Archive for April, 2009

Climate Change and the Spread of Disease

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

As swine flu continues to wreck havoc in the life of Mexico City residents and threatens to escalate to a global pandemic, the question of whether climate change might have a role in spread of disease seems appropriate. The short answer is “YES,” climate is likely to have a significant effect on the proliferation and geographic distribution of diseases.

Many of the world’s most notorious and persistent diseases, for example, are directly related to the lack of clean water and proper sanitation. The UN, in its 3rd World Water Assessment Report, attributes nearly three million deaths annually to such maladies. As temperatures rise, vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever are expected to expand their range into regions that previously had been inhospitable to them. Likewise, where climate change causes precipitation to increase, water-borne pathogens including bacteria, parasites and algal blooms will flourish. The result will be a significant geographical shift in the range and proliferation of various diseases.

In the case of swine flu and other diseases originating in animals, changing climates could disrupt normal geographic movements and distributions of animals harboring such diseases. These disruptions could bring the pathogens into closer contact with other animals and pathogens, as well as humans, and could result in alternate transmission routes and, possibly, alternate mutations.

Last October (2008), the Wildlife Conservation Society (a US organization based at the Bronx Zoo that operates in 60 nations to save wildlife and habitats worldwide), issued its “deadly dozen” list of diseases that could spread into new regions and become more virulent as a result of climate change. Among others, the list included avian flu, one of the three genetic components of the Mexico swine influenza. The complete “deadly dozen” list includes [in alphabetical order]:

  1. Avian influenza
  2. Babesia
  3. Cholera
  4. Ebola
  5. Intestinal and External Parasites
  6. Lyme Disease
  7. Plague
  8. Red Tides
  9. Rift Valley Fever
  10. Sleeping Sickness (trypanosomiasis)
  11. Tuberculosis
  12. Yellow Fever

A Reuters article discussing the Society’s report can be found here. The Society has brochure that describes the “deadly dozen” diseases and their interaction with climate change here.

Peter Gleick Joins the Blogging World

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Peter Gleick, renown water policy wonk and President/co-founder of the Pacific Institute, has joined the blogging world on the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper’s City Brights blogPeter’s opening post:


Welcome to the first post to my City Brights blog. I look forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts about the water challenges facing California, the West, and our world. I hope this blog will be somewhat different than others. What I hope to do is to explore the threats and challenges to our freshwater resources and to discuss available, viable solutions to those threats, drawing from not only my experiences and viewpoint, but also by way of numbers. I will include in each post an important, unusual, or newsworthy “water number” that I hope will highlight some piece of the water issue. And now to begin the discussion…


In his first commentary, Peter briefly discusses the number “one billion” – that is roughly the number of people around the world who are without access to improved, safe, or affordable drinking water.


Having followed Peter’s work, I look forward to many more interesting posts and commentaries.

Friends of the Earth Middle East and World Bank’s report on restrictions on Palestinian water sector

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) – a regional environmental NGO composed of Palestinians, Israelis and Jordanians cooperating to promote sustainable development and sustainable peace in the region – recently issued the statement Water Being Held Hostage to the Conflict.  The statement is a response to the recently released World Bank report Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development (PDF) (see the press release here), which “reveals the extent to which water resources and sustainable development are being held hostage to the conflict.”


In its statement, FoEME “calls on the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to replace the failed Joint Water Committee (JWC) with a new joint water management structure.”  It also calls on “the Quartet led by the new Administration of US President Barak Obama to focus on the dire Palestinian water economy as a matter of urgency and help the parties replace the JWC with a new institution that empowers both sides as equal partners.”


Referring to its past reports, FoEME asserted that the Joint Water Committee had “failed the interests of both peoples, not providing the water quantities needed to Palestinians and not protecting shared Israeli/Palestinian water resources from large scale pollution.”  Nader Khateeb, Palestinian Director of FoEME, said in the statement that: “It is time to replace the failed mechanism of the Joint Water Committee, established under Oslo, with an institution where Palestinians and Israelis are true partners in both water supply and management responsibilities.”


Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director of FoEME (and a friend of mine), stated: “The irony is that due to the water crises, following 5 consecutive years of draught, pollution largely from Palestinian sources poses an ever increasing threat to the declining shared water reserves … A key problem with the JWC is that it has disempowered the Palestinians from being able to take responsibility for water management. The Palestinians receive so little of the shared water, that Israelis must ask themselves, what incentive do Palestinians have to protect shared water from pollution?”


The statement notes that “In 2008, FoEME released a Model Water Agreement that called for the replacement of the Joint Water Committee with a new body where equivalent powers and responsibilities would lie with both sides covering all shared water resources.”

Global River Flows Decline

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

The Christian Science Monitor Discoveries Blog has an interesting article on the global decline of river flows.  Too many ’straws’ sucking water out of the Colorado River” describes how by 2050, the Colorado River be unable to live up to its current allocation scheme 60-90 percent of the time; even absent climatic changes, scheduled deliveries would be unmet 40 percent of the time.  This news is based on a recent study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and published in the April 20 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to a forthcoming study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the College of William and Mary, the Colorado is not alone in suffering such shortfalls.  The study reveals that over the past 60 years, some 300 of the world’s largest rivers have experienced significant changes in flow rates.  While some rivers have gained volume, the rivers with reduced flow rates outnumbered the ones with higher flow rates by 2.5 to 1.  As for the culprit, the study suggests that large dams and diversion projects have certainly caused their share of water problems. However, they place greater burden on global climate change, which is altering precipitation patterns and increasing the rate of evaporation.

This study, which represents the most comprehensive data base yet assembled to track river flows (assessing the flows of 925 of the planet’s largest rivers), is scheduled for publication in the May 15 issue of the American Meteorological Society’s Journal of Climate.  You can download the research paper here, or view a simplified description of the study’s findings here.

US Politicians Introduce Water for the World Act

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009


Yesterday, 22 April 2009, Members of the US House of Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Donald Payne (D-N.J.) introduced the Senator Paul Simon Water for the World Act, the successor to the 2005 Senator Paul Simon Water for the Poor Act. A bill is intended to commit the US government to provide 100,000,000 people around the world with first-time access to safe drinking water and sanitation on a sustainable basis by 2015.


The legislation had previously been introduced to the US Senate on 17 March 2009 by Senators Dick Durbin, Patty Murray and Bob Corker.


You can find the statements of Representatives Blumenaur and Senator Durbin on their legislation.

RFE/RL: Battle Lines Drawn In Central Asian Water Dispute

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

“Do countries have the right to use water flowing through their territory as they wish? Or do they have an obligation to consider the needs of neighbors living further downstream?”  This is the opening line of a recent story by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.  In those two simple questions, the author has boiled down an ages-old international dispute – the classic upstream-downstream controversy – to its fundamental core.  In traditional contexts, it is a contest of absolute territorial and sovereign rights – the right of both the upstream and downstream countries to use natural resources found inside their respective territories without interference or diminution by other nations.  In a more modern framework, the issues are described in terms of equity and a fundamental obligation not to use one’s territory in a way that would significantly harm another nation.



In this particular story, the battle is over the waters of the Syr-Darya and Amuy-Darya, Central Asia’s two great rivers.  And the battle lines have been drawn between the upstream states of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who are pursing large hydropower stations in (Kambarata in Kyrgyzstan) and (Rogun in Tajikistan), and the downstream states of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan who are concerned about the impact that the hydro-projects will have on water supplies reaching them.  The water dispute is further complicated by the continued desiccation of the Aral Sea, the terminus of the two rivers, which has been ongoing for decades following Soviet era diversions of the rivers for agricultural purposes.



The parties will face each other at the upcoming meeting of the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea on April 28 in Almaty.

Water marketing vs. human rights

Saturday, April 18th, 2009

Two recent articles in The Economist – Water: Sin aqua non and Water rights: Awash in waste – suggest that the solution to world’s water problem is to improve efficiency. The articles explain, rightly, that “there is, globally, no shortage of water” and point at wasteful practices, especially in the agricultural sector, as a chief culprit in global problems related to water scarcity.  The authors, however, tread on sacred grounds by pooh-poohing the treatment of water as a basic human right (“Treating it as a right makes the scarcity worse”) and argue for a system of tradable water-usage rights. “Any economist knows what to do: price water to reflect its value.”


While the ideal of pricing water resources at their true value may have a ring of sanity in the abstract, in reality it threatens a fundamental human notion that water is so elemental to life that it deserves a unique status in our societal system. Many of the world’s religions, for example, regard water as a gift from God that cannot be bought or sold lest the gift be dishonored.  Moreover, by taking a purely economic approach to a component of life relegates life itself to the market.


Yet, there may be a viable middle ground, one that strikes a balance between the absolute needs of individual people for survival and growth, and those of society to ensure efficiency and, hence, the overall and long-term supply of fresh water resources.  While actual uses vary around the world, agriculture accounts for 70-80% of global water withdrawals, while industry takes less than a fifth.  That leaves less than 10% as the amount actually used for domestic purposes and sanitation by a population pushing seven billion.  What would happen if people were afforded a human right to access some minimal amount of water and then subject amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market?


According to the World Health Organization, the average person requires 20 L per day for basic subsistence and up to 70 L per day for maintaining a minimum quality of life.  Obviously, such minimum will vary depending on the climate of the individual’s environment.  Yet, on a global scale, this would be a proverbial drop in the buckets of global water withdrawals and consumption.  Certainly, some nations may have difficulty meeting even this minimal guarantee due to local scarcity of fresh water resources. And in such cases, the global community should step forward and help their fellow human beings.  Yet, the vast majority of countries should have little difficulty in providing and assuring access to such quantities.


As for the amounts used by agriculture and industry, water could be managed using market mechanisms that allow it to be traded as either a commodity or in the context of tradable usage rights.  As The Economist notes, “Water is rarely priced in ways that reflect supply and demand … Because most water use is not measured, let alone priced, trade rarely reflects water scarcities.”  The result is a highly inefficient system that justly could be accused of waste.  Again, The Economist: “Because water is usually free, thirsty crops like alfalfa are grown in arid California. Wheat in India and Brazil uses twice as much water as wheat in America and China. Dry countries like Pakistan export textiles though a 1kg bolt of cloth requires 11,000 litres of water.”


Even amounts used by people beyond a guaranteed allotment could be subject to pricing mechanisms and regulated market forces.  A tiered pricing system, for example, would allow for personal use beyond a minimum lifestyle (e.g., swimming pool) to those who can afford it while maintaining a minimum standard for all people.  It could also be used to subsidize the minimum guarantee for the rest of the population, at least for those who cannot afford even the basic cost.


Of course, the natural environment has yet to be addressed in this system.  And clearly, water for ecosystems, habitats, and species must be ensured through regulations that protect minimum instream flows, aquifer integrity, water quality, and other aspects of the environment.  Nonetheless, while we certainly have much more to do to on this front, ensuring water for the environment should not have to conflict with either recognizing access to water as a basic human right, or subjecting amounts used in commercial enterprise to the market.  Currently, when we total the percentages of water used by people, agriculture, and industry as 100%, we are simply identifying the amount withdrawn and used for human endeavor.  It in no way reflects the quantities of water left in rivers and aquifers, whether intentionally or not.  Certainly, in many parts of the world, that amount is inadequate for the needs of the environment, but that is, in part, a product of our current inefficiencies.  Yet, it is also a function of our priorities.  By enhancing efficiency and at the same time securing minimal guarantees for people everywhere, the reduced water stress would likely allow the raising of environmental priorities.


Jordan protests Syrian water sharing ‘violations’

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

According to The Jordan Times and other sources, Jordan is accusing Syria of violating a water-sharing agreement over the Yarmouk river by cultivating summer crops on the banks of the River.


According to the article “Under agreements signed between the two countries, Syria’s share of water from the Wihdeh Dam, which is built on the Yarmouk River, is six million cubic metres (mcm) for agricultural purposes, provided that the dam reaches its full capacity of 110mcm.


But for the first time since its construction two years ago, the dam currently holds only 18mcm, and thus Syria’s share declines to 1mcm. The neighbouring country, however, is pumping more than its allocated share to water crops planted all the way from downstream of Wihdeh Dam to Al Raqqad Valley located on the banks of the Yarmouk River.”


Jordan contends that “The river’s flow dropped from 1,200 litres per second last year to 900 litres per second currently, which is blamed on the cultivation of crops on the river’s banks.”


You can find the following two treaties between Jordan and Syria related to the Yarmouk River on the IWLP website:

  • Agreement Between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordanian and the Syrian Republic for the Utilization of the Waters of the Yarmuk River. Signed in Amman, 3 September 1987
  • Agreement Between the Republic of Syria and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan Concerning the Utilization of the Yarmouk Waters. Signed at Damascus, 4 June 1953; in force 8 July 1953
  • Changing Climate, Changing Borders

    Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

    A recent article in New Scientist reported on how climate change could effect changes in political geography. The article – “Climate changes Europe’s Borders – and the world’s” – related how “Italy and Switzerland are planning to redraw their shared alpine border, as global warming is melting the glaciers that originally guided the line.”


    While the article focused on borders in glaciated regions, it got me thinking about other ways in which climate change could impact international boundaries. The most obvious may be through the expected impacts on various transboundary rivers and lakes that form such boundaries. Flooding, for example, could have considerable impacts on the natural flow routes of rivers, sometime in sudden avulsive alterations, but often in gradual accretive changes.


    While the international law applicable to changes by avulsion and accretion may be fairly settled (namely, that abrupt changes due to storms and other natural phenomena do not move the boundary, which remains in the old channel; while gradual and natural changes can legally increase or decrease a state’s territory notwithstanding sovereignty), it may be an entirely different matter where the changes are induced by climate change. If climate change is indeed a product of human action, there may be grounds to question whether climate change-induced changes to rivers routes constitute accretion. On the one hand, the changes may be described as gradual and natural; on the other, they have an unnatural, albeit indirect, source. Similarly, abrupt climate-induced changes may not constitute avulsion where they too have a human origin.


    In a similar vein, droughts also could impact international boundaries where they deplete waters in a transboundary river or lake. The case of Lake Chad is illustrative. Between human withdrawals and climate change, the lake has been drastically reduced in size and volume.  Moreover, it continues to fluctuate with changing seasons. Because the boundary here is demarcated in relation to the tripoint in Lake Chad where the frontiers of Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria meet, any change to its geographical size, can change its tripoint location. This lack of a definitive and stationary border has witnessed citizens from neighboring countries cross the border, often inadvertently, to fish and forage for resources, which in turn, has resulted in a number of disputes.


    At the January 2008 World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cautioned that water scarcity could spell increased conflicts in the future, and added that “[p]opulation growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst.  Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon.” I can’t help but think that some of those conflicts may include border disputes.

    Managing the IWLP Blog

    Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

    There is always a learning curve when starting on a new project, and certainly when using new technology (new, at least, for this user). But, with a little patience …


    I have activated the comment feature of the blog (located below each posting), which will allow all visitors to post comments to any of the postings. For now, I will moderate/review the comments prior to posting them to ensure that we minimze spam.  Also, I have added an RSS feature (the link is at the right side of each blog page) that will allow you to receive a continuous feed from the blog as new posts are added.


    I hope to add additional features to make the blog more readable and reader-friendly as I learn this new communication system. Thank you for bearing with me.


    And as always, I look forward to your comments, ideas, submissions, and participation.