Since water is critical to life, its growing scarcity is a cause of geopolitical realignment and conflict. Where nation states control access to scarce resources, they can allocate supply within their borders as they see fit, hopefully in accordance with policies that are equitable and just. In the international arena, however, things are not so straightforward, and water is only one of a number of resources to be concerned about.
We have only just begun to see what might happen when there isn't enough water to go around. With a few exceptions, I think it is true to say that generally where people have inadequate access to water, it's not because there isn't any available, but because the infrastructure isn't in place to supply it where it's needed. But the number of exceptions to this rule is growing, as demand outstrips supply in more and more areas.
In South Africa, 98% of surface water is already put to use. [via Urban Sprout] Where surface water runs out, we dig down. But again, in South Africa, 41% of this is allocated. It's already become a nonrenewable resource in many other parts of the world, as it can't be replenished at the rate it's extracted. So we look farther afield, and where there is a surplus, pipelines are built to transport it longer distances, until everything is allocated.
As populations grow, either water consumption increases or more people live without enough. We can increase the efficiency of water use, so that there is more to go around, but eventually the truth will hit us. One way or another, we will have to increase the supply. In most cases the first port of call should be using water-efficient appliances, then recycling grey water for irrigation and use in toilets, but some cities are choosing desalination first, which is curious. That's like putting solar panels on your roof before finding ways to reduce your electricity consumption. It's the easiest strategy, but also the most expensive. And so it is with desalination.
My point really is that we can find water, but it will become more and more expensive, and probably will become more erratically available. Just as Eskom has to choose who to supply electricity to when there isn't enough to go around, likewise when there is a drought the reserve water supplies might dry up before new sources can be brought onstream, presenting an interesting political challenge.
Countries like South Africa have to ensure that the poorer communities receive what they need to survive, affordably. But there is no mechanism, other than price, to stop people who can afford it from using more than their fair share. A tiered price structure has been used successfully in a number of South African municipalities up to now, ensuring that basic needs are met even by the poorest. But when there isn't enough, the taps can't just be turned to "low" (or off) to stop overuse.
Water is just the beginning. There is another category of resource that will eventually become like water in its strategic importance, but may be even harder to control: food. Many developing countries are already facing food challenges within their borders, but just as water increasingly needs to be distributed among competing countries, so too does equitable food distribution become an international issue.
It's not much different from peak oil. Peak water is just as much a reality, and peak food will be too. It already is for certain times and regions, for certain types of food staples. Even though South Africa has not experienced food shortages that have resulted in widespread hunger, its neighbours have; and there is growing concern in South Africa that food security be given serious consideration. The forecast hotter and drier climate in the region, combined with increased demand for water, will reduce the range of crops that can be grown, and reduce the yields of those that will continue to be cultivated.
This is where things really start to get messy. Governments can maintain control over water distribution - they already have that privilege - but food is another matter. The Gene Giants (BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Sungenta, Dupont and others) are frantically patenting seeds that will be drought tolerant and "climate ready". Farmers facing a changing climate are already feeling the pressure to adopt genetically modified seeds, but this is just the prelude.
If you think GM food inherently is a bad thing, then good luck trying to hold back the orchestrated movement we are about to witness. According to a report from the Canadian-based environmental ETC Group, "Monsanto and BASF have forged a collossal $1.5 bn (R11.5bn) partnership to engineer stress tolerance in plants." But even if we put aside the issue of GM health concerns, or the effect a GM crop has on farmers who become locked in to a supplier's seeds and pesticides, there is another aspect to this story that scares the living daylights out of me.
The more climate change affects agriculture, the more dependent we will become on patented GM seeds. If the ETC Group is right, global food security will be in the hands of a few multinational corporations that will be subject to no obligations to ensure equitable distribution. Like energy and water, when there is enough food to go around and the challenge is regional distribution rather than a global shortage, my fear sounds like paranoia. But let's dream for a moment and imagine a future when everyone is well fed.
Rapidly spreading urban areas are devouring some of the best agricultural land across the globe. Planners recognise the challenge, but so far have been unable to halt the consumption of land (another resource that has probably peaked). For the foreseeable future, population growth and migration to cities will reduce the amount of productive land available. And if all these people are eating well enough to avoid dying of malnutrition, then the average amount of food consumed per capita will increase, and we will end up in the same situation as with water: food that is periodically, if not permanently, in short supply and expensive.
But if the distribution of seeds for food is left entirely to market forces, with profit-seeking corporations making the decisions, who will ensure that the poor don't sit at an empty table? As sure as God made the apple, it'll be the person with the most money who will eat the last one.
On the other hand, GM seeds, like any product, can be subject to shortages that can be either unintended or part of a deliberate strategy. Governments are notorious for using subsidies and levies to encourage or discourage the movement of goods across international borders, and agriculture is one of those industries that legislators just can't keep their hands off. And there's the suppliers themselves. If an increasing proportion of agricultural seed is supplied by the Gene Giants, what's to stop them behaving like the OPEC of agriculture, controlling supply to maintain prices at levels that suit them? I shudder to think of it.