Water wars, food fights beg for our best selves to lead

So. Another World Food Day, October 16, has come and gone. We all know that the human race can destroy itself many times over, just as we know we could end dought and hunger but for the collective will. But our species — I refer to homo sapiens assuming no dolphins will read this — can’t seem to curb its expensive addiction to conflict, starting with wars over water.

That addiction has raged for 5,000 years and continues around the world according to this timeline from Pacific Institute.

The desire to cooperate over water rights and distribution, locally as well a globally, ought to transcend apathy or even politics. Lest you think this is a “bleeding-heart liberal” issue, consider this observation from a conservative:

Dystopian novels and movies predict a future in which people fight it out for every last drop of water to quench the thirst of expanding cities, parched agriculture, and wasteful suburban grass lawns. But the future is already here. Urban growth in desert cities has ramped up the demand for water while increasing temperatures brought on by climate change have decreased the supply.”

— Max Holleran, “The Water Wars Are Here,” New Republic, Sept. 13, 2019
Photo: RedCharlie

Pope: ‘Third World War over water’ underway

Beyond the U.S., global water pressures are dire. In 2014, I attended a presentation by Nausheen Kaul, then-partner with A.T. Kearney, an advisor to some of the world’s top corporations and governments. Kaul, speaking to an audience of business leaders largely engaged with global food brand marketing, touched on the macroeconomics, geopolitics, and shifting demographics leading to the Great water-and-land buy-up.

During the Q&A session, a logistics-company CEO asked, “Did you ever think about water as a weapon?”

Kaul for his part cited of a “global resource nexus” in which the interplay between the supply and demand of food, energy and water will be lead to “troubling” developments. Such as: By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be “hyper-urbanized” into cities, governments will buckle under the pressure to accommodate aging populations and technology developments will make or break efforts to feed more people, sustainably and with fewer resources.

Another global consultant, McKinsey & Co., noted that less than one percent of the planet’s water can support human and ecological processes (the rest is salt and glacier), leading to the proclamation: “Water is as important to the world’s economy as oil or data.”

And yet what advice can these firms give government and multinationals and the new breed of private-sector water barons but to gobble-up as much access and control of water and arable land resources as they can? And they do.

Now, Big Water holds all the cards at the world’s high-stakes tables. Amid fraying multilateralism, there’s no effective referee to enforce fairness. Even well-funded NGOs are increasingly under attack by those in control.

It’s easy to lose one’s religion on the matter of progress.

In 2017, Pope Francis characterized water as a human right and said we’re already in the midst of a “Third World War over water happening in pieces.” (See video). Since then, the UN has predicted 300 global hotspots for water conflicts by 2025; and sources including the Journal Nature have concluded that world’s preoccupation with economic growth in the modern era has led to unchecked consequences on resources and contributed to water scarcity.

Just how prevalent is water conflict today? Mapping and geo-analytics firm ESRI provides an interactive view of  Water, Droughts, and Armed Conflicts in near-realtime:

Tracking water conflicts is big business. (ESRI)

Shortlist: water conflict headlines

Domestic U.S. International
‘Not just Martin County.’ Eastern KY community hosts UN World Water Day to push for change. (Lexington Herald-Leader, October 2020)The Water War on the U.S.-Mexico Border Has Just Begun (Foreign Policy, October 2020)
Unsafe to drink: Wildfires threaten rural towns with tainted water (CalMatters, October 2020)Water is China’s Greatest Weapon and its Achilles Heel (Harvard Political Review, October 2020)
Speculators Buying Up Colorado Water Rights? (Pagosa Daily Post, September 2020)World War 3: South America becomes ‘battleground for new Cold War’ with China and Russia (Daily Express, October 2020)
Critics vow to continue efforts to remove Snake River dams in Washington (Oregon Public Broadcasting, October 2020)‘This is a war’: Cross-Border Fight Over Water Erupts in Mexico (New York Times, October 2020)
Water Wars at the Supreme Court: ‘It’s Only Going to Get Worse’ (Bloomberg Law, September 2020)The Ethiopian-Egyptian Water War Has Begun (Foreign Policy, September 2020)
just a few of related headlines from recent weeks.

Water conflicts cascade to food

Since the aforementioned meeting I covered, progress on the U.N.’s Zero Hunger Challenge has been increasingly grim. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World in 2020: The number of undernourished people in the world continued to increase last year:

Here are additional takeaways from the the FAO report:

  • “The number of people affected by hunger globally has been slowly on the rise since 2014.”
  • “Nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.”
  • “If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger will surpass 840 million by 2030, or 9.8 percent of the population….even without taking into account the potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” which is expected to worsen the overall situation.
Photo: Isaiah Rustad

Global compassion, local effort?

Does civility have a chance against the present rise in nationalism and fraying multilateralism (NATO, ICMBs, Paris Climate Agreement, Iran, North Korea, China, NAFTA, Brexit)? It’s difficult to tell if we’re on the brink of another World War, or if the leaders of countries will ever change, human nature being somewhat slow to evolve.

The silver lining is that even controversial and allegedly corrupt leaders can forget to “cleanse” competence from their ranks. Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is one example. (I chose him because he’s neither a Western Trump nor a North Korean Un. But any given day, he’s known as an election fraudster, terrorist sponsor, incongruously both a NATO member and Russian military client, and partner in a criminal bromance with one Donald Trump.

Beneath all the chaos at the top, Mehmet Emin Birpinar, Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Environment and Urbanization, seems to speak to the best in all of us in an October 16 op-ed in which he said:

This is the world we live in: a world overwhelmed by obesity on the one hand, and by hunger and misery on the other. It is said that 1 out of every 3 food dishes is wasted in a world where three children starve to death every minute. Wasted food can feed the starving population four times over. We all have tasks to make a change. We can start by avoiding waste. Our main goal is zero waste and zero hunger.

—Mehmet Emin Birpinar, Oct. 16, 2020.

That’s a great starting point for understanding basic distinctions between terms including food losses (in production, storage, and processing, most typically in low-income countries) and food waste (through excessive un-conscious distribution, marketing, and consumption mainly in rich countries).

Public and private efforts are underway that span water and food issues. For instance, companies individually and collectively through the food industry’s FMI association. Members from Cargill to Coca-Cola to Kroger and Walmart support a full spectrum approach to clean water, zero hunger, food waste and more. (Just search “hunger” at the food industry’s FMI association website to learn about them.)  

Again, though, all efforts from corporate pressure to political will begin and end locally at the individual level. In my backyard, the Greater Chicago Food Depository is a good choice I’m checking into, albeit belatedly. They’re affiliated with Feeding America, which ought to have resources.

Good luck, human race.