Sunday, September 1, 2019


From the perspective of a non-American, who has absolutely no skin in the game, I still experience mental whiplash whenever I hear an American politician offer “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting in the country. However, following the recent spate of mindless mayhem, I did a double-take when a hyper-partisan National Rifle Association-affiliated talking head uttered the phrase “I feel your pain” on television. Involuntarily, I sputtered, “No, you don’t.”

The range of issues dividing conservatives and progressives in the world’s most dynamic liberal democracy keeps growing. From social arguments about abortion, sanctity of marriage, multiculturalism, and religion to disagreements over tax rates, social security, immigration, and globalisation, the chasm is widening. Politics has become so tribal and bifurcated that compromise is now a filthy word. Paradoxically, social networks that were supposedly designed to unite people have instead spawned hermetically-sealed echo chambers of mutual incomprehension. The fount of public opinion is so badly poisoned that both sides offhandedly reject the other’s viewpoints in a bid to affirm their fidelity and ideological purity.

Take climate change. Let us concede that this is a fiendishly complex issue that nevertheless demands the urgent attention of the world’s largest economies and polluters, principally China and the US. Proponents in the US will rightly point to science-based evidence for global warming, primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions. On the other side of the divide are right-wingers, dubbed “anti-science and anti-expert,” who oppose government regulations, dispute environmental claims, and revel in being called hoaxers. Even the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit our planet’s long-term average temperature increase relative to pre-industrial levels, is dismissed as a global ploy by leftists against US interests.

If there is no consensus on climate change, could there however be some common ground concerning the spectre of global water shortages in the coming decades? Again, sceptics are liable to revive the debunked theory linking food scarcity to population growth. Besides, water scarcity sounds like someone else’s problem, the type mostly faced by poor developing countries. But, is it?

Among our most essential physiological needs, air, food and water are topmost. Air is abundant and envelopes us, but it is highly vulnerable to industrial and energy pollution. Food and water are sometimes in short supply around the world, especially in drought-prone areas. But of the three, water has suddenly risen to the summit of global consciousness, possibly because it has no obvious substitute. Without water, human beings simply cannot survive. And as the world’s population grows, so does the demand for water, even if this is only half the story.  

Ominously, scientists believe that climate change has aggravated spells of severe drought, land degradation and desertification. It would therefore not be an overstatement that a global water crisis could become the greatest existential peril confronting hundreds of millions of people, and the problem could be about to get worse.

To better appreciate the gravity of the situation, hydrologists are deploying satellite technology to measure the world's water reserves, taking account of groundwater, rivers, rainfall, and other sources. Current statistics are quite sobering and long-term projections are equally gloomy. 70% of the most highly water-stressed countries in the world are in the Middle East and the northern reaches of Africa. And, unsurprisingly, this arid and perpetually volatile area is where competition over water resources is greatest. Desalination could be part of the mix of possible solutions, but it is very expensive and also raises the level of environmental concerns. If parts of India and Brazil are included, about a quarter of the world’s population is under serious threat from droughts and water shortages.

A recent article went as far as suggesting that “the next world war is going to be fought not over oil or mineral wealth, but over water.” Even if this statement is somewhat over the top, what may focus attention everywhere is the ongoing waves of human migration. Take Nigeria, where the world’s attention has been on Boko Haram, an indigenous Islamic terrorist group. But, simultaneously, regional herdsmen from across West Africa, retreating from encroaching desertification, have invaded and are literally overrunning southern Nigeria. Internal flash points are going off by the day.

Meanwhile, nativists and xenophobes in richer countries could soon glimpse their waterloo when confronted by the exodus of economic migrants and climate-change refugees from the southern hemisphere. This is a script that could develop this century if the perfect storm of extreme weather, economic deprivation, internal strife, high population growth in the poorest countries, chronic food shortages, and, crucially, lack of access to potable water, unfolds. In the same ballpark as climate change, water poverty demands an immediate and coordinated global response.

Logically, conservatives should support water conservation and other resource efficiency initiatives, but bizarrely, the opposite is true. In short order, “I feel your 'thirst'”, a semantically imprecise but hypocritical refrain, may soon fill the airwaves. To be clear, thirst, like pain, has no ideology.

As ideological foes weigh the cost of intransigencemight the scramble for water inadvertently wash away some of the antipathy between bleeding-heart liberals and dyed-in-the-wool conservatives? Let's drink to that, but don’t hold your breath.


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