Water politics, sometimes called hydro politics, is politics affected by the availability of water and water resources, a necessity for all life forms and human development. Hydro politics is “the systematic study of conflict and cooperation between states over water resources that transcend international borders”.
The availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking worldwide. The causes, related to both quantity and quality, are many and varied; they include local scarcity, limited availability and population pressures, but also human activities of mass consumption, misuse, environmental degradation and water pollution, as well as climate change.
Water is a strategic natural resource, and scarcity of potable water is a frequent contributor to political conflicts throughout the world. With decreasing availability and increasing demand for water, some have predicted that clean water will become the “next oil”; making countries like Canada, Chile, Norway, Colombia and Peru, with this resource in abundance, the water-rich countries in the world.
The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. Currently, 40% of the world’s inhabitants have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene.
More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought. In 2004, the UK charity Water Aid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds from easily preventable water-related diseases; often this means lack of sewage disposal; see toilet.
The United Nations Development Programme sums up world water distribution in the 2006 development report: “One part of the world, sustains a designer bottled water market that generates no tangible health benefits, another part suffers acute public health risks because people have to drink water from drains or from lakes and rivers.”
Fresh water now more precious than ever in our history for its extensive use in agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, and energy production is increasingly receiving attention as a resource requiring better management and sustainable use.
Water as a critical resource
Most importantly, fresh water is a fundamental requirement of all living organisms, crops, livestock and humanity included. The UNDP considers access to it a basic human right and a prerequisite for peace.
The Ex-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in 2001, “Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people.
It is an affront to human dignity.” With increased development, many industries, including forestry, agriculture, mining, manufacturing and recreation require sizable additional amounts of freshwater to operate.
Based on the availability, access and development of water supplies, the specific usage figures vary widely from country to country, with developed nations having existing systems to treat water for human consumption, and deliver it to every home.
At the same time however, some nations across Latin America, parts of Asia, South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East either do not have sufficient water resources or have not developed these or the infrastructure to the levels required.
This occurs for many varied reasons. It has resulted in conflict and often results in a reduced level or quantity of fresh water per capita consumption; this situation leads toward disease, and at times, to starvation and death.
The source of virtually all freshwater is precipitation from the atmosphere, in the form of mist, rain and snow, as part of the water cycle over eons, millennia and in the present day. Freshwater constitutes only 3% of all water on Earth, and of that, slightly over two thirds is stored frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps.
The remaining unfrozen freshwater is mainly found as groundwater, with only a small fraction present in the air, or on the ground surface. Surface water is stored in wetlands or lakes or flows in a stream or river, and is the most commonly utilized resource for water.
Sub-surface groundwater, although stored in the pore space of soil and rock; it is utilized most as water flowing within aquifers below the water table. Groundwater can exist both as a renewable water system closely associated with surface water and as a separate, deep sub-surface water system in an aquifer.
This latter case is sometimes called “fossil water“, and is realistically non-renewable. Normally, groundwater is utilized where surface sources are unavailable or when surface supply distribution is limited.
Rivers sometimes flow through several countries and often serve as the boundary or demarcation between them. With these rivers, water supply, allocation, control, and use are of great consequence to survival, quality of life, and economic success.
The control of a nation’s water resources is considered vital to the survival of a state. Similar cross-border groundwater flow also occurs. Competition for these resources, particularly where limited, have caused or been additive to conflicts in the past.
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