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Water Wars on the Horizon?

Turn on the tap and water comes out. Sometimes it tastes fine, other times people filter it. But the water comes out. What if it didn’t? Looking at critical infrastructure, specifically our water supply, its security as well as its existence, is becoming a topic of interest in financial and public policy circles. Based on some views, it could also become the basis for geopolitical conflict.

Invest in water? One venture capitalist views the situation this way. With the move toward alternate fuels (like bio-fuels) and the increasing costs of oil extraction, water may well become the World’s next scarce resource.

Biofuels are enormous consumers of water, says Jim Matheson, a general partner at Flagship Ventures, a venture capital firm in Cambridge, MA. And water is not always abundant where it's most needed. "So, increasingly you're going to see water as a scarce resource. I think it's going to drive not just economics but also a lot of geopolitical dynamics. So, we're trying to find technologies that can allow us to plug into this enormous value chain."

In the same vein, the State of Pennsylvania has just announced the approval of $72 million in low-interest loans to support water infrastructure projects.

Regardless of whether you ascribe to global warming or not, it is a reality that the water resources of a number of countries, especially in drought-ridden Africa, are running short. In fact, British counter-terrorism experts are concerned about future ‘water wars’ between countries left drought-ridden by climate change. One researcher, Marc Levy at Columbia University has analyzed data to show that when rainfall is significantly below normal, the risk of a low-level conflict escalating to a full-scale civil war approximately doubles in the following year. An example?

As Barcelona runs out of water, Spain has been forced to consider importing water from France by boat. It is the latest example of the growing struggle for water around the world – the "water wars".

Barcelona and the surrounding region are suffering the worst drought in decades. There are several possible solutions, including diverting a river, and desalinating water. But the city looks like it will ship water from the French port of Marseilles.

Of course, as with many other topics of this variety, there are people in opposition: "People will not fight over water," says Mark Zeitoun, from the London School of Economics' Centre for Environmental Policy and Governance in the UK. "But that's not to say water shortages will not contributing to existing tensions."

In history, wars have been fought over economic issues. Conflict over increasingly scarce resources is not out of the question, and very likely warrants close attention over the next few years.

"Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.”

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From "Drought Spurs Resource Wars", reporting on the impact of diminishing rainfall in Ethiopia:

"In June 2006, open conflict erupted in the Borena zone in southern Ethiopia between the Borena and the Guji when the Guji laid claim to land that had long belonged to the Borena. Hundreds were killed and 23,000 people were forced to flee. Intermittent fighting has continued since then."