The List: The World's Water Crises

If oil was the resource of the 20th century, then the 21st century belongs to water. The lack of clean water and basic sanitation already curbs world economic growth by $556 billion a year, according the World Health Organization. FP looks at four countries struggling to quench their thirst.

Situation: Chinas rapid urbanization is ratcheting up demand for water. Of the countrys 660 cities, more than 400 lack sufficient water supplies, and 110 suffer serious shortages. Vaclav Smil of Canadas University of Manitoba estimates that when people move from the countryside to cities, they increase their personal water consumption at least fivefold. Irrigation demands are also rising, and rivers are thinning as a result. The Yellow River, the second-longest river in China, now struggles to reach the sea. To meet growing demand, underground aquifers are being depleted.

Implications: Regulating water has always been crucial to governing China. The Chinese word zhi means to regulate water, but it also means to rule. Freshwater scarcity may not only halt economic growth; it could lead to political turmoil. Wide-scale disaffection with the governments water management could seriously destabilize the regime. And large dam projects may not be enough to save China from its water problem. Experts say China must improve crop selection, increase the price of water, and make usage more efficient.

Situation: Monsoon rain clouds may roll in every June to September, but the countrys water reservoirs are poorly maintained, and floodsexacerbated by felled forests and overfarmingroutinely destroy irrigation systems. As a result, more than 21 million farmers resort to desperate tactics, such as extracting groundwater to water their fields. An estimated one quarter of Indias crops are now being grown using underground aquifers, and the H2O is being pumped faster than it can be replenished.

Implications: Unless India changes the way it manages water, the World Bank reports that India will have neither the cash to maintain and build new infrastructure, nor the water required for the economy and for people. There is a great deal of bickering among the states that share water, and the tensions will only get worse. The countrys water-related problems will require better governance and infrastructure and broader use of rain harvesting in areas prone to drought.

United States
Situation: Out West, heavily subsidized farmers place huge demands on sources of freshwater, which have led to conflicts among neighboring states. The water rights to the Colorado River have been hotly contested between seven states, including California, Nevada, and Arizona. The two reservoirs that supply Arizona, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, and Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are at 49 and 56 percent of capacity, respectively. Subsidized prices discourage efficiency. Farmers in Californias Central Valley alone receive an annual water subsidy of $416 million.

Implications: The government estimates that droughts cost the country between $6 and $8 billion a year. The West is growing fastthe countrys five fastest-growing cities are in Nevada and Arizonabut that growth is in danger of being stifled by water scarcity. Cutting water subsidies would probably put ranchers and farmers out of business throughout the Great Plains of the northern Midwest, West, and Southwest. Little surprise, then, that political leadership on this issue is largely absent in Washington.

Situation: Pakistan is one of the worlds most arid countries; its water supply per capita is about 1,250 cubic meters per year. (One-thousand cubic meters is considered an acute shortage by international standards.) One third of Pakistans Indus River is diverted to cotton fields, drying out large swaths of Sindh province and forcing farmers to abandon fields for overcrowded Karachi. The countrys irrigation system leaks about 40 percent of the water that flows through it, leading to a rise in water tables and the salinization of groundwater.

Implications: Agriculture (read: irrigation) underpins almost one fourth of Pakistans gross domestic product, and about two thirds of Pakistans population of 160 million live in rural areas with farm-fueled economies. If the water situation continues to deteriorate, expect even greater social upheavals than the country is already experiencing. And for a government struggling to get a handle on sectarian violence, rein in rebel elements in the west, and maintain political legitimacy, unemployed farmers is exactly what Pakistans major cities dont need.