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.

Boutros Ghali, another UN Secretary General, what did he say? He thinks that water can become more important and more significant than oil. And that the Middle East might experience a war over water.

The former Vice President of the World Bank thought that the 21st century wars would be fought over water. Water war. That’s interesting. It was interesting when I heard it. And I really wanted to know if there will be any water war.

Have you ever had any war over water? Why was I interested in water war? Because I was always dreaming about playing it since childhood. Of course not. Of course, not. Water and war are two important things for me. I’ll tell you more, the real story. Why water?

I was passionate about water. I think I had no choice but being passionate about water, because I was the only child of the parents who were working for the water sector. In fact, they dated and got married when they were working for the water sector. So I’m thankful to water for giving me great parents. So studying water was the least I could do to thank it.

Besides that, I was interested in war. Why should I be interested in war? I grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. I have a crystal clear picture of the first missile attack to Teheran. 29th February 1988, when I was only six. A big explosion, a few meters away. Nothing happened to me, but I remember my mum injured and she was in blood. I was confused. To date I still panic about it and I have nightmares of planes attacking our neighborhood. That confusion, that explosion! I didn’t know what was going on.

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So war would be the last thing I would be interested in. On the contrary, I like peace, like many of you. I want to find ways to prevent conflicts, and make the world a more peaceful place.

So I had to find a way to study things, to study water conflicts. I was an engineer interested in politics and social sciences, so my colleagues and peers thought that’s lack of competence because you’re getting it out of mathematics and computer modeling. So I had to find a way, and I think I did. I used game theory. Game theory is a mathematical study of cooperation and conflicts. I used game theory to understand why people might behave in different ways and in different situations. I want to understand their incentives, why they do certain things when they’re in conflict with other people. They have a range of options to pick from. They have preferences over the possible outcomes and they have to think about all moves and countermoves of all players in the game, if they want to make a good decision. It’s like playing chess or poker with others.

Now, this field is a very growing field. It’s becoming more and more popular and lots of people are using it. We have been using it for water resource modeling and understanding conflicts. You probably remember this face: John Nash and the “A Beautiful Mind” movie. That’s the guy who has made a lot of contributions to this field.

So we ended up modeling a lot of conflicts around the world: conflicts in the Jordan river basin, Nile river basin, conflicts in Iran, conflicts in California, all over water.

The other thing I do is a lot of gaming. Remember, I told you I was an only child so I didn’t have a lot of gaming experience. So I do it with my students in class. We play a lot of games. It’s probably more fun. We play water games and I try to collect information from them, behavioral information. The information which is really hard for me to get if I go to the field and do experience in the field. So I collect the information, they have fun. But to ensure that they show their real behavior, what I do is that I tell them that their grade in the assignment would be their performance in the game. So they play a lot of games during the course and I collect a lot of information and use that information to develop water management institutions, which are less vulnerable to conflicts.

So let me tell you what I’ve gained, my experience out of 10 years of modeling and gaming. Water conflicts — yes, they exist, and as water becomes more scarce we will see more water conflicts, more water tensions, especially at lower levels between farmers, between provinces and states.