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Water 2012: Water viewed in an international perspective

Posted: Wednesday, Dec 12th, 2012

This is the 50th in a weekly series celebrating Colorado Water 2012.


Assistant Professor/Research Scientist

Colorado Water Institute and CSU Extension

VALLEY — The simply titled poem “Water” by Philip Larkin begins with the stanza, “If I were called in to construct a religion, I should make use of water.”

Those words capture the essence of what people believe the world over about this vital liquid that literally sustains lives. Pausing for a moment on this statement, everyone is a bit more aware after Water 2012 about the role of water in sustenance and its importance as a “resource.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a resource as “a means of supplying a deficiency or need; something that is a source of help, information, strength, etc.”

Accurate enough, but one might sometimes wonder if this label relegates water to a category similar to other natural resources, such as – say, coal or timber or gold? In the World Factbook or Encyclopedia Britannica itemizations of natural resources that form the basis of national economies, water is curiously left off the list.

To be clear, let’s not minimize the importance of natural mineral and energy resources, but reflecting on Larkin’s poem, indulge the question, would any of these resources be enough to form the basis of … a religion?” No. The same sincerity would not be conveyed if “called in” to construct a religion and the first motion being to “make use of … gypsum.”

Consider for a moment the fact that the average human can survive only a week without water. The sobering reality, therefore, is that life and civilization itself exists in a 7-day window held together by water.

In a case of art prefiguring a (highly unlikely) reality, the Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” involves a villain who plans a coup d’état in Bolivia to seize control of the national water supply. The extremity and theatrics of this example aside, it is interesting that water security has now risen to a standing that befits the plot of a major motion picture. Folks shouldn’t be surprised. Countries around the world place immense importance on protecting water for their future growth and security. News cycles abound with gripping examples of “water wars” that threaten relationships between countries in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. In diplomatic parlance, these “geopolitical” conflicts are predicted to get worse as populations and economies grow.

Additional issues such as climate change and variability, recurrent drought, and declining infrastructure also put water supplies under duress around the world. Moreover, with the advent of Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) designed to profit from water scarcity, new market forces are being introduced that may have undesirable outcomes. In short, water many not only serve as the basis of religion, but also as the underpinning of the greatest global security threat.

Water security challenges do not automatically obligate civilization to certain demise and constant crisis, however. The world is beginning to take this issue very seriously, evidenced by the United Nations declaration of 2013 as the International Year of Water Cooperation, occurring within the “Water for Life” International Decade for Action (2005-2015) to fulfill international commitments made on water and water–related issues in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Among the MDGs agreed upon, the UN member states agreed to reduce by half the proportion of people without access to safe drinking water by 2015. Although international organizations are replete with examples of well-meaning but ultimately less than impactful efforts, the dedication of an entire decade is a commendable commitment and certainly a step in the right direction.

Cautious optimism is also warranted, as the MDG target relating to access to safe drinking water has been achieved. Daily drinking water requirements are estimated to be a mere 2-4 liters, and the World Health Organization and UNICEF reported recently that since 1990 over 2 billion more people in the world have received access to drinking water. Whether this progress is due to altruistic intent or the recognition that water security is a matter of global stability, this achievement demonstrates that political will exists on this issue.

Celebration should be forestalled, however, as more progress is imperative with water needs for sanitation and agriculture looming on the horizon as impending challenges.

December portends to be an interesting month, as folks will likely be exposed to — if not inundated with — references to Mayan calendar and its claim to predict the upcoming apocalypse on December 21. All humor and conspiracies aside, the heightened interest in Mayan culture may in fact foster a useful discussion in regards to water.

For the past decade, researchers have examined the hypothesis that lack of water played a key part in the sudden collapse of the great Maya civilization. These conclusions are reaffirmed in the 9 November 2012 issue of the journal Science (Vol. 338 No. 6108 pp. 730-731).

More precisely, the archaeological record suggests that a long period of dry climate, punctuated by three intense droughts resulted in increased warfare and sociopolitical instability after a sustained period of population growth.

What to do with this information? Again – the point is not to devote time and intellect to frivolous discussion of conspiracies and inevitable dystopia. Rather, recognize the invaluable words offered by Larkin, who finishes his poem “rais[ing] in the east a glass of water, where any-angled light would congregate endlessly.”

Since the poem is set in the context of religion and the word “congregate” is reminiscent of the congregation in a church coming together, in this case at “any angle,” all can assuredly say that water indeed will be at the nexus of global stability and awareness of this fact will serve the human race wisely.

For more information on Water 2012 in the Rio Grande Basin or too see the complete Water 2012 article series, please visit www.rgwcei.org or www.water2012.org.

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