Why this rainy country should bother about water

This month’s scare is oil, a resource. The long-range scare is climate change, an environmental issue. But bigger than oil and more proximate than climate change is water.

Water is a resource issue and an environmental issue — and potentially a cause of conflict.

In our pluvial country water is not top-of-mind. There are occasional droughts and less water is expected in the east this century. Some catchments are overallocated or badly managed. But, with political will (so far lacking), we can easily manage.

Water is top-of-mind in Australia, which appears to be turning drier and can grow less wheat, fewer animals and fewer grapes and will have to get drinking water from the sea. But that is manageable and might even deliver exportable technologies, management techniques and skills.

Water is becoming scarce in some Rockies regions in the United States. But that can be fixed by people moving state.

In east and south Asia water is not easily fixed and it’s getting serious. Well over 2 billion people live there. If water goes wrong there, it could be rough for all of us.

India’s rapid recent population growth owes much to the “green revolution” — new strains of rice and other crops — which has in part depended on liberal use of water.

Much of that water — one estimate is two-thirds — comes from underground. The International Water Management Institute estimates that two-fifths more water is extracted each year than is replenished by rainfall.

So bores are going deeper — up to 40 times deeper. At some point they will run dry. In some states the area of irrigated land is already contracting.

There are mitigating options: harvesting monsoon rain and storing it in ponds so water seeps back into underground aquifers instead of running out to sea; diverting rivers. But pond storage has limits (and the monsoons are less predictable) and diverting rivers denies water to downstream users, notably in Bangladesh, which is not good for peaceful neighbourly relations.

Other south Asian and south-east Asian countries have also begun to over-use underground water.

So has China, most spectacularly in the north.

China’s breakneck industrialisation is legendary, as is now its pollution, affecting Japan, western United States and even on occasion Europe.

China’s industry gobbles coal, oil and raw materials — and water. The cotton in a single t-shirt takes 25 bathtubs of water, according to the New Scientist. And industry pours polluted water back into the waterways.

One result of overuse and pollution is toxic fish exports, now causing China problems with importing countries. Another is that streams and even rivers run dry. A third is that farmers, manufacturers and cities have been extracting underground water far faster than it is replenished.

Edicts from Beijing to limit the numbers of bores and the amount extracted are routinely ignored, not only by the users but also by provincial and city authorities. So are pollution controls.

The potential end-result is, as in India, insufficient food. Already in parts of China’s north fewer crops are grown because water is lacking.

Couple that with greater affluence as Asia’s middle classes expand and you get higher food prices, notably of grains. You can feel that in the price of bread: wheat prices have zoomed.

You can afford that extra. But in a poor-country household grain, particularly rice, is a large part of the budget. And the world price of rice has doubled in the past two years.

The implications are obvious. Moreover, the world population is projected to grow from the present 6 billion-plus to a peak of 9 billion. What will they eat? Will large numbers starve? And if they starve will they starve peacefully or turn to violence? And, if violence, will our rainy, food-rich country be totally unaffected?

Go back to China. To alleviate the water shortage in the north, where 60 per cent of the supply comes from diminishing underground aquifers, China is building three huge diversion channels to siphon around 50 trillion litres a year from the Yangtze basin.

Elsewhere China aims to maximise the use of its rivers within its borders. That will in many cases reduce flows to other countries, in an arc from India through south-east Asia to Russia. The Mekong, for example, is a lifeblood, not just as water but in fish protein, to the populations in several south-east Asian countries.

China uses “soft power” (diplomacy, aid, investment, trade) with great skill to placate south-east Asians.

But will soft power always suffice? China is fast developing its military capability and has a long imperial history. When pessimists talk of resource wars, water is potentially a bigger bother than fossil fuels and metals. Water is life. There is no substitute.

So when it rains, count your blessings and pray for brilliant technical and political initiatives in countries where mighty thirsts are draining reserves. And ask if you really need that next 25-bathtub t-shirt.