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Local and global water wars: interview with Emanuele Bompan

The global geography of water is changing. We live on a planet that is home to 7.5 billion people. They will likely become 9.5 billion by 2050. Luckily, many people came out of poverty and took on western middle-class lifestyles. This has led to a massive increase in water consumption. At the same time, pollution and the climate crisis cause a reduction in water availability. Thus was born the battle for water”. More consumers, fewer resources. An elementary, inexorable process that described for MEDSEA by Emanuele Bompan, one of the most capable journalists in Italy in the field of environmental sciences, and president of the Water Grabbing Observatory. 

Bompan, what are the main hot spots of the so-called "water wars?" 

Conflicts over water have existed for a long time. Just think of the tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt for the management of the Nile waters. Recently we have seen how the drought of 2010 in Syria and the subsequent bad harvest have exacerbated long-dormant social and political tensions. In Southeast Asia, the Mekong river, which flows through seven countries, from China to Vietnam, is another center of troubled diplomacy. There are around 100 dams planned or already built along Mekong’s main and secondary courses. Last year's drought has shown that unplanned construction can lead to an important regression of the river regime. The Mekong is also affected by the phenomenon of subsidence (the progressive sinking of the bottom of a basin) due to the pumping of water for the cultivation of rice, main food product in the region. The increase in the saline wedge caused a decrease in the fishing business. Vietnam had to appeal to the United Nations for its altercation with Laos. There are examples of coordinated management, such as that between India and Pakistan for the Indus waters. Legal tools for conflict resolution exist internationally. But not all states have signed the international treaties, not all respect them. 

What role do climate change play in these crises? 

Climate change is, together with pollution, the main driver of the scarcity of water resources. A fact that is overlooked by many regards salt, the most important pollutant element for fresh waters. It is the sea level rise that increases its penetration capacity in the basins. Of course we must not forget the other forms of pollution. One of the most sensational cases in recent history is that of the Flint River in Michigan, where the presence of lead has left millions of people without water. Climate change also affects the rainwater regime (scientific truth still to be determined) and causes the melting of glaciers. Stopping the crazy production of carbon dioxide is essential to prevent the water crisis from becoming even more alarming. 

Is it correct to say that wetlands play an important role in mitigating the effects of climate change? 

Absolutely. Wetlands are extraordinary buffer zones that protect populations overlooking the sea, guarantee the safety of aquifers and the containment of the saline wedge. They prevent extreme weather phenomena from having direct and violent impacts on coastal communities. The biodiversity they host stops new parasites from settling in our regions. Ponds and lagoons also represent very important laboratories for the study of the effects caused by overbuilding, and by human presence in general. 

What role do agriculture and livestock play in the overall consumption of water resources? 

In industrialized countries agriculture and livestock represent 75% of the water consumption. If we want to make the distribution process efficient we have to look at what we eat and how we grow or breed it. A kilo of beef requires on average between 9000 and 15000 liters of water. In California, fruit trees have dried up the Central Valley aquifers. We wrongly think that for water resilience it is important to take a short shower. Instead, we have to look at our refrigerator. Technologies that allow a balanced production already exist. It is only a matter of adopting them. The industrial compartment, if for no other reason than for obvious economic savings, has ameliorated the the water cycle management.  

The scarcity of water resources also causes many problems in the health sector. 

Yes, and the Covid emergency has made the phenomenon even more dramatic. As we have seen, water is at the center of the prophylaxis necessary to avoid the spread of the virus. But in many countries safe water is still a mirage. In India 5000 children die every day from intestinal infections due to contamination of the water. The number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has increased. Women are also at risk, often forced to use public toilets, where infections and violence of all kinds are around the corner. In many contexts, even the water used during childbirth in hospitals is not safe. 

Do you think the Covid emergency will end up limiting or promoting the green policies that were announced in Europe? 

During the crises all the forces on the field end up being more aggressive. Some of these dream of a past that never existed. There are several positions in Europe on the Green New Deal perspective. Certainly, many things happened in recent months. We have witnessed a strong, albeit limited in time, reduction in carbon emissions. We have seen the functionality of smart working, clean skies and seas, the animals strolling through the cities. I have never seen so many bicycles on the streets. Now the primary need is, and rightly so, to return to economic security. But we must understand that only a healthy environment can protect our health and wealth. We must have the courage to give up some habits of the past. 

In this regard, where does Italy stand on the theme of water as a common good? 

There are two bills filed in parliament, two different visions for the implementation of the desire expressed with the 2011 referendum, when the Italians clearly opposed any form of privatization. The proposals come from the Democratic Party and the 5 Star Movement. For now there is no convergence. The hope is that a new legislative framework will arrive in autumn. The issue of tariffs is fundamental for pushing consumers, especially in agriculture and livestock, towards sustainable attitudes. The parliamentary commission on waste has recorded that in the south, especially in Campania and Puglia, the mafia has the ability to infiltrate the business related to purifiers. This cause huge damage to people's health. 

In the environmental field, as in the health one, will we have to wait until a violent crisis invests us before seeing new shared behavioral rules applied? 

The catastrophe is already happening actually, but with a pace so slow that it is hardly noticeable: it is climate change. The link with the hydric emergency is rarely underlined. We must sharpen the weapons of research, communication and advocacy, we must build a popular narrative that brings the environmental theme into people's lives, and at the same time generate specialized communication languages that feed a debate in the media system. Apart from a few rare exceptions, the attention of Italian and European newspapers is very poor. But responsibilities cannot always be attributed to external entities. We citizens must actively go looking for quality information. Only in this way can the negative spiral be broken.  

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