Is water becoming ‘the new oil’?
Population, pollution, and climate put the squeeze on potable supplies – and private companies smell a profit. Others ask: Should water be a human right?
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In the developing world – particularly in China, India, and other parts of Asia – rising economic success means a rising demand for clean water and an increased potential for conflict.
China is one of the world’s fastest-growing nations, but its lakes, rivers, and groundwater are badly polluted because of the widespread dumping of industrial wastes. Tibet has huge fresh water reserves.
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While news reports have generally cited Tibetans’ concerns over exploitation of their natural resources by China, little has been reported about China’s keen interest in Tibet’s Himalayan water supplies, locked up in rapidly melting glaciers.
“It’s clear that one of the key reasons that China is interested in Tibet is its water,” Dr. Gleick says. “They don’t want to risk any loss of control over these water resources.”
The Times (London) reported in 2006 that China is proceeding with plans for nearly 200 miles of canals to divert water from the Himalayan plateau to China’s parched Yellow River. China’s water plans are a major problem for the Dalai Lama’s government in exile, says a report released this month by Circle of Blue, a branch of the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Himalayan water is particularly sensitive because it supplies the rivers that bring water to more than half a dozen Asian countries. Plans to divert water could cause intense debate.
“Once this issue of water resources comes up,” wrote Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Affairs, to Circle of Blue researchers in a report earlier this month, “and it seems inevitable at this point that it will – it also raises emerging conflicts with India and Southeast Asia.”
Tibet is not the only water-rich country wary of a water-poor neighbor. Canada, which has immense fresh-water resources, is wary of its water-thirsty superpower neighbor to the south, observers say. With Lake Mead low in the US Southwest, and now Florida and Georgia squabbling over water, the US could certainly use a sip (or gulp) of Canada’s supplies. (Canada has 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.)
But don’t look for a water pipeline from Canada’s northern reaches to the US southwest anytime soon. Water raises national fervor in Canada, and Canadians are reluctant to share their birthright with a United States that has mismanaged – in Canada’s eyes – its own supplies. Indeed, the prospect of losing control of its water under free-trade or other agreements is something Canadians seem to worry about constantly.
A year ago, Canada’s House of Commons voted 134 to 108 in favor of a motion to recommend that its federal government “begin talks with its American and Mexican counterparts to exclude water from the scope of NAFTA.”