World at war over water

The most bitter conflicts of the next 50 years won’t be over oil. The prize commodity of the future

When you stare down into the clear blue of a swimming pool in Cyprus, threats of water shortages seem distant. Cyprus was once the prized possession of empires, but today the effort needed to water the island poses problems soon to be faced by other European countries.

Rainfall in Cyprus has declined by 15 per cent since the 1970s. A land once marked with rivers and lakes now has only artificial reservoirs, and many of these are half full. The European Commission looks on the arid land and abandoned farms as a sign of what may happen to Italy, Greece and Spain. Most climate models agree that precipitation is likely to diminish a further 20 per cent by 2050. To ensure that its resorts and cities have running water, Cyprus must now rely on desalination plants. These can fill swimming pools, but can never replace the water lost to the environment. As a result, the holiday destinations of Paphos and Ayia Napa may soon be concrete oases in a desert landscape.

In a cruel twist, Cyprus also faces the risk of flash floods. Projections show that a warmer planet will increase the chances of sudden and large rainstorms. Concrete urban landscapes and hard soil stop water from sinking away as nature intended, forcing it to collect in currents as it urgently seeks a way to the sea.

Cyprus has reached peak water. This is what geographers call the point at which the demand for water meets, and then outstrips, supply. It occurs because modern living is thirsty. Before the Industrial Revolution in Britain, water use per capita barely changed for millennia. But urban living, factories and intensive farming require lots of water. This is fine in wet England, but spells disaster in arid areas such as Cyprus, western parts of the United States, India and Southern Africa.

To meet the demand in dry countries, people pump up groundwater. However, there is a limit to the amount that an aquifer can hold. Cyprus's groundwater is so depleted that seawater is seeping into the empty caverns, ruining what is left of nature's reservoir.

Green goddess

Rivers and lakes are what experts call "blue water", but most at issue is "green water" - the stuff that sits in the soil. Modern farming's withdrawal of green water is like an open-ended blood donation - the planet's surface, in developed areas, is becoming cadaverous as its life drains away. This threatens the modern agricultural revolution in which crop yields in some countries quadrupled since the 1960s and fed the huge population boom.
These facts make people think of "water wars". American journalists use the term to cover the multitude of disputes between states over diminishing supplies, but for most of us it conjures up ideas of conflict. One example is the dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbours. There are familiar reasons why Tel Aviv took the Golan Heights in 1967 and occupied Gaza and the West Bank, but the water factor is often overlooked. The promise of citrus groves and running water in Tel Aviv taps was explicit from the beginning of the Zionist state.

To provide enough water so that Israelis could enjoy a comfortable modern lifestyle was beyond the capacity of the aquifers and rainfall within its original borders. The underground aquifer in the West Bank and the headwaters of the River Jordan in the Golan ensured that life in Jerusalem could be sufficiently resourced. Now, the Israeli leadership can never give up this access to, and control of, water - which means it will never give up the land.

The promise of supplying and controlling water has been central to the idea of civilisation since its beginnings in southern Iraq in the 4th millennium BC - irrigation transformed farming into a less risky, more productive pursuit, which in turn fed a population boom and the growth of cities. The very first legal codes, including those of the early Hindu tradition, were based on the assumption that a king would protect water supplies, and in return the people would obey him. This promise is also set out in Roman law. From the pharaohs and the Nile to Joseph Stalin and the Aral Sea, nations and their leaders have been entranced by the notion that water could deliver some kind of paradise.

Historically, it is only when the wet north gets its hands on power that the link between man and water is broken. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and France had only one water problem - they had too much of it. The early stages of their industrial and agricultural development were often focused on improving rivers and draining the land. They built economies that took water for granted.

Water has pervaded our culture, as well as our history. When the Grand Coulee Dam in north-west America was completed in 1942, Woody Guthrie sang about how the new mastery of water would deliver a socialist heaven for the US worker. People can project any dream they have in tamed currents.

We know a left-wing paradise didn't flow from the Grand Coulee, but that is not to say that water doesn't deliver a very fundamental form of justice. To have enough clean water to live on is to be liberated. Only places with a surplus of water can indulge thoughts about future planning and improvement. Water shortages - or dirty water - undermine assumptions of freedom and can be politically destabilising.

Yemen and Pakistan, countries that the west thinks of as centres of fundamentalist terrorism, both have critically unstable economies in large part because of water shortage. The UN thinks that Yemen will become the first nation to run out of water, possibly as soon as 2015. Pakistan, meanwhile, had huge wealth and population booms after Partition in August 1947, thanks to the irrigation schemes of the
Indus. These allowed an increase in the cotton yield and rice crop. But those schemes are now salting up, and the Indus is reduced to a pathetic trickle as it reaches the sea.

In Yemen and Pakistan, there is rural unemployment, slum growth and discontent. International conferences are held to address the crises facing both countries (and others similar to them), when it is obvious what we should be doing. For a fraction of what we invest in the so-called war on terror, we could fix their water distribution, educate their citizens and manage their waste and irrigation more effectively.

This is the tragedy of the world's water problem: whether in Cyprus, Palestine or Pakistan, there are solutions, but immense resistance to adopting them. No country should run out of water - but providing water will have to become a more careful process.

Tony Allan, finance professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and the grandfather of water studies, estimates that there are 17 million people living in the Jordan Basin - but sustainable water supplies for just one million. Puzzling over why the region hadn't long ago collapsed into anarchy, he noted that it imported huge amounts of water embedded in foodstuffs and products: "virtual water".

Virtual reality

Water goes into the growth and manufacture of almost everything. It takes over 300 litres to make a hamburger; a computer needs thousands. Farmers in the south-western United States grow citrus fruits, grapes and wheat and also rear cattle; the region is a net exporter of food. The states of California, New Mexico and Texas should be conserving their dwindling reserves, not selling their water on the open market. However, with federal irrigation schemes supplying subsidised water to a protected farming sector, nature will be wrung dry before any change happens.

The race is now on to find a way of valuing virtual water, so that, like oil, its price can begin to influence how it is used. There is resistance among food producers and free traders, however. Yet if nothing is done, food production in large parts of the world will fail within decades, driving up prices and forcing people off the land and into slums. The kind of social instability found in Yemen could occur in, say, Texas.

The age of easy water is over. For Cyprus, this will entail spending much more on desalination and ending the trade in citrus fruits. For the US, it entails rethinking the economic viability of swaths of its territory. For global peace, it entails resolving the great injustice by which some people are denied security by virtue of having no access to a reliable source of water. There is also the pervasive threat of flooding. Monsoon-like downpours of rain on Madeira or Gloucester will require a complete rethink of drainage and sewerage systems, and housing on floodplains will have to be abandoned.

Soon there will be floods of people, too. Should we fail to resolve our water problems, people will begin moving in great waves from country to country, searching for the one commodity that is vital for life.

Alexander Bell is the author of "Peak Water", published by Luath Press (£16.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood