`THE only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water," declared President Anwar Sadat in the spring of 1979, only days after signing the historic peace treaty with Israel.
His warning was not directed at Israel, but at Ethiopia, the upstream riparian state that controls the headwaters of Egypt's lifeline, the Nile River. In May 1990, Jordan's King Hussein delivered a similar warning to Israel. "The only issue that will bring Jordan into war is water," he said.
In 1975, Iraq and Syria came to the brink of war over Syria's reduction of the flow of the Euphrates to fill the Ath-Thawrah Dam, which Iraq claimed adversely affected 3 million Iraqi farmers. In 1986, reports surfaced that Turkey had uncovered an alleged Syrian plot to blow up the Ataturk Dam, which Syria views as a threat to its farmers.
The United States government has estimated that in at least 10 places in the world, war could erupt over dwindling shared water resources. The majority of those places lie in the Middle East.
As one nation after another around the world reaches its water-resource limits, the potential for conflict will intensify. And if we take account of the potential for internal conflict within water-besieged states over polluted and scarce reserves, the global picture is a far cry from the new-world-order euphoria that warmed the hearts of television viewers around the globe in 1991.
Between 1985 and the year 2000, for example, the world's urban areas will absorb an additional 850 million people, pitting the Davidian capacity of existing water and sanitation services against the Goliath of demand.
Twenty-five nations are already experiencing chronic water shortages. That number will steadily rise to 90 as we move into the 21st century. By then, half the world's population will be affected, with the consequence that more than 5 billion people will be threatened by malnutrition, famine, and disease.
Public-health officials attribute almost 80 percent of the illnesses in third-world countries to contaminated water. The United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) reports that 35,000 children worldwide die daily from hunger or disease caused by lack of or contamination of water. It is believed that in Africa, 40 percent of the population will be at risk from water-related disease by the turn of the century.
A telescope to the future would show that water will soon be recognized as the foreign- policy resource issue of the 1990s. With the world's population racing towards 12 billion to 14 billion people as we move into the 21st century, our fragile, interdependent global ecosystem will barely be able to provide enough potable water, let alone food and space.
What most people fail to grasp is that the amount of available water on our planet hasn't increased since the beginning of time. Of all the water present on the earth's surface, only 2 percent is fresh water. Of this 2 percent, 87 percent is inaccessibly embedded in icecaps and glaciers, buried deep underground, or resident in the atmosphere.
This means that only 10 percent of the fresh water is actually in circulation. More starkly, of all the water in the world, only 1/3 of 1 percent is available for use by people and animals, and for economic development.
The competition grows fierce. There are 214 international river and lake basins in the world, of which 155 are shared by two countries, 36 by three nations, and 23 by up to a dozen countries.
Two billion people depend on intergovernmental cooperation for a guaranteed water supply, while 5 billion citizens of the planet ultimately depend on those who govern to ensure their water future. War, famine, disease, and economic collapse could be the offspring of our choices.
Eastern Europe was endowed by nature with ample water resources. Yet Poland's river water is so contaminated that 95 percent of it is unfit to drink, while almost all of Romania's river waters and 50 percent of those in Czechoslovakia are dangerously polluted. Killer algae proliferates in the Mediterranean, threatening rivers from Spain to Italy.
Moreover, as Christian Taylor of the Financial Times in London reported in July 1989, the ecological catastrophe of the Aral Sea region in Soviet Central Asia is "worse than Chernobyl." (See story at left.) In Karakapakia, pollution from the sea and toxins from the local water-dependent cotton economy have contaminated all available drinking water.
Women in the area are advised against nursing their children because their own milk is judged to be toxic. Ninety percent of all hospitals in Central Asia lack sewerage; 65 percent have no hot water; 20 percent lack running water; and 80 percent of all young children in these republics are diagnosed as having serious illnesses. "The largest industry in our area is emigration," moaned a weary official.
Soviet newspapers reported in the late 1980s that two-thirds of the people in the area have been diagnosed with hepatitis, typhoid fever, or throat cancer from water-related pollutants. Inhabitants call the Aral Sea the "salty sea of death," with infant mortality skyrocketing and birth deformities common.
IN the United States, experts say that California's finest estuary could be on the verge of collapse. And California is certainly not the only state in the union threatened by severe water shortages or water pollution.
Ironically, members of Congress from water-stressed states also tend to be the least interested in the global dimensions of the problem. So often has a senator or congressman from the South or West told this writer: "My constituents would never understand why I'm worrying about water in Africa or the Middle East when we have such severe water problems at home."
Yet the scarcity of water, and the costs of purification, will lead to unimagined costs in the years ahead, for the consumer, farmer, and industrialist - and most significantly, for donor nations bent on preserving international stability.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen face absolute water scarcity by the turn of the century, according to one or more criteria: inadequate rainfall; number of people in relation to water resources; and proportion of water resources already utilized.
Galloping population growth rates have the region in a resource stranglehold with no relief in sight, while five years of drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s reduced, in absolute terms, the net amount of available water.
ISRAEL'S state comptroller, Miriam Ben-Porat, issued a report at the close of 1990 stating that "in practical terms Israel has no water reserves in its reservoirs." Ms. Ben-Porat concluded: "Today, there is a real danger that it will be impossible to provide water in enough quantity and quality even in the short term." Severe rainstorms in early 1992 have not fundamentally altered that situation, bringing months but not years of relief.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali predicted in a 1985 interview with this writer that millions of North Africans and Middle Easterners from water-starved economies would seek refuge in Europe in the 1990s. "Our problems cannot be solved according to classical formulas," he said. Without political imagination, Egypt will become a new Bangladesh fraught with drought and famine - but with one difference. This Bangladesh will be on the beaches of the Mediterranean, only one half hour by jet from the
rich people of the North."
As water overtakes oil as our most vital commodity, survival of the fittest may become the survival of those who can pay.
Together with the World Bank, UN organizations - notably the United Nations Environment Programme, United Nations Development Programme, UNICEF, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and HABITAT - have made a resolute effort to slow the ticking clock.
But none of the 50 UN organizations dealing with water today has the political mandate or charter to negotiate water controversies between nations or to dictate appropriate water management within.
Instead, the most concerned international players find themselves walking a political tightrope leagues above the seas and rivers, with little expectation of a net.
The foreign-policy tools for preserving global waters and preventing conflict must merge the fine art of diplomacy with economic planning, technological breakthroughs, management, training, and financing: In sum, an integrated approach to resource management and sustainability.
According to John Kalbermatten, a water expert instrumental in the promotion of the Water Decade, the real unsung heroes in bringing water and sanitation to the poor have been nongovernmental organizations. It is time that the governments of the world follow their lead.