A Public Health Stranger in the Land of Medical Care
Sunday, March 7, 2010
Alexander Zehnder is the Scientific Director of the Alberta Water Research Institute in Edmonton, Canada. A few weeks ago, he gave a lecture entitled “Water for Life, For How Many?” at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore where I am currently Visiting Associate Professor.
Zehnder listed 6 major challenges facing the world regarding water:
Good water for a growing population
Water induced disasters protection
3) The water infrastructure for distribution and collection
4) The distribution of water between humans and ecosystems
5) Solutions for water conflicts and fair water share for all
6) Enough food for all
There are 3 kinds of water, according to Zehnder: blue water, which lands in rivers and places from which we drink; green water, which lands on green spaces and vegetation, which uses it to grow and eventually evaporates or just sits there; and virtual water, which is the water that is turned into food that is traded and sold across communities and national borders.
Virtual water is very interesting and important since the vast majority of countries import it (in the form of food). There are 5 countries on the planet that are by far the largest exporters of virtual water: USA, Australia, Argentina, France, and Canada. These countries, according to Zehnder, feed the world. Most countries of the world are food importers (including China and India) and this disparity will only increase as the populations of these countries also increase. Africa may suffer the most because of enormous population growth and world trade and financing policies that favor richer exporting countries.
The demand for water is increasing further as more Chinese and others move into middle class and are interested in eating more meat. The production of meat requires about 10 times more water than the production of non-meats. If we all became vegetarians, according the Zehnder’s data, we would have enough water to meet the growing demands. However, he is not advocating universal vegetarianism. He loves a good steak.
Since water and food are so inexorably connected, Zehnder believes that efforts at turning millions of acres of corn or sugar into fuel is “the dumbest idea ever.” Instead, we need to use the water for food and solve our fuel problems with other strategies.
Since he did not specifically address conflicts over water during his talk, I decided to ask him about it when the floor was opened up for questions. He said that even though some are claiming that water will be the cause of future (if not present) global conflicts, he disagrees. In the short run, there are conflicts over water. However, over the long run, countries realize the interdependence of their water needs and that water will actually bring people closer together. That may be hopeful but examples from Turkey and Egypt seem to confirm his hypothesis and the current water issues in Southeast Asia (between China, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) may be a test of his theory.
In the end, Zehnder himself concludes four things: 1) The growing economic and political dependence on virtual water must be addressed, 2) Virtual water should be part of all water management decisions, 3) Economic power of the poor countries must be strengthened to cope with water instability, and this is a not just a responsibility of richer (water exporting) countries, but it is also in their own interests, and 4) geopolitical efforts are needed to abandon the myth of national food self-sufficiency.
So water should be used for people and food, not for fuel.