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.
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”.
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)