Sunday, December 16, 2007

Water, It's the New Oil

Looking for a good investment? Have a look at the leading companies in the rapidly expanding, global water supply industry. There are a lot of places in the world where people lack access to clean, fresh water and that's a growing market at least for the century to come. What's more, people who need fresh water will pay what it takes to get it. Life itself doesn't really work too well without it.

Water as a commodity. It's something a lot of Canadians have fretted over for years, the idea of somebody selling our stock of freshwater to foreign bidders. Keep your eye on that.

An interesting development in the US southwest where water is becoming increasingly scarce. It arises out of the apportionment of water between agriculture and domestic use. About three-quarters of their fresh water supply is earmarked for agriculture. People gotta eat - or do they? Some clever farmers in the region are reportedly now getting into the business of selling water they might otherwise be putting on their fields. They're not selling their quota, just the water. That means they're taking a common resource, privatizing it and putting it onto the commercial market. The best thing is they never pay dime one for the water itself. They get it so they can grow crops. The new way, however, cuts out all the bother of planting and irrigating and harvesting. You simply sell what you never produced in the first place. Neat trick, eh?

"Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

For some people - a lot of people actually - the danger is too much water, sea water to be specific. Rising sea levels forecast to result from global warming pose an enormous problem to the Middle East. Egypt's Nile River is especially vulnerable to rising water levels and the associated infusion of salt and brackish water. The UN Environment Programme estimates it could result in the displacement of between two and four million Egyptians by 2050.

Sea water levels don't have to rise very much at all before they begin salinating the groundwater supplies of particularly vulnerable spots like Gaza. A little salinity in groundwater can be incredibly destructive. It's widely believed that the ancient Mesopotamian civilization was destroyed when they rendered the once richly fertile lands of the Tigris and Euphrates delta utterly sterile by centuries of irrigating with brackish water. The salts don't wash away. Instead they accumulate over time until the soil becomes incapable of supporting plant life. Remember how the Romans took revenge on Carthage?

Sea water levels are also expected to wreak proper hell on security in the Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian areas (and, please, don't send me e-mails screaming that there is no Palestine).

The report entitled Climate Change: A New Threat to Middle East Security, by the non-governmental organisation Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), was presented at the annual UN Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia.

It believes climate change could act as a “threat multiplier”, exacerbating water scarcity and tensions over water between nations linked by hydrological resources, geography and shared borders, particularly in Jordan, Gaza and Egypt.

“Poor and vulnerable populations, which exist in significant numbers throughout the region, will likely face the greatest risk”, says the study.

Okay, this isn't the delusional ranting of some whacko, leftie NGO. It's a reality already recognized in studies by very hard-nosed Israeli hydrologists who argue fiercely that Israel needs to keep a permanent hold on the Golan Heights and the West Bank for its own hydrological survival. They worry that a Palestinian West Bank and a Syrian-controlled Golan will leave Israel at the mercy of its enemies for essential access to freshwater.

Of course there's always desalination plants. Sure, but not really. Desalination plants use a lot of fossil fuel and generate a lot of contamination of coastal waters but the product they produce, while economically feasible for urban consumption, is way too expensive to quench the enormous thirst of the agricultural sector.

“Economic unrest across the region, due to a decline in agricultural production from climate impacts on water resources, could also lead to greater political unrest, posing a threat to current regimes and, thereby, affecting internal and cross-border relations,” the FOEME report claims.

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