Looking at water crisis through lens of history

Thu Apr 22, 2010 4:12pm EDT
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By Peter Bohan

CHICAGO (Reuters Life!) - Access to clean water has always been a defining mark of advanced societies, author Steven Solomon notes in his new history of water.

But it hasn't always been apparent how central water has been to national and regional conflicts. By tracing the story around the world and through the centuries, Solomon reaches some compelling conclusions about what he calls the "age of scarcity" that is fast rising around us.

"Fresh water is overtaking oil as the scarcest critical resource. In the same way oil gave a shape to geopolitics and the environment and our daily lives in the 20th century, water is starting to do so in the 21st century," Solomon told Reuters in an interview.

Former United Nations Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali "long ago predicted that the wars of the 21st century are going to be fought over water," Solomon said.

"That so far has not happened. In fact, people have cooperated more than they have had conflicts over water. However, now we are depleting resources and populations are growing faster and scarcity levels are becoming greater. Ecosystems are beginning to give out."

Solomon's book, "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization," ranges from antiquity to the present day, telling a story of societies from ancient Egypt and Rome to modern America, Europe, India and China.

He illuminates many current hot spots through the lens of water: a world of "haves" and "have nots" getting worse by the day, seeding violence and instability. But he also argues that the crisis presents an opportunity for capitalist democracies like the U.S. to assert new global leadership.

"The truth is that the legions of the world's water disenfranchised are continuing to swell," Solomon writes of the 2.5 billion people who lack basic sanitation and more than one billion who lack safe drinking water every day.   Continued...