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Water Pressure: Nations Scramble To Defuse Fights Over Supplies

By G. PASCAL ZACHARY
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL


SINGAPORE -- When a senior official on this island nation publicly tweaked neighboring Malaysia about its crime problem early this year, Malaysians responded with some unusual saber-rattling: They issued veiled threats to cut off their contribution to Singapore's water supply.

Singapore's reaction was even more unusual: It launched a crash program to expand its own water supplies, to charge users more to encourage conservation and to promote voluntary water-saving techniques.

Even in soggy Southeast Asia, tensions are rising over water, as is the interest of many governments in finally doing something about water policy. Urbanization, rising populations and economic growth are putting unprecedented demands on the world's water supply. Defending water resources is among the most pressing of a host of environmental issues that are emerging as national-security concerns around the globe.

Many governments, after long ignoring water issues, are now taking the first steps toward a new way of managing water that could forestall both internal and international disputes, by stressing market incentives, cross-border cooperation and conservation.

Australia recently slashed public subsidies for water, forcing farmers to use water more judiciously and freeing up more water for cities. In China's dry regions, many cities and provinces are raising prices--sometimes by a factor of three--to try to recover the true cost of supplies. In Shanxi province in north-central China, where factories must periodically shut down because of water shortages, industry is now recycling 84% of its water and, using the same amount of water as it was in 1980, is now producing 3.5 times as many goods as it was back then.

Bangladesh, after years of suffering from India's hogging of the Ganges River, recently won a promise from its giant neighbor to set more water aside for Bangladesh. In England, the Philippines and many other countries, a wave of privatizations of government-owned water systems is leading to better treatment equipment and expanded service.

"Internationally, water has become a hot area," says Richard Howitt, an economist at the University of California at Davis.

Behind this new concern is a gloomy and worsening global water picture. Most of the world's water still goes for irrigation, and just who owns which sources of water remains a riddle in virtually every country, including the U.S. Billions of the poorest people on the planet lack safe water supplies; even some developed countries are bedeviled by poor water quality and spot shortages. In India and China, the world's two most populous countries, per-person water supplies fell by roughly half from 1955 to 1990, according to Population Action International. Using the latest population estimates from the United Nations, the Washington research group projects that by the year 2050, about 4.4 billion of the planet's roughly 10 billion people will suffer from chronic water shortages.

That makes water a potentially incendiary issue, and not just in places like the Middle East, where water has always been politically explosive. "Conflicts over water are getting sharper," says John Briscoe, the World Bank's water adviser. "There's a Malthusian arithmetic to it: With more people, where does the water come from? How do you take from somebody to give to someone else?" Adds Franklin Fisher, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "It isn't surprising that a lot of people say the next war will be fought over water, but that absolutely doesn't have to be the case."

Indeed, longstanding and economically dubious government policies have as much to do with today's water problems as do demographics. Because many governments view water as a social good rather than as a commodity, prices for water are artificially maintained at ultralow levels, and supplies are rationed on the basis of historical patterns of use. The problem is that some farms waste a lot of water, and cities and industry resent the higher water rates they generally pay. Such methods of allocation can discriminate against new or more efficient users, such as cities and factories, which use far less water globally than agriculture.

"We underpay for water almost everywhere," says Peter Gleick, director of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development in Oakland, Calif. "That's one of the biggest problems with water world-wide."

Even straightforward steps can produce big savings. In the Brazilian city of Bogor, the combination of meters and higher prices reduced household demand by more than two-thirds.

Privatization can be another quick fix, bringing much-needed capital and a chance at modernization to creaking water systems that governments can't afford to maintain. In Gabon, a Central-African country of 1.1 million, the state-owned water company serves only 42,000 customers. In March, the government sold the rights to run the water company to Cie. Generale des Eaux. Under terms of the 20-year deal, the French company promised to double the system's size, while lowering rates nearly 20%.

Cooperation between countries also seems on the rise. In southern Africa, for instance, observers are encouraged that Angola, Namibia and Botswana at least aren't shooting at each other over disagreements on how to divide the Okavango River. The river runs through Angola, then along its border with Namibia and finally into Botswana. Namibia, one of the driest sub-Saharan African countries, wants to divert water from the Okavango, pumping it uphill to a network of canals and pipelines linked to its capital city. The Namibians say the plan would cut just 1% from the Okavango's flow, but even that is too much for Botswana, which attracts tourists to visit the river's lush delta in its country.

The recent flare-up between Singapore and Malaysia shows how quickly a government can respond to a water threat when it faces up to reality. Malaysia supplies about half of Singapore's water via pipeline and is contractually bound to do so well into the next century. Its veiled threat of a cut-off hit Singapore in the midst of a drought that has withered Singapore's reservoirs to two-thirds capacity, sending Singaporeans into a panic. Responding to a worried public, the country's water chief vowed in April: "Even in an emergency, we will not go thirsty."

Within weeks, Singapore launched a campaign to increase supplies and reduce waste. The centerpiece was a plan to build desalination plants, which would produce water at about eight times the cost of current supplies. The country also pledged to double water prices by the year 2000.

"Water is a top priority of the government now," says David Tee Liang, a research fellow at Singapore's Environmental Technology Institute.

A key test of Singapore's water program will be how much momentum it retains when the city-state's drought breaks. But the specter of more expensive water already has prompted immediate steps to save water, which isn't hard to do in a country where the flushing of toilets accounts for the biggest single drain on water sources. Just by swapping low-flow toilets for older nine-liter (2.4-gallon) models, one hotel has cut its water bill by 35,000 Singapore dollars (US$21,740) a year. Another is considering using rainwater to flush its toilets and a third is reusing the water from the last rinse cycle of its washing machines.

If these pragmatic steps don't slake Singapore's thirst for water security, there are some far-out ideas under discussion. Among those on the table: turning some of the small islands off Singapore's coast into floating reservoirs; outfitting thousands of state-owned apartments with separate plumbing systems that would recycle waste water; and building a vast storage tank beneath a large granite rock formation at the center of the country.

Water Wrangles Around the World Rising populations, urbanization and economic growth are creating unprecedented demand for fresh water and fueling international water disputes. But some governments are coming up with solutions, such as conservation and water-sharing pacts.

A look at some water conflicts:

  1. Southern Africa Namibia wants water from the Okavango River for its cities, but neighboring Botswanans fret that won't leave enough for their delta wetlands.
     
  2. South Asia India and Bangladesh have signed a 30-year treaty to share water from the Ganges River; the pact will help 40 million farmers in Bangladesh who rely on the river during the dry season.
     
  3. Northern Africa Egypt, long the dominant user of the Nile, faces encroachments on the river from Ethiopia and Sudan.
     
  4. East Asia After Malaysia threatens to cut back on its water shipments, Singapore starts a crash program to expand and conserve water supplies.
      
  5. North America Mexico is angry over U.S. plans to reduce seepage from irrigation canals off the Colorado River; reduced seepage will mean less water for dry northern Mexico, which pumps water on its side of the border from underground reservoirs.