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Water shortages ‘could plunge the world into conflict’

Ben Marlow, the Times
WATER could be the cause of large armed conflicts in the next 20 to 30 years if governments do not take immediate action to manage the world’s water resources more efficiently, an expert has warned.

Wars over oil have been fought for decades, but water could be the next source of conflict unless governments deal with access to the commodity that some commentators now call “liquid gold”.

Fears are mounting that the cost of water will rocket as the global economy wakes up to the strains being placed on supplies in some parts of the world.

“Water is a precious resource that we take for granted,” said Ben Braga, vice-president of the World Water Council. “Governments need to wake up and adopt policies towards efficient water use.” Water wars are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country, said Braga.

The flashpoints could be some of the world’s biggest rivers, such as the Amazon, Nile, Zambezi or Tigris.

The total volume of the Earth’s water is about 200m cubic metres, or 200m tonnes, per person.

Only 1% of fresh water is usable and more than one billion people lack access to reliable, safe drinking water. About 2.6 billion people do not have lavatories or other forms of sanitation. Some experts predict that by 2015 two-thirds of the world’s people will live in water-stressed countries.

Agriculture absorbs about 70% of water. As developing economies move towards a more western diet, even more strain will be put on the supply.

“The lack of access to basic levels of water and sanitation is primarily due to exclusion and neglect of the poor, not lack of sufficient water resources or lack of technical solutions. The problem is not of quantity, more of management,” said Braga…
(6 June 2010)

Government review to examine threat of world resources shortage

Juliette Jowitt, The Guardian
Ministers have ordered a review of looming global shortages of resources, from fish and timber to water and precious metals, amid mounting concern that the problem could hit every sector of the economy.

The study has been commissioned following sharp rises in many commodity prices on the world markets and recent riots in some countries over food shortages.

There is also evidence that some nations are stockpiling important materials, buying up key producers and land and restricting exports in an attempt to protect their own businesses from increasingly fierce global competition.

Several research projects have also warned of a pending crisis in natural resources, such as water and wildlife, which have suffered dramatic losses due to over-use, pollution, habitat loss, and, increasingly, changes caused by global warming.

Professor Bob Watson, the chief scientist for the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs, the leading department in the initiative, said every sector of the British economy was directly or indirectly vulnerable to future shortages.

These could be caused either by resources running out or becoming harder to access because of geopolitical factors from war to tighter environmental regulation on resources such as timber and palm oil – the latter being found in an estimated one in 10 products, from chocolate to cosmetics, sold in Britain.

“One of the roles of government is to provide information … come up with a shared vision of moving forward and working with the private sector so we have competitiveness, a viable economy moving forward,” Watson said.

AEA, the consultancy commissioned to carry out the study, said resources at risk included timber, water, fish, precious metals and minerals such as phosphorus, which is widely used in fertiliser.

One area of particular concern is “rare earth elements”, important for defence and many green technologies from low-energy lightbulbs to wind turbines, as well as industries as varied as electronics and lasers, film and lighting, aircraft engines, nuclear reactors, and pain-relieving drugs, Phil Dolley, AEA’s resource efficiency director, said…
(31 May 2010)

Phosphorus and the Oxygen Connection

Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune
As recently reported by Miller-McCune, scientists believe the world may be approaching “peak phosphorus.” Supplies of phosphate rock, a key source of phosphorus for fertilizers, may start to decline in 20 years, they say, triggering famine and food shortages.

Now, beyond food, phosphorus is getting credit for the very air we breathe. New research from the Carnegie Institution for Science suggests that hundreds of millions of years ago, phosphorus may have jump-started the modern-day atmosphere, paving the way for the evolution of complex life forms and even turning the sky blue.

Biochemist Dominic Papineau studied the phosphate deposits that formed during a critical interval in the history of the Earth, from 2.5 billion years ago to about 540 million years ago. During this period, levels of oxygen in the atmosphere increased in two phases, from trace amounts to near-present levels, giving rise to a spectacular explosion in the diversity of life forms, including sponges and hard-shelled marine organisms.

“Phosphate rocks formed only sporadically during geologic history,” Papineau was quoted in a release announcing his paper, “and it’s striking that their occurrences coincided with major global biogeochemical changes as well as significant leaps in biological evolution.”

Over geologic timescales of tens of millions to a few hundreds of millions of years, he said, supercontinents broke up and glaciers melted, increasing the weathering of the Earth’s crust and washing large quantities of phosphorus into the oceans…
(24 May 2010)