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The world's `single biggest threat'
Water - Canadians may take it for granted, but some countries will do almost anything to ensure an adequate supply. The Death Wish series resumes with Alanna Mitchell braving the heat of the Jordanian desert to visit Azraq, the legendary oasis that humanity bled dry.

Monday, June 4, 2001

Deep in the parched desert of Jordan lies the oasis at Azraq, famed throughout the recorded history of the Middle East for what used to be here.

For a quarter-million years, water flowing from its ancient subterranean springs made it one of the world's great resting places for migrating birds. Hippos, zebras and lions came to drink here, and archeologists have found a fossilized jaw bone so old that it may be the miss-ing link between the African and Asian branches of the elephant family.


Drawn both by the fresh water and plentiful prey, early humans settled here before almost anywhere else. Historians think Moses spent his 40 years in the nearby desert and the Romans considered Azraq so vital that they built a fortress here. Later, Arab kings added castles so they could hunt and then feast in luxury. And during the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia wandered in from the misery of the sand and found a place "radiant with half-memory of the luminous silky Eden." From the main castle at Azraq, he launched his famous at-tack on the Turks at Damascus.

That was then. Today, all that remains is a cruel caricature of an oasis. The springs that gave life for millenniums are dead now, dried and gone. The land has broken open into great, deep fissures. Heat rises inexorably from ground where marshy grasses once grew.

It took humans just 13 years to kill the oasis. Desperate for water, Jordanians began pumping from Azraq in earnest in 1980. By 1993, the birds were gone and the marsh plants slowly dried up and died. Around the same time, Azraq was declared an international ecological disaster.

Since then, a heroic attempt has been made to resurrect part of the oasis and the progress has been seen worldwide as a great ecological rehabilitation. But it is there on sufferance. At the flick of a politician's pen, the meagre green in this expanse of desert could vanish.

What's more, as Jordanians continue to pump too much from the oasis, the freshwater left is becoming less capable of keeping surrounding salt caches at bay. The experts are saying it is only a matter of time before the freshwater left in the oasis becomes undrinkable.

Water torture
  • From 1900 to 1995, global water consumption rose sixfold - more than double the rate of population growth.
  • Over all, water is abundant, but unevenly distributed. In some areas, usage is so high that surface supplies literally are shrinking and ground-water reserves are being depleted faster than they can be replenished by precipitation
  • The United Nations has compared water consumption with availability and found that countries with a supply problem contain one-third of the world's population - a figure it expects could rise to two-thirds by 2025.
  • If growth trends persist, industrial water consumption may double in 25 years.
  • As food demand rises, so does agriculture's thirst, which now accounts for 70 per cent of all water consumption. But in developing countries, 60 to 75 per cent of irrigated water is lost to evaporation or runoff.
  • As clean water grows scarce, competition for it increases. Yet pricing it high enough to discourage waste remains a sensitive issue - especially in low-income countries reliant on irrigated agriculture. Planners in China estimate that water used in industry generates more than 60 times the value it does on the farm.
  • Pollution adds enormously to supply problems. Water quality in most developed countries has improved and yet wastewater is not necessarily treated before discharge. About half the population of the European Union's southern member states still does not have sewage treatment.
  • As an ecosystem, fresh water is biologically rich and plays a vital role. But it has lost a greater proportion of its species and habitat than either dry land or the marine environment - and the future looks grim.

    Sources: World Resources Institute, Stockholm Environment Institute
  • Water is so fundamental that humanity defines it in many ways. To science, it is the combination of hydrogen and oxygen that produces a liquid essential to life - the medium for nearly all chemical reactions in living organism. To metaphysics, it is not only the prerequisite to life, but also possibly its origin. And in ecclesiastical terms, water is a symbol of cleansing, renewal, acceptance and rebirth - an emblem of faith in the future.

    But this necessity of life is not evenly distributed around the globe. Canada, blessed with the world's biggest freshwater supply, takes it for granted - or sees it as the next big export item.

    Not so in the Middle East, with a population that doubles every few decades and a landscape that for the most part looks a lot like Jordan's: 85 per cent sand. Jordanians use about 200 cubic metres of water a year. The world average is 7,700.

    And the Middle East is hardly alone in its worries over water. An estimated 500 million people on the planet now live in countries critically short of water. By 2025, that figure will leap to three billion. Already, the "severe water scarcity presents the single biggest threat to future food production," argues Sandra Postel, director of the U.S.-based Global Water Policy Project, "Even now," she wrote in the February, 2001, issue of Scientific American, "many freshwater sources . . . are stressed beyond their limits."

    A new euphemism - water vulnerability - has been coined to describe the looming shortage, which ranks, along with the planet's disappearing forest cover and the rapid change in its climate, as one of the great threats to modern life. Like the other injuries to the planet, this water problem has been orchestrated by humanity - now such a powerful force that it rivals the four elements the ancient Greeks believed make up the universe.

    Water should be the ultimate renewable resource. According to its natural cycle, it evaporates, collects in the air and then falls as rain. Some of it leaves the planet's surface, eventually filtering through the purifying barrier of Earth and recharging underground aquifers. The net sum of water on the planet does not change.

    But humans are bungling their stewardship of freshwater stores all over the world - even, as Canadians well know, in places blessed with an abundance.

    Not only has pollution destroyed part of the water supply, but human development has reduced the amount of water that exists in its most useful state: liquid. As global warming drives Earth's temperatures upward, notes Roger Street, a specialist in climate change at Environment Canada, the atmosphere retains more and more water in vapour form.

    And as irrigated agriculture grows, humans have been drilling ever deeper, in effect "mining" subterranean water so quickly and on such a grand scale that vital reservoirs simply cannot replenish themselves.

    Levels in some parts of Mexico are falling as much as three metres a year, and the High Plains Aquifer, which lies beneath the heartland of the United States and supplies about 30 per cent of the nation's irrigation supply, is in an alarming decline. Closer to home, the Abbotsford Aquifer in British Columbia is polluted with nitrates, the waste products of farming. It supplies more than 100,000 people in Abbotsford and neighbouring Washington State, but almost three-quarters of the samples taken since 1992 have shown unsafe nitrate levels. Some were nine times what is considered tolerable.

    The International Water Management Institute has catalogued the double-fronted attack on the water table in north China's Fuyang Basin. Industry is siphoning off the surface water and polluting it while farmers have resorted to drilling wells to irrigate their crops. The result has been disastrous. From 1967 to 2000, the water table in the basin has fallen as much as 50 metres.

    In parts of South Asia, humans have extracted so much of the underground supply that this normally pristine source is too feeble to keep out the contaminants contained in the surrounding land. The natural ability of Earth to purify the water has been spoiled simply by lack of volume.

    And where people are not overtaxing the water supply, they are poisoning it with everything from toxic waste to fertilizers, pesticides and raw sewage. Such abuse can exact a heavy toll - witness the cancer rate among those exposed to Cape Breton's notorious tar ponds and the citizens ravaged by E. coli in Walkerton, Ont.

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