Blue Gold for beginners

I was literally in primary school when I first heard the expression “blue gold”… Coming to think of it, I am now under the impression my teachers must have been two very enlightened ladies… It was in the late 80s!

I heard again and again -over the years- that “the wars of the new century will be fought over water supplies”… certainly humanity wouldn’t reach that low as to fight over such a primary necessity, I instinctively thought. 

A few decades later, I only partially changed my mind.

One of the driving factors that revived my curiosity, was a recent reading on a particular situation in Africa.

The Nile river has been the main source of water and therefore of food for Egypt for millennia.
Ethiopia, the next country up stream, is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and this sparkled tension in the area. 
Negotiations are ongoing and starting to involve international mediators such as the USA, but the fear of the beginning a first water war is undeniable.

Googling “water war” today brings up a number of similar stories: from the Mekong river in China, all the way to intestine disputes in USA, with a Florida-Georgia disagreement, that -although not nearly a “war” in any capacity- is still coming up in search results.

Global water demand is expected to increase by 20 to 30 per cent over the next 3 decades. The United Nations provide numbers that are far less encouraging:

  • By 2025 1.8 billion people will live in areas of absolute water scarcity: that’s almost 50% up in a decade (1.2 billion in 2014).
  • By 2030 almost half of the world population will will be living in areas experiencing high water stress.
  • They expect this to cause massive migrations, in the order of millions of people.

Given all this information, one would feel almost certain that water wars are in our future, but there’s still room for optimism.

It is becoming a common theme of our age, or so it seems to me, that divergent forces are racing against time towards disaster on one side, and utopia on the other, depending on which agents will develop fastest.

The good counteraltar to this story is once again technology.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are -uncharacteristically together- at the top of the list of countries trying to find solutions to water scarcity.

Israel with a population of nearly 9 millions, is experiencing severe drought on a regular basis, and it’s been researching and experimenting with water desalination for decades now. An article dates the opening of the first desalination plant in Eilat in 1964, but it’s only around 2005 that this technology reached the maturity to satisfy the need of a relevant portion of the population. In the last 15 years desalination technology kept growing, and the aim for 2020 is to produce 750 million cubic meters through desalination: not far from one third of Israel’s yearly consumption.

Israel is a rich country, desalination is costly and water produced this way may not be affordable to all countries, but Saudi Arabia is in an even better position, although information about their technology are a bit harder to find.

With a population of nearly 33 million people and a production estimated at 3.3 million cubic meters per year, their “per capita” volume of desalinated water is slightly higher than Israel.

While Saudi Arabia average income does not near that of Israel, they have resources to spare when it comes to energy.
The main reason why desalinated water is expensive is exactly that it requires a lot of energy to make, and in fact it is estimated that 25% of the Saudi extractions of oil and gas are used to fuel water production.

Not every country is that lucky, so once again, this technology is not for everyone just yet.

A project known as Al-Khafji Solar Water Desalination is under development tho, and -this time- it won’t use any fossil fuel, as the name implies.

Desalination capacity has been approximately doubling during the past 2 decades, and growth projections follow a similar trend for the near future. At this rate the technology will be able to satisfy global needs in well over 50 years even in the most optimistic scenario.

Crossing this data with the UN estimate on water shortage, it seems obvious that we are too late to avoid the water crisis completely, but we are still in time to start working to mitigate the effects in favour of the whole of humanity, instead of just a lucky portion.

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