We often talk about water shortage, or the waste of water, but technically speaking this isn’t correct. The amount of water we have on earth actually doesn’t change anymore. A more urgent term to worry about is actually; water conflict.
Earth and the rest of the planets formed inside a nest of gas left over from the birth of the Sun. This material, known as the solar nebula (remember a popular saying that we are all made of stardust), contained all the elements that built the planets, and the compositions varied with distance from the Sun. The region near the star was too warm for some material to coalesce as ices, which instead formed in the outer part of the solar system. Around Earth, hydrogen and other elements could stick around only as a gas. Because the nebula was short-lived, most scientists suspect that Earth didn’t have enough time to collect these gases before they escaped into space. That idea, along with the planet’s high D/H ratio, led many to believe that Earth’s water must have arrived after Earth had cooled.
Most researchers believed that water arrived later on the young earth through ‘rains’ of comets carrying ice and asteroids carrying hydrogen and oxygen. A newer theory suggests that the elements that build water were incorporated in earth’s crust from the start and came from the original solar nebula. Most of the mantle is rocky, and enormous quantities of hydrogen and oxygen could be trapped inside. Researchers estimate that as much as 10 oceans of water may exist within the mantle. Outside its mantel earth is estimated to hold about 1,460,000,000 cubic kilometers of water. However, available freshwater is scarcer than you might think. To give an idea of the distribution of fresh water on earth: 97.2% is in the oceans and inland seas; 2.1% is in glaciers; 0.6% is in groundwater and soil moisture; less than 1% is in the atmosphere; less than 1% is in lakes and rivers and less than 1% is in all living plants and animals.
Our planet is very efficient at keeping its water. Water, as a vapor in our atmosphere, could potentially escape into space from Earth. But the water doesn’t escape because certain regions of the atmosphere are extremely cold. (At an altitude of 15 kilometers, for example, the temperature of the atmosphere is as low as -60° Celsius!) At this frigid temperature, water forms solid crystals that fall back to Earth’s surface. Nature also has a way of keeping the amount of surface water on the earth relatively constant. Our surface water is constantly recycled in a process known as the hydrologic or water cycle. A large amount of water evaporates from the surfaces of oceans, rivers, and lakes every day. It forms water vapor that rises into the air until it cools, condenses, and forms water droplets. Millions of these droplets come together to form clouds. When clouds get heavy enough, gravity tugs on the droplets, and the clouds release their water as rain or snow. This precipitation falls into streams and rivers, which flow back to the oceans, seas, and lakes, where the water cycle can begin again.
When we talk about climate change, we are often warned about the rising sea levels, but there is a way more urgent problem: The shortage of freshwater, the essential ingredient of all life in earth. Peter Gleick, head of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, has spent the last three decades studying the link between water scarcity, conflict and migration and believes that water conflict is on the rise. “With very rare exceptions, no one dies of literal thirst,” he says. “But more and more people are dying from contaminated water or conflicts over access to water.”
Gleick and his team are behind the Water Conflict Chronology. This is a log of 925 water conflicts, large and small, stretching back to the days of the Babylonian king Hammurabi. The conflicts listed vary from full blown wars to disputes between neighbors and reveal that the relationship between water and conflict is a complex one. “We categorized water conflicts in three groups,” says Gleick. “As a ‘trigger’ of conflict, where violence is associated with disputes over access and control of water; as a ‘weapon’ of conflict, where water or water systems are used as weapons in conflicts, including for the use of dams to withhold water or flood downstream communities; and as ‘casualties’ or ‘targets’ of conflicts, where water resources or treatment plants or pipelines are targeted during conflicts.” Through history most water-conflicts were agriculture related. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as agriculture accounts for around 70% of freshwater use. If society continue to behave and grow the way it does, by 2050, feeding a planet of 9 to 10 billion people will require an estimated 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in water withdrawals. But is this realistic?
Over the course of the 20th Century, global water use grew at more than twice the rate of population increase. Today, this dissonance is leading many cities, from Rome to Cape Town and Chennai to Lima, to ration water. Water crises have been ranked in the top five of the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks by Impact list nearly every year since 2012. In 2017, severe droughts contributed to the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two, when 20 million people across Africa and the Middle East were forced to leave their homes due to the accompanying food shortages and conflicts that erupted.
As demand for water grows, so too does the scale of the potential conflicts. Already a quarter of the world’s population now faces severe water scarcity at least one month out of the year and it is leading many to seek a more secure life in other countries. “If there is no water, people will start to move,” says Kitty van der Heijden, chief of international cooperation at the Netherlands’ foreign ministry and an expert in hydropolitics. Water scarcity affects roughly 40% of the world’s population and, according to predictions by the United Nations and the World Bank, drought could put up to 700 million people at risk of displacement by 2030. People like van der Heijden are concerned about what that could lead to. “If there is no water, people are going to try and get their hands on it and they might start to fight over it,” she says.
“The latest research on the subject does indeed show water-related violence increasing over time,” says Charles Iceland, global director for water at the World Resources Institute. “Population growth and economic development are driving increasing water demand worldwide. Meanwhile, climate change is decreasing water supply and/or making rainfall increasingly erratic in many places.” Iceland works with the Dutch government-funded Water, Peace and Security (WPS) partnership. This is a group of six American and European NGOs (including the Pacific Institute and the World Resources Institute). They’ve developed a Global Early Warning Tool, which uses machine learning to predict conflicts before they happen. It combines data about rainfall, crop failures, population density, wealth, agricultural production, levels of corruption, droughts, and flooding, among many other sources of data to produce conflict warnings. They are displayed on a red-and-orange Mercator projection down to the level of administrative districts. Currently it is warning of around 2,000 potential conflict hotspots, with an accuracy rate of 86%.
While the Global Early Warning Tool can be used to identify locations where conflicts over water are at risk of breaking out, it can also help to inform those hoping to understand what is happening in areas that are already experiencing strife due to water scarcity. One result of the Global Early Warning tool reveals some strange trends. In some of the most water-stressed parts of the world, there appears to be a net-migration of people into these areas. Oman, for example, suffers higher levels of drought than Iraq but received hundreds of thousands of migrants per year prior to the pandemic. That’s because Oman fares far better than the latter in terms of corruption, water infrastructure, ethnic fractionalization, and hydropolitical tension. “A community’s vulnerability to drought is often more important than the drought itself,” says Lina Eklund, of a physical geography researcher at Sweden’s Lund University.
The link between water scarcity and conflict, in other words, isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Even where severe drought exists, a complex mix of factors will determine whether it actually leads to conflict: social cohesion being one of the most important. Take the Kurdistan region of Iraq, for example: an area which suffered through the same five-year drought that pushed one-and-a-half million Syrian farmers into urban centers in March 2011. The tight-knit Kurdish community didn’t experience the same exodus, discontent, or subsequent infighting. Jessica Hartog, head of natural resource management and climate change at International Alert, a London-based NGO, explains this is because the Syrian government, aiming for food self-sufficiency, had long subsidized agriculture, including fuel, fertilizer, and ground water extraction. When Damascus abruptly scrapped these supports mid-drought, rural families were forced to migrate en masse to urban centers bringing a distrust of the al-Assad regime with them, fueling the bitter civil war that has torn the country to pieces.
At the international level, extensive damming by countries upstream are likely to increase the risk of disputes with those that rely on rivers for much of their water supply further downstream. But Susanne Schmeier, associate professor of water law and diplomacy at IHE Delft in the Netherlands, says that co-riparian conflict is easier to spot and less likely to come to a head. “Local conflicts are much more difficult to control and tend to escalate rapidly – a main difference from the trans boundary level, where relations between states often limit the escalation of water-related conflicts,” she says
Around the world, there’s plenty of examples where tensions are high though – the Aral Sea conflict comprising Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; the Jordan River conflict amongst the Levantine states; the Mekong River dispute between China and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. None have yet boiled over into conflict. But Schmeier also points towards one dispute that is showing signs it might.
Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia all depend on inflow from the Blue Nile and have long exchanged political blows over the upstream Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project – a dam built at $5bn (£3.6bn), and three times the size of the country’s Lake Tana. When the Ethiopian government announced plans to press ahead regardless, Egypt and Sudan held a joint war exercise in May this year, pointedly called “Guardians of the Nile.” It has perhaps the highest risk of spilling into a water war of all the disputes in today’s political landscape, but there are several other hotspots around the world. Pakistani officials, for example, have previously referred to India’s upstream usage strategy as “fifth-generation warfare”, whilst Uzbek President Islam Karimov has warned that regional disputes over water could lead to war. “I won’t name specific countries, but all of this could deteriorate to the point where not just serious confrontation, but even wars could be the result,” he said.
Journalist Stephen Emmott states in his book ‘Ten Billion’ that by 2050, 1bn hectares of land is likely to be deforested/ cleared to meet rising food demands from a growing population. This is an area greater than the US. And accompanying this will be three giga tons per year extra CO2 emissions. However, if Siberia’s permafrost thaws out before we finish our deforestation, this could result in a vast amount of new land being available for agriculture, as well as opening up a very rich source of minerals, metals, oil and gas. In the process this would almost certainly completely change global geopolitics. Siberia thawing would turn Russia into a remarkable economic and political force because of its newly uncovered mineral, agricultural and energy resources. No wonder Putin has already mentioned a few times that he doesn’t mind so much if earth’s temperature increases a few decrees. Melting of permafrost would inevitably also be accompanied with the release of vast stores of methane that are currently sealed under the Siberian permafrost tundra. This huge release of methane into the atmosphere will increase the temperature on earth even more, destabilizing our climate circle and political powers.
The term “climate migrants” is one we will increasingly have to get used to. The term refers to people who are on the move because their own country is no longer habitable, or has insufficient water or food, or is experiencing conflict over increasingly scarce resources.
Indirectly the current Syrian refugees can also been seen as climate migrants as environmental crisis also played a role in Syria’s uprising. Between 2006 and 2010, Syria experienced the worst drought in the country’s modern history. Hundreds of thousands of farming families were reduced to poverty, causing a mass migration of rural people to urban shantytowns. It was in the impoverished drought-stricken rural province of Darʿā, in southern Syria, that the first major protests occurred in March 2011. The violence of the regime’s response added visibility and momentum to the protesters’ it can be seen as the tipping point and start of the civil war that still causes many people to flee the country. Anyone who thinks that the emerging global state of affairs does not have great potential for more civil and international conflict is deluding themselves. It is no coincidence that many scientific conferences now have a new type of attendee: the military.
So yes, freshwater shortage and water conflict are a huge and more urgent problem than rising sea levels. But once we finally really recognize these problems, then there are still ways to reduce them. If potential flash-points for conflicts over water can be identified, then something can be done to stop them in the future. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to water scarcity. The obvious way is of course to reduce our consumption of freshwater. In many less developed countries simply reducing loss and leaks could also make a big difference. Iraq for example seems to lose as much as two-thirds of treated water due to damaged infrastructure. The WPS partners also suggest tackling corruption and reducing agricultural over-abstraction as other key policies that could help. In many parts of the world, humans have grown used to getting water being a cheap and plentiful resource rather than something to be treasured. Therefore Iceland suggests increasing the price of water to reflect the real cost of its provision. Much can also be done by freeing up more water for use through techniques such as desalination of seawater. Saudi Arabia and Israel currently meet around 50% of their water needs through the process. “Grey”, or waste water, recycling can also offer a low-cost, easy-to-implement alternative, which can help farming communities impacted by drought. One assessment of global desalination and wastewater treatment predicted that increased capacity of these could reduce the proportion of the global population under severe water scarcity from 40% to 14%.
The difficulty with desalinate is that salt dissolves very easily in water, forming strong chemical bonds that are difficult to break. Therefore the desalination of water requires a lot of energy. Two basic methods for breaking the bonds in saltwater: thermal distillation and membrane separation. Thermal distillation involves heat: Boiling water turns it into vapor, leaving the salt behind. The vapor is then collected and condensed back into water by cooling it down. Distillation produces a clean, condensed sea salt, which is not too logistically complicated to dispose of in a non-harmful, environmentally-safe manner. The problem is that distillation processes require a high amount of energy. The most common type of membrane separation is called reverse osmosis. Seawater is forced through a semipermeable membrane that separates salt from water. Because this technology typically requires less energy than thermal distillation, most new plants currently use reverse osmosis. The problem however is that reverse osmosis produces a staggering amount of liquid waste (up to 50% of the water intake) in the form of brine- an intensely salinated grey sludge. To keep the cost low, the current prevailing method is slow-release dispersal back into the sea, which is not good for sea life living around these disposal pipes.
For both desalination processes of seawater the biggest downside is that it cost a lot of energy. Producing this energy is both costly and often not good for the environment either. While other difficulties involve how to prevent small sea life from getting sucked into the desalination plant and what to do with the concentrated brine of salt and other minerals that is left? A quick search with Google shows a lot of negativity about desalination, but there is hope. Seawater Greenhouse is on its way to solve part of the desalination problems. A moist microclimate is created inside greenhouses in the desert through the use of an adapted pad and fan technology. Electric fans powered by solar power blow saltwater through pads of corrugated card. The salt and some of the water stays on the outside of the pad, while the moist damp on the other side contains freshwater. The salty water on the outside is called brine. Most of this water can be used to cool the greenhouses and everything that can’t be used for cooling anymore is filtered further down into water, salt, and other minerals.
In a new study (February 13, 2019), engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wrote that they have found a way to use the leftover salt brine. They explain that through a fairly simple process the waste material can be converted into useful chemicals, including ones that can make the desalination process itself more efficient.The approach can be used to produce sodium hydroxide, among other products. Otherwise known as caustic soda, sodium hydroxide can be used to pretreat seawater going into the desalination plant. This changes the acidity of the water, which helps to prevent fouling of the membranes used to filter out the salty water. Fouling is a major cause of interruptions and failures in typical reverse osmosis desalination plants.
“The desalination industry itself uses quite a lot of sodium hydroxide,” Kumar says. “They’re buying it, spending money on it. So if you can make it on side at the plant, that could be a big advantage for reducing the costs.” The amount needed in the plants themselves is far less than the total that could be produced from the brine, so there is also potential for it to be a saleable product. Sodium hydroxide is not the only product that can be made from the waste brine: Another important chemical used by desalination plants and many other industrial processes is hydrochloric acid, which can also easily be made on site from the waste brine using established chemical processing methods. The chemical can be used for cleaning parts of the desalination plant, but is also widely used in chemical production and as a source of hydrogen.
In 2018 MIT engineers already developed a device that can turn water into steam using only sunlight One thing a desert usually has enough of is sunlight. So with this new device at many sunny coastal places seawater can be desalinated in a cheaper and more sustainable way. Imagine how the desalination of seawater could help providing the desert of Egypt with enough water for their agriculture, thus preventing a nasty conflict with Somalia about their hydroelectric dam in the Nile.
Looking from these points of view, how can we say that desalination of seawater is too expensive, or too difficult? Shouldn’t we be thinking is solutions, instead of problems? Instead of complaining, we better work harder at saving and creating more fresh water before it is too late…