Kaveh Madani Presents Water: Think Again at TEDxKish (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Kaveh Madani’s TEDx presentation on Water: Think Again at TEDxKish conference. To learn more about the speaker, read the full bio here.

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Kaveh Madani – Systems analyst

When was the first time we thought about the importance of water? During the ongoing Californian and Middle Eastern droughts? The famous Australian drought? 1850s? Before Christ? When?

Indeed, we were very smart. We got it from the very beginning as we developed our major civilizations around big rivers. Rivers like the Tigris and the Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus, and the Yellow.

Water is the most essential element of life. We need it for drinking and sanitation. We need it to produce food. We need it to produce power and cool our power plants. And we need it for maintaining our ecosystems services.

So what’s going to happen with the growing population? We already have problems with water. Not everyone has enough access to water. 15% of the world’s population lacks access to clean water. That number is 50% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The modern people, the developed ones, are also changing their diet. Ironically, they prefer meat to vegetables, the unhealthy diet. That means 15,000 liters of water instead of 2,000 liters of water per kilogram of food. So to feed the 2 billion extra people joining us on this planet, we need to raise 60% more water. We’re already bankrupt. We don’t have that much water. We have to increase the water withdrawal by 50% in the developing world, and 18% in the rest of the world.

The planet is getting dry. Water is becoming more scarce. 2 billion people are expected to live in dry areas of the planet with extreme water scarcity. Add to this the pressure of climate change, which is going to reduce the rainfall and increase evaporation. We’ve already exhausted our surface water resources. Lakes are going dry, rivers are going dry. And now we are tapping the groundwater, the faster resources which are not going to get replenished. And things like recycling and re-drinking our urine would not help much.

Do you think that’s the end of the story? Actually, it isn’t. The situation is more complex. Because water has no respect for our political boundaries. We set the political boundaries without paying attention to the water boundaries. Water basin boundaries, watershed, river basin. Water drops want to move freely within the basin from one location to another, along the river, towards the drainage area. They’re not like us. They don’t have passports so we can’t ask them for visas. They want to pass the border.

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So what happens is that we have 148 countries sharing 276 international river basins. What does that mean? 45% of the Earth’s land area, 40% of the population lives in these areas. And 60% of the water flows at a global level are provided in these areas.

Imagine what happens when you have more than one country managing water. It doesn’t matter if you’re upstream or downstream, how powerful you are, it’s probably in your best interest to maximize your use, minimize the outflow or beg for more water, because even if you don’t need it today, tomorrow you will need it.

So what happens is a lot of competition. Even if you need to do it superficially, you’re going to maximize your use: build a lot of dams, transfer water from one location to another, and waste it. At least you can establish some right to that water. That creates chaos, competition. And as water becomes more scarce, there’s more chance of water conflicts. And that’s a scary situation. Some people think it is beyond conflicts: we might have wars over water. Kofi Annan thinks that the fierce competition over water might end up in a war.

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