Water--the next OPEC?
With fresh water supplies dwindling; aquifers shrinking, pollution, waterborne disease, and shifts in rain patterns caused by global warming all threatening the access to fresh water in many parts of the world, water imports are rapidly becoming big business,
Some experts say the next cartel will be an organization of water-exporting countries. Others see more danger in local privatization of water, which could restrict access to the poor within nations.
"Water is blue gold, it's terribly precious," says Maude Barlow, who chairs for the Council of Canadians, an Ottawa-based citizens' watchdog. "Not too far in the future, we're going to see a move to surround and commodify the world's fresh water. Just as they've divvied up the world's oil, in the coming century there's going to be a grab."
Already, pipelines for bulk water shipments are under consideration between Scotland and water-short England. Similar plans exist for Turkey to pipe water to central Europe and markets in Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, and Malta. In the late 1990s, Aquarius Water Transportation became the first company to tow bags of fresh water for export, delivering commercial bulk quantities to the Greek Islands. In 2000, Nordic Water Supply, began using 5 million gallon bags - 10 times as big as the original Aquarius containers - to float water from Turkey to northern Cyprus.
"It is impossible to overestimate the importance of pure water supply," said A. Fred Paley, president of Global H2O Resources, in a statement. "Many communities in over 50 counties throughout the world are suffering needlessly because water is either insufficient or polluted or may not exist at all."
His Vancouver, British Columbia, company says it has acquired exclusive rights to 4.8 billion gallons of glacier water a year for 30 years under a license granted by Alaska and the city of Sitka. So far, Global has been selling premium bottled "glacier-fed water" - but is eyeing bulk shipments to Asia and the Middle East. In September, the company announced it had been approved to build a loading pier in Sitka, capable of handling 50,000-ton ships.
Bottled water sales have grown to $50 billion worldwide, much of the growth coming in developing countries. China's consumption nearly quadrupled between 1997 and 2002 to 2.6 million gallons. Already there have been disputes over groundwater, particularly in the United States, between bottled-water companies and local residents. But with the lives of some 35 million people threatened over the next decade by inadequate water supplies, the demand will only grow larger.
Once again, this is an example of the world reaching the limits of its carrying capacity for humans, and the extraordinary efforts being made to head off the impending disaster. But with world population expected to grow by another 3 billion by mid century, even these efforts may not be enough.