July 15, 2014 – As I scanned the pages of my morning business-oriented newspaper I noted an opinion piece that suggested a future of water wars brought on by freshwater scarcity. And then when I started my computer my alerts led me to a new series of reports from London’s prestigious Financial Times. The subject – a world without water.
Two weeks ago I wrote that freshwater scarcity may be our biggest climate change adaptability challenge. Well it seems I am not the only one speaking to the crowd about this very important issue of the 21st century. The Financial Times report, however, takes a different approach to the subject, looking at its impact on commerce. It cites Coca-Cola, Nestle, BG Group, antero Resources, Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Ford and EDF as companies in the throes of addressing freshwater scarcity impacting production. Some like BHP Billiton and Rio Tino are investing in deslination projects. Others are closing plants when freshwater scarcity puts them in conflict with local farm and urban populations trying to preserve what little of the resource they have.
For Coca-Cola, the 24th largest industrial consumer of water in the world, it means spending $2 billion U.S. to reduce freshwater use and improve water quality in its plant and corporate operations. The company has even donated millions to the World Wildlife Fund to improve a river environment where Coca-Cola has an operation 160 kilometers north of London, United Kingdom.
Coca-Cola’s $2 billion is considered a small amount when compared to the total companies are spending to address freshwater and water quality issues. The Financial Times reports that since 2011 companies have invested $84 billion U.S. to obtain, conserve and manage their freshwater supplies globally. And the water market worldwide is estimated to be worth $550 billion and expanding at an annual rate of 3.5%.
For Nestle the water crisis is one of their highest priorities. Peter Brabeck, Chairman, is quoted in the Financial Times report as stating: “Humankind is running out of water at an alarming pace….we’re going to run out of water long before we run out of oil.” The company when assessing new business proposals has introduced an internal “shadow price” of $1.00 U.S. per cubic meter for areas where water is abundant, and $5.00 per cubic meter where water is more scarce.
If you remember Robert Redford’s 1989 film, The Milagro Beanfield War, a story about a water war between a New Mexico developer and a local farmer, it appears that it will be repeated in real life across this planet in many locations during the 21st century.
In Brahma Chellaney‘s morning article in today’s The Globe and Mail he states that many countries and cities will run out of freshwater and cites Sanaa, Yemen as the first capital city to go completely dry. Chellaney gives other examples of impending water crises and conflict zones. He talks about the damming of the upper Brahmaputra in China (see my posting on The Rivers of Asia) potentially leading to water refugees in India and Bangladesh. He talks about Ethiopia’s development of The Blue Nile with a proposed dam that could lead to a war with Egypt. And he takes a quote attributed to Mark Twain during the first California Water Wars, a struggle between Arizona and California over access to the Colorado River for a water starved Los Angeles, in which Twain purportedly stated, “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”