Saturday, August 14, 2010

Water: the Reality of Scarcity

In a recently published special report, the Economist discusses the issues and problems that will arise because of the need for clean, drinkable water for a growing global population.  In the report, the author(s) argue that "water is the new oil", and that the word (water) rarely appears in print without being followed by crisis.  I found the report very informative, touching on all aspects of drinkable water on Earth.  It starts with a straightforward analysis of what percentage of the Earth's water is drinkable, and goes on to look at a variety of topics: agriculture, global distribution issues, business, technology (conservation and power generation), and politics.  As usual, the Economist does not shy away from admitting that providing clean, drinkable water to the global population will be a difficult and, potentially, explosive (or, charged) task.  Nonetheless (or, "as usual"), the authors are optimistic that political cooperation, technology, and markets will spare the future from the very conflicts that they fear might arise.

What I found most interesting about the Economist's take on the political dimension was that the authors assumed that conflicts between nations would arise because of the scarcity of drinkable water.  The tone suggests, to me, that flashpoints between states will ignite because there is not enough water, or one party is reducing the access to water of the other.  This reminds me of an article by Samer Alatout published last year in Social Studies of Science, called "Bringing Abundance into Environmental Politics."  In this article, Alatout illustrates how arguments for the abundance of a resource (in this case, water) are often overlooked as the opposite of scarcity. Instead, he argues, debate about the abundance of water deserve to be considered as a separate category apart from the arguments about scarcity.

This leads me to think that the political dimension of "water" does not revolve around the real or imagined scarcity of the resource.  Rather, the more important factor to watch in conflicts (current or coming) about water is the extent to which one actor argues for its abundance.  The conflict will occur over how and to what extent another party rejects the arguments for abundance.

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