Posted: 05.06.2024 11:25:14

Liquid gold

The global water crisis is gathering pace

In March, UNESCO published the United Nations World Water Development Report 2024 on water security issues. “As water stress increases, so do the risks of local or regional conflict. UNESCO’s message is clear: if we want to preserve peace, we must act swiftly not only to safeguard water resources but also to enhance regional and global co-operation in this area,” declared UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.

                               The President of Belarus,
                            Aleksandr Lukashenko,

“We are ready to provide modern technologies and equipment for water treatment and water disposal. Clean water is the key to human health. This programme is being successfully implemented in Belarus.“

During a meeting with the Governor of Russia’s Kursk Region, on June 9th, 2022

Worldwide thirst

The concern of international organisations is absolutely clear. According to the updated data, 2.2 billion people around the world have no access to clean drinking water, and 3.5 billion people have no safe sanitation services. Thus, more than half of the world’s inhabitants suffer from water supply interruptions. The Middle East, North and Central Africa are traditionally considered problematic regions, but similar difficulties have recently arisen in Central Asia, India, Australia, on the Korean Peninsula and even in a number of European countries and northern regions of the United States. The issue of shortage of water resources is acute in some areas; the irrational use of existing water riches, degradation of water supply and sewerage systems — in others.  
As of 2022, about half of the world’s population experienced severe water shortages, while one quarter faced ‘extremely high levels’ of water scarcity, using more than 80 percent of their annual renewable freshwater supply. At the same time, according to experts from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), 2023 became the hottest year in the entire history of observations, breaking the record of 2016. Scientists stated that in 2023, for the first time in history, the temperature of each day during the year exceeded the pre-industrial reference period by one degree Celsius, and half of the days recorded warmer temperature by 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Global warming causes droughts and depletion of water resources, breaking the plans of politicians and environmentalists.

Equation with many unknowns

One of the main features of the water resources problem is its versatility, which makes it difficult to develop common approaches. There are states that are fully provided with their own fresh water and even have an excess of it. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the top 5 countries with the largest freshwater reserves include Brazil, Russia, Canada, Indonesia and China. However, there are states that are forced to purchase water from outside in order to meet the needs of the population and industry. According to the World Resources Institute, there are just over a dozen of them. The list also includes four countries of the former USSR — Turkmenistan, Moldova, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 50 to 100 litres of water per person per day are needed to ensure that most basic needs are met. However, this figure is much lower in Africa and averages 10-20 litres. For comparison: in the USA, they spend 450 litres per person, in Canada — 340, and in Japan — 320. Europeans are more modest than their overseas counterparts in this regard and use from 130 to 180 litres per person. This is, however, mostly due to the fact that the cost of water supply services west of the Belarusian borders is quite high and does not encourage prodigality.
In Belarus, the norm per person is 140 litres of water per day. All residents of the country are provided with high-quality drinking water. According to the United Nations Development Programme, our republic is among the top 20 countries in the world in terms of public access to clean drinking water. In terms of water resources, Belarus ranks fifth in Europe, significantly surpassing Poland and Ukraine in this indicator.

Blood and water

The fight for water is a popular plot of post-apocalyptic fiction. It is possible that in reality, a whole series of conflicts caused by disputes over access to drinking water sources may arise soon.
According to research by a group of European climatologists published in the Nature Communications journal, 91 percent of the world’s population will have limited access to clean fresh water by 2050. Environmentalists claim that this will happen due to pollution of aquifers with nitrogen fertilisers and waste from industry and human activity.
The war over access to water resources is not a new phenomenon. Scientists believe that water played a certain role in 655 conflicts in the history of mankind. However, the number of water-related conflicts has been steadily increasing lately. According to the estimates of the American Pacific Institute, 466 conflicts and clashes related to the distribution of water resources have occurred in the world since 2010. The most dangerous territories are the basins of the Nile, Brahmaputra, Ganges, Zambezi, Limpopo, Mekong, Senegal, as well as the area of Lake Chad.
Another point of potential water conflict is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile River in the northwest of the country. The construction began back in 2011 in order to solve problems with electricity generation. The Hidase Hydroelectric Power Plant, which is the official name of the facility, caused heated disputes between Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo from the very beginning. The Egyptian leadership is outraged the most as they believe that the dam allows controlling the river flow rate, and fear that Ethiopians could arrange artificial droughts and flooding for their neighbours with its help. For Egypt and Sudan, whose agriculture is mainly based on the use of Nile resources, such a scenario could prove to be fatal.
However, African countries also give an example of effective co-operation in solving the water problem. This refers to the revived work of the Lake Chad Basin Commission. Lake Chad has decreased in size by 90 percent over 60 years, which has caused instability in the region. Recently, the Commission’s mandate has been expanded, and now it deals with issues of ensuring the most efficient and rational use of the basin’s waters, co-ordinating regional development and preventing disagreements between countries and local communities.

Is there a solution?

Is it possible to do without water wars? In addition to global programmes for the conservation and saving of water resources, and countering global warming, there are local technological solutions in this area. They are primarily related to the purification of contaminated liquids and seawater desalination. Thus, in Israel, over 70 percent of dirty water is treated. Chemists from Cardiff University have created a catalyst for water disinfection based on palladium and gold particles, which allows almost instant water purification from harmful impurities. Researchers from Dalian Maritime University in China have come up with a new desalination device — it can float on top of seawater, efficiently absorb solar energy and use that heat to evaporate the water. Finally, Korean scientists have unveiled a seawater desalination technology with the use of a nanofibre membrane that takes just minutes to make seawater drinkable.
The water crisis is one of the global challenges humanity is currently facing, and it threatens to affect every corner of our planet. Its further aggravation may lead to a new round of wars and conflicts. The solution to this issue is only possible with the co-operation of the world community countries. However, the tragic gap between the profitability of the use of terrestrial resources and their depletion prevents from developing effective approaches.

By Anton Popov