With the progress of the companies that incorporate the innovations from which it draws well-being, in the course of the last century competition for natural resources has increased in order to feed the “machinery” that drives innovation. Water, like other resources such as coal or oil, plays a primary role in both the agricultural and industrial sectors, and its exploitation linked to its accessibility and the quality of the resource also determines the power relations between states.

The distribution of drinking water and their access

Water is the resource par excellence along with oil, in addition to being the essential element of the human being, it is also crucial for the functioning of the agricultural and industrial cycle. Although water is a renewable resource, it is not distributed equally in the globe and is an element subject to degradation due to pollution or contamination (think of the leakage of radioactive material from nuclear cooling systems, or the same spill waters of traditional industrial plants) it is expected that, by 2025, 75% of the population will have little access to water in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

Given its unequal distribution we can only call it “blue gold”. The problem is the difficulty of access: 13 countries out of 177 hold 64.4% of the world’s water resources, while the demand for water increases dramatically to meet an ever-increasing demand for food production. UNEP (United Nation Environment Program) data say that 85% of the population has access to an improved source of drinking water and 55% can receive water from more secure, regular, intubated systems. Still 768 million people do not receive drinking water and 185 million rely on polluted and irregular surface water resources.

The world resources are therefore enormous. 97% of the water can not be used because it is composed of salt water of the oceans and seas. Most, 70% of the fresh water, is imprisoned in the caps, or underground (30%). Only a small proportion, 0.007%, is surface water. Another problem identified is that distribution, as well as availability at certain times of the year, is uneven.

The “water” powers

The water powers are those countries that can count on a good availability of water resources on the population. South America is the world’s richest water area, with a total of 26,000 m³ per year, concentrated in Brazil, Peru, Argentina and Colombia. Even the situation in Africa is theoretically good but can be exploited on 6% of freshwater located in countries of the equatorial belt as Congo, Angola, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon. North America follows with 15%, maximized in Canada with 50 million cubic meters and the United States of America with 15 million cubic meters.

Asia with 36% mostly concentrated in Russia, is a very special case since the season influences the availability, and being distributed in the geographic arc between Iran and China, these would be classified as vulnerable countries. While both Europe and Oceania holds only 4% to 8% of the exploitable resource (France, Italy and Eastern Europe are placed in the 2500 and 7500 million cubic meters per capita of renewable water, therefore sufficient but close to the vulnerability threshold in which Germany, Great Britain and Spain are located).

This means that the countries mentioned at low risk, according to the AQUEDUCT Water Risk Atlas map, have a low level of stress determined by picking up water tables. Always analyzing from the “macro” point of view and in the broader vision of Europe, certainly the rank of power would be the Scandinavian countries and Russia.

The World Water Report 2015 shows a situation of serious criticality also exacerbated by armed conflicts in the entire North African band up to Morocco, and also in the sub-Saharan belt, and up to Syria. The quantities that determine the “power” can be erratic because the availability of water is influenced by annual precipitation, by the latitude, by the humidity and therefore by the climate in general, and by the presence of rivers that allow exchange. In fact, two thirds of the countries of the globe exchange water through cross-border rivers and come to determine a relationship of power and subordination of neighboring states.

Global consumption between agriculture and industry

According to the “World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision” report, compiled by the UN, the world population is steadily growing with a projection of 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. This could cause “water stress”, the phenomenon that occurs when the demand exceeds the quantity available on the planet, also prompted by a constant increase in the demand for food. Of the approximately 3,800 (millions) km³ of water consumed annually today, 2,600 km³ are destined for agriculture, with an expected growth of almost 40% by 2025, projecting a consumption of over 4,000 km³ if we consider the agricultural sector. Consumption so high in the agricultural sector, concentrated in the African continent, is due to both obsolete cultivation technologies that involve a high use of water but above all also to the crops themselves.

The paradigm of constant deficit

This is what happens when to produce a good, whose use benefits the production of other indispensable goods, you have to pay a high cost but it becomes impossible to avoid the obligation of production to support the market demand because it would imply a blockage of the system and repercussions along the whole supply chain. An example of this is the growing demand for bio-fuels (indirectly obtained from biomass: wheat, maize, beet, sugar cane, etc.) in order to face the ever-decreasing availability of oil, better withstand market fluctuations and the most stringent anti-pollution regulations; but the production itself subtracts at the same time a food resource of human sustenance.

With such a global conjuncture, almost the Malthusian pessimism of the classical economy and its theories on the proportion of resources/population is re-evoked. The production of bio-fuel has a high water cost, added to the ever increasing demand for food due to the increase in the world population, which in turn absorbs water. Inefficient crops cause a “constant deficit” caused by a high energy consumption to obtain a sub-threshold product to produce another useful resource or even to produce 1-Kcal of energy for the human being. Solving this paradigm requires more investment in improving water in order to make it usable or to use more efficient crops or to implement genetic modification. At present, the result is that many agricultural products have a lower market price than the water used to produce them. All studies agree that the use of bio-fuels for the purpose of pumping water would be uneconomical.

Water “improvement” technologies

Various technologies have been completed to address the problem of both quantity and quality of water. Let’s talk about water improvement technologies. Like desalination, which makes it possible to “clean up” water from the excess of saline substances, making it also suitable for food use. Since these are very complex and costly processes, the reduction of the energy costs necessary to activate them could represent an economic and sustainable solution in the long term if supported by the use of renewable energy sources; in fact, desalination technology requires a lot of energy, often obtained from the use of atomic power plants.

The practice of desalination is widely used in Singapore and in some Middle East states and oil producers. If desalination solves the problem of quantity, the problem of quality remains to be solved, in fact too often the waters are contaminated by chemical fertilizers, increasingly used in a massive way to increase the availability and quality of food, but which flow to the water tables. In fact, it is estimated that at least 5 million people die each year from water contamination from the United Nations World Water Development Report 2015.

Water as a geopolitical lever and a generator of tension. The causes

Water makes up 32% of the world’s borders. As is known in geopolitics, borders are mobile and tend to change, in search of “living space”. No wonder then that in an era of water crisis these borders can move in those states where there is more abundance of water. The strongest cases of tension are recorded in international water basins and refer to water courses often of considerable length and flow that cross several countries. The simplest example is the Nile River and the White Nile and Blue Nile tributaries that, starting from Lake Victoria in Uganda, cross Sudan and Ethiopia to flow into the Mediterranean by cutting Egypt. In these cases, the geographical position within the basin plays an important role, since the upstream countries are able to condition the quantity and quality of the flow of water that reaches the downstream countries.

The confirmation of this theory is found in the agreements of 2015 in which the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, gathered in Khartoum, signed a declaration of principle to put an end to the dispute over the distribution of the Nile and the construction of the so-called Renaissance in Ethiopia. Egypt, which relies almost exclusively on the waters of the Nile for agriculture, industry and drinking water, has sought reassurance that the dam will not significantly reduce the flow of the river. Ethiopia claims that the dam will provide the country with a fairer distribution of water resources and will help solve the problem of electricity shortages by providing six thousand mega-watt of energy.

Several areas of the globe are marked by tensions regarding the exploitation of water basins and infrastructures that will be built for this purpose. The case of the Mekong, which originated in Tibet, shows how the geographic position upstream of a state, China, along the water basin can be interpreted as “hydro-hegemony” understood as that unilateral authority to dispose of the resource, in this case the water. The Mekong River, which originates in Tibet and crosses China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The design of a series of dams on the upper reaches of the river by China is at the origin of the deterioration of relations with the downstream countries. Not only in developing or emerging countries there are tensions, but also in developed economies such as Europe as regards the management of the Danube river or the Rio Grande between the United States and Mexico. Focusing on a very hot geographical area such as Iraq and Syria and its neighboring countries such as Turkey, the water basins of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are a starting point for reflection in the future of their respective countries in the light of the semi-autonomous realities such as Kurdistan is a hypothetical “Sunnistan”.

Also in this case the infrastructure for the exploitation of water determines a tension relationship. This is the case of the GAP project (Water Project for South-Eastern Anatolia) of Turkey, in order to ensure the hydroelectric power and irrigation of arid lands and the development of sectors such as industry, tourism, transport, Education, health, telecommunications, mining and oil; a complex of 21 dams that threatens the Kurdish city of Hasankeyf, located in disputed areas with a Kurdish majority.


The Global Risk Assessment of the 2016 World Economic Forum reported that the water crisis was in third place in terms of impact. It is therefore clear that the water crisis is a problem to be faced and not exorcised, with a greater involvement of the scientific community and the global population. For the long term, therefore, it is easy to predict that the availability of water and its exploitation will be increasingly centralized in the hands of the State or increasingly by multinational groups, able to maximize profit in the face of ever decreasing quantitative or qualitative availability.

The concept for which water must be a free and available good for anyone will be overcome. What will this involve? Surely a greater subjection of countries with low availability, and this will be inevitable. It is a cycle that will be repeated as analogously as happened for oil. Through the Aquastat computer graphics it is possible to paint the scenario through the exchange of surface water that takes place through the rivers. Water will be the future geopolitical lever to influence the course of a state, to decide the economic destiny of producer or consumer.

Focusing on the short term the Middle East will surely be the most interesting fault zone including countries such as Turkey, Northern Syria and Iraq, which through the ongoing humanitarian crises, internal conflicts between ethnic groups and collateral damage due to military interventions will sharpen its state of crisis and necessity of water for agricultural use. In the very long period it will be the turn of the Sahel belt, that is the boundary line between the arid desert climate and the most fertile equatorial climate, which covers from west to east: Gambia, Senegal, the southern part of Mauritania, the center of Mali, Burkina Faso, the southern part of Algeria and Niger, the northern part of Nigeria and Cameroon, the central part of Chad, the south of Sudan, the north of South Sudan and Eritrea.

These countries may require more living space to the countries of the African equatorial zone or more to the south. Although a greater demand for water is the expression of greater well-being, it can not be excluded that Africa may be affected by clashes over the exploitation of surface resources. It is the African states that have to invest the greatest economic resources for a quick and easy access to water; if implemented through diplomacy and treaties or through technological investments or, military force will depend on the political “volatility” of the countries.

SOURCES: “Geopolitica del mondo contemporaneo” Carlo-Jean; The United Nations World Water Development Report 2015; AQUEDUCT water Risk Atlas; Water population prospect 2015; World Water Report 2015; “Hasankeyf, il gioiello sospeso” di Massimiliano Salvo; Aquastat.

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