Friday, June 1, 2007

Is Water The Next Oil?

Motives behind the question vary, depending on who asks the question. But there are lessons to be learned from how we have managed oil on this planet over the past century and more.

-Rohini Nilekani

Is water the next oil? Motives behind the question vary, depending on who asks the question.Those who see water as a future core commodity – therefore as profitable a prospect as oil – pose the question to create the right market conditions for water trade. Those who see the potential for conflict arising from scarcity compare diminishing freshwater to oil’s depleting reserves. Those who see an environmental threat from mismanagement of water see parallels with the abuse and waste of oil.

So there are lessons to be learned from how we have managed oil on this planet over the past century and more.
The oil crisis confronting the world today is much like the looming crisis in water, with depleting supplies, unequal distribution and access, and the inevitable specter of rising costs and increasing conflict around the sharing of this vital natural resource. As with oil, water exploitation raises an inter-generational debt that will be hard to repay. The uncontrolled and rapacious exploitation of oil has led to unintended consequences, and if we continue on a similar trajectory with water, the oil crisis will seem like the trailer of some horrible disaster movie.
Ironically, our untrammeled use of oil fuels the crisis in water. Burning of fossil fuels has led to global warming, the melting of glaciers and ice caps, and the early snowmelts that will cause flooding in areas that can hardly bear another burden. And it may also cause the climate to fluctuate in a way that brings too much rain in some places and too little in others.
In addition, the move to replace oil with biomass-based fuels will intensify water use, not so much for sustaining our life and this planet as to sustain our lifestyles.
All this is worth thinking about at the individual level, because if change really happens, it must begin within the individual consciousness.

The challenges are immense. The first, of course, is that the earth has a finite amount of usable water, despite it being a beautiful blue planet. The 2.5 percent of usable planet water is in a precarious balance with glaciers and fossil groundwater remaining intact.

Another challenge is the inefficiencies and inequities in how water is used. Agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s water, much of it to produce what we eat. There is tremendous wastage in our agricultural processes, though the levels are somewhat stable or even improving slightly.
Demand for domestic water has risen sharply over the century, which again brings us back to questioning what we as individuals can do. The sectoral demand on water is increasing rapidly within both industry and domestic settings. Competing demand will create pressure on the agriculture sector, perhaps leading water-scarce regions to produce less food and outsource food production to water-rich countries, spurring concerns about the food security of individual nation states.
Poverty, power and inequality are at the core of the water issue and not scarcity, as the UN Development Programme Human Development Report 2006 powerfully argues.
And herein lies the rub. Since we have taken water for granted, we must face the alarming inequality in safe water. More than 1.5 billion people lack access to adequate water and sanitation. If poverty is bad, then poverty without water is hell on earth. Recently, the millennium development goals have supplied a normative framework for governments to prioritize how water is delivered.

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