[OPINION] Coming soon: Water wars

Rodel Lasco
[OPINION] Coming soon: Water wars
Unless we act wisely, we may find out too late that the enemy is not without, but within

It is 2384 BC and the Sumerian states of Lagash and Umma are at war. Both cities lie along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, while the fertile plains of Guedana lay between.

The reason for the conflict? Disagreement over water. A border embankment was established by the old King and an alliance treaty was put in place, but Prince Ila of Umma ignored the treaty and dared to cross the border…

Fast forward to the present and water remains a hot-button issue in many parts of the world. Scientists are predicting that nations will wage war over water as populations increase while freshwater supplies remain constricted. Metro Manila’s water shortage is a timely reminder of this incipient crisis.

The problem 

Why has water been a contentious resource in history? Part of the problem is the miniscule amount of fresh water on the planet. While almost three-quarters of the earth is covered with water, most of it is salt water which is not directly useful for human needs. Of all water in the planet, only 3% is fresh water. Of this, almost 80% are trapped in ice caps and glaciers, and are thus not readily available. The rest are mainly below ground and only 1% is in rivers.

The Philippines is surrounded by bodies of water, but our main sources of consumable water are rivers and ground aquifers which are recharged by monsoonal rains. Because of our small islands and steep slopes, our watersheds can capture and store only a limited amount of fresh water. When rains fall below their normal amount, we immediately experience water shortage.

As the planet warms, our climate will fluctuate even more between extremes and could lead to greater water demand. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, increased water stress will be experienced starting 2020 – next year! 

As reported in the Philippine Climate Change Assessment Reports, our climate scientists are projecting more rainfall in some parts of the country but less in others, the net effect of which is uncertain. Global warming could also lead to worse droughts, more severe flooding, and increased water shortage particularly in areas where water resources are already under stress from growing water demands and inefficiencies in water use.

What we can do 

Avert a water crisis, can we? Long-range planning coupled with timely action is essential, but both need political will on the part of our leaders. As one Jedi master said, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Stopgap measures can help but they are, by nature, temporary and can even make the problem worse in the future. Supply and demand drivers need to be addressed simultaneously for greater effect. On the demand side, consumers need to do their share in lowering their water footprint.

Recently, while dining in a buffet restaurant, I noticed that servers were quick to replace the plates of diners. Suddenly, it dawned on me: the water and effort needed to wash all those plates. Since then, I use my plate as many times as possible whenever I occasionally find myself going buffet – to the surprise of servers! Each of us can do little things to help conserve water. (READ: Domino effect: Water crisis causing more trash, hurting businesses

On the supply side, government agencies, in tandem with the private sector and with the participation of civil society, must prepare and implement a road map that will ensure continuous supply of water, factoring in population, climate change, and economic growth forecasts. Such actions will entail trade-offs which are typically painful to some sectors. Our policy makers must therefore be bold enough to pursue lasting solutions in spite of the certain obstacles that are bound to sprout. (READ: [ANALYSIS] The economics of Metro Manila’s burgeoning water crisis

Being an archipelagic nation, it is unlikely that the Philippines will be embroiled in a water war with a neighboring country. However, unless we act wisely, we may find out too late that the enemy is not without, but within. – Rappler.com 

Rodel Lasco, PhD, is an author of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, including the forthcoming sixth assessment report. He is the executive director of the OML Center, a foundation devoted to discovering climate change adaptation solutions.

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