The Observer view on why we shouldn’t waste a drop of increasingly vital and valuable water


It’s hot. Very hot. And as ever in the UK when the sun comes out for more than a few, fleeting summer afternoons, there is talk of water shortages, rationing and hosepipe bans. It is a pity the millionaire bosses of privatised water companies do not spend more time lining leaking pipes and less time lining their pockets. Yet despite this and other controversies over charges, metering, mismanagement of upland catchment areas and periodic downstream flooding, Britain’s water politics are relatively benign.

Not so in many other parts of a densely populated world, where the availability of clean, potable water, and water for agricultural and industrial use is a hot political, security and economic issue – as well as a frequently unmet, basic human need. Ethiopia’s stupendous $4bn (£3bn) Grand Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile is a case in point. When completed, it will be the largest dam in Africa, generating more than three times the energy produced by the Hoover dam in the US. But for some, it is a cause for war.

The government in Addis Ababa views the dam as a prestige project, symbolising and facilitating the country’s development. Neighbouring Sudan, where the Blue Nile merges with the White Nile at Khartoum, stands to benefit, too – from cheaper electricity and stable year-round water levels. But in Egypt, to the north, the dam is seen as a strategic and economic threat. The Nile provides about 85% of all Egypt’s water. Its growing population already faces chronic water shortages by 2025. Yet it is estimated that Nile levels could drop by 25% for up to seven years as Ethiopia fills the vast reservoir created by the dam.

The sense of vulnerability arising from foreign control of a vital national resource is undoubtedly acute. It is a sensation the desiccated military dictatorship of Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is not managing well. Yet Egypt is not alone in its insecurities. Similar anxieties can be observed across the Middle East, where growing competition for increasingly scarce water resources further complicates already complex political, religious and social conflicts.

Control of water supplies emanating, for example, from the Tigris and Euphrates, flowing south from Turkey, is a key element in the political control of towns and countryside in Iraq and Syria. When creating its doomed caliphate, Islamic State supposedly “weaponised” water. Both countries are currently suffering shortages due to human activity (including new dams in Turkey), changing weather patterns and desertification. Some argue that control of water can be strategically decisive – a thesis Moses would presumably support.

A government that cannot provide plentiful water, and thus ensure basic hygiene, healthcare and sanitation, may not long survive. It’s a lesson reiterated last week in Khorramshahr, in south-west Iran, where anger over lack of clean drinking water morphed into violent anti-regime protests. Conversely, it is surely no coincidence that the African and Asian countries where supplies are least reliable are also among the most unstable, poorest and most conflicted. Millions of children die each year from avoidable causes, including polluted water. According to the WaterAid charity, one in nine people still live without clean water close to home.

Global warming and population growth are further roiling water politics. In drought-hit southern Australia, a row erupted over the alleged “politicising” of the problem by those who argued climate change was to blame. Even when, for the first time, pregnant cows were sent to the abattoir because pastureland had turned to dust, sheer obtuseness trumped common sense Down Under.

Climate change denial cannot be vanquished overnight, no more than we can insist it start raining. But appreciating the value of water, and water conservation, can start today. So if you are asked to turn off the garden hosepipe or leave the toilet unflushed, don’t hesitate. It may not count for much in the big picture but, hot or not, it’s the least we should do.



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