Water strategy
Source Jim Devine
Date 06/10/24/11:58

Water strategy over military strategy
Jeffrey Sachs

October 23, 2006 05:10 PM

OUR POLITICAL systems and global politics are largely unequipped for
the real challenges of today's world.

Global economic growth and rising populations are putting
unprecedented stresses on the physical environment, and these stresses
in turn are causing unprecedented challenges for our societies. Yet
politicians are largely ignorant of these trends. Governments are not
organized to meet them and crises that are fundamentally ecological in
nature are managed by outdated strategies of war and diplomacy.

Consider, for example, the situation in Darfur, Sudan. This horrible
conflict is being addressed through threats of military force,
sanctions, and generally the language of war and peacekeeping. Yet the
undoubted origin of the conflict is the region's extreme poverty,
which was made disastrously worse in the 1980's by a drought that has
essentially lasted until today. It appears that long-term climate
change is leading to lower rainfall not only in Sudan, but also in
much of Africa just south of the Sahara Desert - an area where life
depends on the rains, and where drought means death.

Darfur has been caught in a drought-induced death trap, but nobody has
seen fit to approach the Darfur crisis from the perspective of
long-term development rather than the perspective of war. Darfur needs
a water strategy more than a military strategy. Its seven million
people cannot survive without a new approach that gives them a chance
to grow crops and water their animals. Yet all of the talk at the
United Nations is about sanctions and armies, with no path to peace in

Water stress is becoming a major obstacle to economic development in
many parts of the world. The water crisis in Gaza is a cause of
disease and suffering among Palestinians, and is a major source of
underlying tensions between Palestine and Israel. Yet again, billions
of dollars are spent on bombing and destruction in the region, while
virtually nothing is done about the growing water crisis.

China and India, too, will face growing water crises in the coming
years, with potentially horrendous consequences. The economic takeoff
of these two giants started 40 years ago with the introduction of
higher agricultural output and an end to famines. Yet part of that
increased agricultural output resulted from millions of wells that
were sunk to tap underground water supplies for irrigation. Now the
water table is falling at a dangerous pace, as the underground water
is being pumped much faster than the rains are recharging it.

Moreover, aside from rainfall patterns, climate change is upsetting
the flow of rivers, as glaciers, which provide a huge amount of water
for irrigation and household use, are rapidly receding due to global
warming. Snow pack in the mountains is melting earlier in the season,
so that river water is less available during summer growing seasons.
For all of these reasons, India and China are experiencing serious
water crises that are likely to intensify in the future.

The United States faces risks as well. midwestern and southwestern
states have been in a prolonged drought that might well be the result
of long-term warming, and the farm states rely heavily on water from a
huge underground reservoir that is being depleted by over-pumping.

Just as pressures on oil and gas supplies have driven up energy
prices, environmental stresses may now push up food and water prices
in many parts of the world. Given the heat waves, droughts, and other
climate stresses across the US, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere this
year, wheat prices are now shooting up to their highest levels in
decades. Thus, environmental pressures are now hitting the bottom line
- affecting incomes and livelihoods around the world.

With rising populations, economic growth, and climate change, we will
face intensifying droughts, hurricanes and typhoons, powerful El
Niņo's, water stress, heat waves, species extinctions, and more. The
"soft" issues of environment and climate will become the hard and
strategic issues of the twenty-first century. Yet there is almost no
recognition of this basic truth in our governments or our global
politics. People who speak about hunger and environmental crises are
viewed as muddle-headed "moralists," as opposed to the hard-headed
"realists" who deal with war and peace. This is nonsense. The
so-called realists just don't understand the sources of tensions and
stresses that are leading to a growing number of crises around the

Our governments should all establish Ministries of Sustainable
Development, devoted full-time to managing the linkages between
environmental change and human wellbeing. Agriculture ministers by
themselves will not be able to cope with water shortages that farmers
will face. Health ministers will not be able to cope with an increase
in infectious diseases due to global warming. Environment ministers
will not be able to cope with the pressures on oceans and forests, or
the consequences of increasing extreme weather events like last year's
Hurricane Katrina or this year's Typhoon Saomai - China's worst in
many decades. A new powerful ministry should be charged with
coordinating the responses to climate change, water stress, and other
ecosystem crises.

At the global level, the world's governments should finally understand
that the treaties that they have all signed in recent years on
climate, environment, and biodiversity are at least as important to
global security as all of the war zones and crisis hotspots that grab
the headlines, budgets, and attention. By focusing on the underlying
challenges of sustainable development, our governments could more
easily end the current crises (as in Darfur) and head off many more
crises in the future.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.

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