The Dry Facts

The U.N. and World Bank have predicted that wars will be fought over water. Christine Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, calls water the biggest environmental crisis of the twenty-first century. Robert Jackson, associate professor of biology and director of the program in ecology, comments on the world's most precious resource--and where it went.
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November 30, 2002

 

Biologist Jackson: immersed in a delicate resource

Biologist Jackson: immersed in a delicate resource.

One billion people are without access to safe drinking water. Five to ten million die from poor sanitation each year. Is the global situation improving or worsening?

It depends if you're a glass half-full or glass half-empty kind of person. In many ways it's improving. One billion is a very rough number, probably about the right size, but obviously an indefensible number. It's important to remember that there are 700 million fewer people without safe drinking water today than there were twenty years ago.

A lot of work still needs to be done, but we are making progress. People realize that water is one environmental issue, if not the paramount one. The number of people is growing faster than the amount of water we have access to. So that means that on a per-capita basis, there will likely be less water, but that isn't to say necessarily that there isn't enough water in the world. It's partly an issue of distribution. In some respects it's similar to the food issue. There's enough food in the world to feed everyone, but we can't get it to people. That's also true of water, although shipping water is more difficult, because, of course, it's heavy and hard to move around.

Do you think it's a real possibility that nations might soon go to war over water, as they do today over oil?

I don't think it's beyond the realm of possibilities. We've come close in the past. I think it was in 1990: Turkey cut off the Euphrates River for a month upriver from Syria and Iraq. They were building a dam and filling it. The president of Turkey at the time threatened to curtail flow indefinitely unless Syria withdrew support for Kurdish rebels. It was a fascinating interaction. Here was this dam at the center, the ostensible reason that the water was being cut off, and yet in the background was this overtly political message, you know, "you're downstream from us, and we control the water source."

Another famous example comes from Wesselton, South Africa, also in 1990, where the council cut off water to 50,000 people because they were protesting poor sanitation and living conditions. And then you have an example from the 1500s, another very fascinating one from Italy: Pisa and Florence were at war, and da Vinci and Machiavelli teamed up to divert the Arno River. They tried to deprive Pisa of water as an agent of war. They failed, but they tried.

What about conflicts within the United States?

Obviously there has been plenty of trouble with water in this country. Take the Colorado River and all the dams that have been built there. And, of course, the Rio Grande. Earlier this year, Texas and New Mexico farmers and ranchers wanted water that Mexico was supposed to deliver, but Mexico wasn't delivering it, so they blockaded the bridge.

Another example I like: In the Thirties, California began building Parker Dam across the Colorado on the border with Arizona. It might be too melodramatic to say they were going to war over it, but the Arizona governor called out the National Guard and stationed them on the Arizona side of the river and said over his dead body were they going to build this dam. Of course, the dam was eventually built.

I don't see states fighting one another physically over water. There are too many other alternatives. I don't think it is unreasonable, though, to think of water as a potential agent used in war for places like the Middle East.

Several new technologies have been proposed to help conserve water in agricultural use (which accounts for 70 percent of water use) including drip-irrigation and underground aquifer-storage systems. Are these proving useful?

They are effective in saving water. They're excellent tools. But they're only cost-effective if you have a valuable crop. If you're growing orange trees or strawberries, then they're definitely cost-effective. But we aren't going to grow wheat or corn--it's not something that's likely to go into broad application for row crops.

With oceans of water and easy access to them, why does desalinization account for so little (only .2 percent) of global water?

The problem with desalinization is that it requires a lot of energy. The countries that are doing it in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, are places where you have both water availability and energy availability. That's where it's cost-effective.

I don't think it's unreasonable for cities like Los Angeles to talk more about desalinization. One kind of crazy scheme that's been proposed--crazy, I guess, depending on your perspective--is to couple nuclear power plants with desalinization. On the one hand, you think, gosh, that is an utterly crazy, ridiculous idea, but then you think, well, the alternative may be draining Mono Lake. And then the tradeoffs between the technology and water availability are not so clear anymore. We have this knee-jerk reaction to nuclear power, but all the things that we do have a cost and a benefit.

And that's just one example of where we could go in cities, at least on the West Coast, where water is very scarce. I see this as possible, not very probable. But take California--40 million people. You pump 75 million people into California and it's not at all clear where water is going to come from to support those people.

Is the world's water problem a result of human pollution or of natural environmental processes at work?

I don't think it's either of those alone. You can argue that cleaning up fresh water in the U.S. and Europe has been a real success story of the last thirty years or so. For instance, the quality of water in the Great Lakes is much better now than when I was a boy. When I was a kid, we used to play on the shores of Lake Erie and there were dead fish everywhere. We'd have dead-fish fights. And it was because the water was in terrible shape.

It's much better now. I don't think it's a pollution issue, certainly not in the United States, and it's not a climate-change issue. It is at the intersection between climate and people. The demographic trend in this country is for people to move south and west, and when they move, particularly west, they go from wetter to dryer. A lot of the areas that have had the highest growth, like Las Vegas and Phoenix and Los Angeles, are places where natural supplies of water are difficult to come by.

America is regarded as a gluttonous consumer of water. Has our overuse contributed to a global shortage?

There are issues where what we do has a tremendous influence globally, and one of those is greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change, where we have a quarter, approximately, of all fossil-fuel emissions in the world. I don't think the things that we as Americans do contribute, for the most part, to those one billion people not having enough water.

 

How do you assess the work of the Army Corps of Engineers?

They have done their job well, at damming and channeling and reconstructing water flow across the country, and that has been a good thing in some ways and a negative thing in other ways. One of the greatest extinction events in this country has been along the Mobile River Basin, where dozens of species have gone extinct since we built a series of locks and dams along the waterway. Is that a bad thing? Yes, it is. But those Corps of Engineers activities also allow us to move boats and transport materials. It's a tradeoff.

Do you favor privatization of water in the United States?

I do think that's a growth business. There is an emotional aspect to water in this country. And it's why dams are very difficult to push through now, though that is also because the best dam sites are already gone. But people feel very strongly about water. There are those who argue that water is no different than oil or any other commodity: We should move it around, trade it. And then there are those who are vehemently opposed. For instance, Canada has loads of fresh water, but many people are against importing it.

In some ways, yes, a private company can manage that sort of process more efficiently than most governments do. But you have to remember that a company's motivation is very different than a government's motivation, or should be. The question isn't just, "Will companies do it better?" but, "How will we reconcile the public good with private shareholders and financial constraints of companies?"

If companies can get water to a billion people who don't have water, I'm all for it. But just because a company is good at selling water, I don't think that we should necessarily do it.

Can our government manage water efficiently--and are there problems with the way it is currently being managed?

What is really important is to acknowledge just how many groups within the government, both federal and state, are responsible for monitoring water quality and quantity across diverse agencies with very different agendas. It's an extremely difficult thing to coordinate.

So, first you need to come up with a coherent plan for how we want to manage water in this country and think about it in ways more than just as a form of transportation and recreation. There's a new U.S. Global Change Water Plan that came out about a year ago, so it isn't as if nothing is happening on this front. But when you think about all of the different agencies--there's a Corps of Engineers, the EPA for water quality, the Transportation Board for ships, and on and on--it's sort of a quagmire.

Jackson joined the Duke faculty in January 1999. He heads the Program in Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment and is director of the new Stable Isotope Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. His new book, The Earth Remains Forever, was published this fall.