It is hard to ignore the effects of climate change and rapid urbanization on the world’s population and access to water. On the one hand, quality of life has increased tremendously for many; however countless riveting political debacles posed by industry, economy, and our failing environmental state have only exacerbated underlying social tensions. Politics are more divisive than ever.
Water plays a vital role not only in our health and environment, but also in the longstanding social structures that contribute to our quality of life. As someone who has spent the majority of her life in the dense green hills of temperate New England, it is hard to accept the scarcity of water seemingly everywhere else. I have not experienced rationed water or landscaping and agriculture water resrictions. That’s not because we have not faced our own ramifications of climate change; in fact much of the east coast is technically in a flood zone. We are still recovering from last year’s Hurricane Sandy, whose severity many connect with the increase ferocity of storms from global warming.
Since 1990, 2 billion people have gained access to safe water (6.1 billion in 2010, up from 4.1 billion in 1990), however the actual percentage of those without access has remained stagnant due to increasing population growth. Not only are we looking at a global water crisis, but also at a seven billion and counting population. Unless population growth begins to stabilize it will be awfully hard to meet the needs of exponential consumption. Our social structures and environmental status are much more interconnected than I ever could have thought.
Going to Oman in the middle east next year, I am curious how a country is able to provide reliable public water infrastructure in a hyper arid zone and the steps they take to preserve it.
Not so far away from Oman, Egypt is striving to appease 82.54 million different opinions and coexist as one under the same flag. Any time you are dealing with a major transition of power, there will be inevitable chaos and a struggle to maintain the food supply and basic living conditions. Because Egypt has been experiencing drought conditions which limit its agricultural production, it has been difficult for the government to continue subsidizing commodities like flour and other cereal grains, thus decreasing production at local bakeries. Raising tensions even further, Ethiopia has announced plans to build a dam on the Nile River, Egypt’s primary source of clean water for drinking and irrigation. Ethiopia has stated the entire process of flooding and dredging will be spread over 3 years to dissipate impact. I am not sure how this dispute will be treated under international law.
As a country with rising unemployment, drought with potential food shortage, and ongoing political disagreement, it seems like one of the strongest potential unifiers is through environmental justice.
For some countries after the Arab Spring, people were more able to begin public discourse on water infrastructure. Although it was not publicized during the violence and urgency of the protests, community involvement has played a role in new attitudes on water conservation.
In Yemen, about 75% of tribal disputes stem from water. Soon enough, water might just be the most valuable natural resource in our world. Though this is not totally comparable, the largest manmade water reservoir in Massachusetts, the Quabbin, supplies water to the eastern part of our state. I do wonder what would happen If we reached a similar circumstance.
Out of the 22 countries in the Arab region, under U.N. guidelines, 12 qualify under water scarcity. Drought is becoming a common occurrence in the region, degrading the land and ultimately leading to desertification. The Arab water security strategy that went into affect in 2010 plans to implement improved legislation on dealing with the water crisis. This initiative includes increasing efficiency in distribution, exploring alternate methods of water production, improving water security, along with risk management planning.
The Arab league is very aware of the threats posed by climate change. It is working to minimize these and hopefully preserve its natural resources in the process. In the past twenty years alone, the Middle East has had a 43% population increase; this is another factor in environmental stress. With the common thread of unemployment and civil strife, large migration streams are moving to cities for work. Fifty five percent of the Middle East currently resides in an urban environment. It is no wonder people are discussing other viable options for accessing fresh water.
Desalination is an expensive, complicated process but the impetus is providing clean drinking water for the greater public. This method has been greatly favored amongst nations on the Arabian Gulf. In fact Saudi Arabia has the largest desalination capacity in the world! I have read that there can be a negative impact from the process when excess salt and toxin byproduct is disposed back into the ocean. From my understanding, I think this is a matter of risk and benefit and the opportunities desalination provides are just too substantial to stop it all together until there are better options, especially if desalination can be done with solar power. It is more of a funding issue after all, since not many countries can afford the technology.
Remarkably, Oman has managed to provide an almost constant flow of water, while still respecting its finite supply. Unlike many of the other countries in the Arab League, which collect much of their water from perennial rivers, most of the gulf relies on surface water supplies and Wadis (oases with temporal water supply from rain; some have underground reservoirs).
In Oman, agriculture accounts for 90% of water use, yet agriculture is a small sector of the economy as they import around 40% of their food. Farming is high maintenance in its nature, but in a desert it is exceptionally difficult, requiring extra water and attention.
Oman has implemented a water management plan to preserve its resources. This plan includes reducing overall water use while still providing potable water to all communities, improving the use and development of their Aflaj systems, rethinking land use, working to recover water loss, and providing educational and awareness programs.
The Aflaj system is unique to Oman and has been around for thousands of years. Similar to Roman aquifers, Aflaj water channels bring water from Wadis and mountaintops to more populous zones. There are currently 3,017 Aflaj in use throughout the sultanate. Because of their historical significance in the fair sharing of water between villages and towns, they are even found under UNESCO’s world Heritage list. Dams have played an important role for Oman in harvesting rainwater as well. There are more than 100 dispersed throughout Oman. Omanis also have been very reliant on wells. Wells provide both public and private water and are an integral part of Omani heritage. As of recently, more than 10,000 Omani homes are connected to water pipelines.
The gulf region has the challenge of preserving its oil-based economy while slowly integrating alternative energy into the work force. Oman has taken initiative in installing solar energy and even wind farms. In the future they hope to expand this technology to a larger audience. For now, the have begun using solar energy to power parking meters in the greater Muscat area as well as providing it as a electricity source in the more rural regions. As we speak, their scientists are looking for new ways to increase the scope of this technology.
I am excited to go to a country that is aware of its own pressing environmental concerns. Just like diplomacy, environmental justice cannot be enforced by legislators alone. Most successful environmental change has come from community involvement. Economists predict increased quality of life and gross domestic product with an improved environment, so quality of life continues to be super dependent on preserving our clean potable water.