and one of its neighbors. In the same period 157 water treaties were negotiated and signed.

Our projects on water hope to build on the optimism. In the next two years, 2009-2011, we will be examining the impact of water stress in Asia and the Middle East, and of course the contribution of climate change to the melting of glaciers, erratic precipitation patterns and other factors that will influence the availability of water. We will also develop creative and collaborative solutions in these two sensitive regions. After all, strategic foresight is about anticipating problems and transforming them into opportunities for conflict resolution and cooperation.

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