OPINION: New Zealanders should be pleased to see rainy days – given the choice between living in a country where water is plentiful and a drought ridden country, there is no contest, the less water there is the harder and more desperate life becomes.

Most experts in geopolitics predict that the next big conflicts on the planet will be over water. Water is precious and becoming more so. Of the Earth’s surface, 71 per cent is covered by water but only 2.5 per cent is freshwater and only 0.3 per cent of this freshwater is in rivers, lakes and the atmosphere, the rest of the freshwater is in ice (the poles and glaciers) and in groundwater.

The amount of water on Earth has not changed in billions of years; a typical molecule of rainwater may be hundreds of millions of years old. Transpiration is the movement of water though plants and evaporation from leaves, stems and flowers.

Water is cycled around the Earth through the processes of evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation and runoff. The problem is that water use has been growing at twice the rate of population increase. One billion people do not have access to safe drinking water and it is predicted that half of the world’s population will be facing water-based vulnerability by 2025.

The regions most at threat from water scarcity are North Africa, the Middle East, India, Central Asia, China, parts of South America, South Africa and Australia. Adding to the concern is international competition for water and three examples of potential flash points arise from the construction of dams.

Scheduled for completion this year is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile about 15kms from the Sudanese border. The reservoir behind the dam will be 1,600 square kilometres and its purpose is to generate desperately needed hydroelectric power for Ethiopia. However, the Blue Nile is a major source of water feeding into the Nile in Egypt. Egypt, with a population of 95 million people, is almost totally dependent on the Nile for its water. The reservoir is going to take well over 5 years to fill during which time the water supply to 2 million Egyptian farmers downstream will be restricted.

The long term impact on Egypt is hard to assess but the evaporation and transpiration rate from inevitable weed growth in the reservoir will reduce the water flow to Egypt. Egypt has refused to sign any water-sharing agreement. The Ethiopians have gone ahead with the project regardless.

A similar problem is looming on the Tigris river in Turkey. Syria and Iraq are chronically short of water, however Turkey is in the process of damming the Tigris upstream, close to the Syrian border. The IIisu Dam is one of 22 dams in the South East Anatolia Project aimed at harnessing the power of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers to provide hydroelectric power for Turkey.

Patrick Johnson reporting in the Geopolitical Monitor, points out that the big loser will be Iraq. In recent years these rivers have been receding and there is concern that damming the Tigris upstream will only exacerbate Iraq’s problems. Severe water shortages cripple the economy producing widespread unemployment and hopelessness – fertile territory for strife.

The third potential flash point is the Brahmaputra River which rises in Tibet, runs 3,000 kilometres through China, India and Bangladesh. Over the years China has been commissioning a series of dams along its section of the river. Downstream, the water from the Brahmaputra is crucial for agriculture in India and Bangladesh.

There is no agreement on the management of the river flow although the Chinese have informally agreed to provide hydrological data to the Indians. If or when serious water and food production problems are registered by India it isn’t known how the Chinese will respond given their insatiable need for electrical power.

Noting the ever increasing water crisis overseas the demand for and price of clean drinking water is bound to escalate. It is hard to see why New Zealand should give its precious potable water away – after all, no oil-rich country is foolish enough to give its oil away. Instead a percentage of the royalties are saved in a sovereign wealth find for the future.