Few doubt that availability of fresh water will be the defining issue of the future, as homes, industry, agriculture and ecosystems compete for increasingly scarce resources. Indeed, currently 800 million people worldwide lack access to sufficient supplies of drinking water, and 2.5 billion people lack water for basic sanitation. One of the fundamental causes of water scarcity is the poor global distribution of the resource, especially in arid countries. Growing populations and expanding economies will further exacerbate demand and stress dwindling supplies.
As nations confront the reality of inadequate water supplies, one interesting response has been international bulk water transfer that is achieved through variety of mechanisms, including pipelines, oceanic tankers, giant water bags, iceberg towing, and others. This presentation will explore how some nations are responding to their water needs through international bulk water transfer, analyze the pros and cons of international bulk water transfer and consider some of the legal and policy implications associated with these efforts. While sales of bottled water could be characterized as water transfers, they will not be addressed here since such transfers may be characterized more as profit-driven individual sales of a luxury item rather than a response for meeting communities' growing subsistence and economic needs.
The presenters will conduct a desk-top research into applicable literature, including news articles reporting on such transfers, and will investigate existing, proposed, and abandoned bulk water transfers and their implications.
Results and Discussion
A surprising number of international bulk water transfers have occurred or been proposed in recent years. For example, in 2008, drought in Spain's Catalonia pushed the region to temporarily purchase water from southern France via oceanic tankers. More consistently, Singapore has been buying water from Malaysia for the past eighty years, while Lesotho has been supporting the water needs of South Africa since 1998. On a more localized scale, the U.S. has engaged in bulk water transfers on both its southern and northern borders. The water utility in Nogales, AZ has been delivering water across the border to businesses in Nogales, Sonora in Mexico since the 1950s. Similarly, there are a series of municipal sale/purchase contracts between sister-cities along Canada-US border, such as from Stanstead, Quebec to Derby Line, Vermont, which also includes an arrangement for managing wastewater.
Other international bulk water transfers are being planned. An underwater pipe is nearing completion from Alakopru Dam in Turkey to Panagra/Gecitkoy in north Cyprus through the Mediterranean Sea. The pipeline is expected to transport as much as 2.6 million cubic feet of water annually for fifty years. Proposals have also been made to transport water from Russia's Lake Baikal to China, from Sudan's portion of the Nile River to the Arab Gulf states, from Ethiopia to Kuwait, and from Romania to Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
A review of these and other active and proposed bulk water sales evidence a variety of interests, benefits, and consequences that complicate the analysis. Among other considerations, international water transfers can provide water to countries where it is plentiful to regions where it is needed, thereby providing relief to those suffering from water scarcity. Such transfers can also engender international cooperation and facilitate health and economic well-being, thereby raising regional and global standards of living. In contrast, these transfers raise a variety of concerns, including the dewatering of ecosystems and the energy needs and greenhouse gas impacts of transporting a substance that is both heavy and bulky. In addition, artificial relocation of water can breed unsustainable economic development and population growth and create politically challenging dependencies, and may reinforce the commodification of water, which some view as anathema to the human right to water.
Further, there are legal and policy implications associated with these efforts that have yet to be fully evaluated. For example, while there is a growing consensus on the existence of a human right to water, it is unclear whether such a right extends as between nations. Absent such an obligation, states and private companies may be free to impose export bans on their domestic supplies or, alternatively, treat water as a commodity and export it for profit. Whether hoarded, transferred for altruistic purposes, or sold to the highest bidder, there is a further question of whether international water transfers should be subject to global trade rules. If bulk water transfers are treated as the sale of a commodity, the rules of the World Trade Organization ("WTO") may govern. In its 2014 World Trade Report, the WTO found that resource rich nations lag behind in social development, and that a significant percentage of sovereign wealth funds ("SWF") are supported by sales of oil and gas reserves. In some cases, the assets in a SWF are equal to the nations GDP. If water were to be commoditized in a manner similar to oil and gas, can we then expect societies in water-rich nations to suffer? What would be the impact of increased SWFs on a nation's development? The life-giving quality of water suggest that this irreplaceable substance should be administered differently from oil, mobile phones, and other goods, but the temptation to build financial reserves by increasing exports of a vital resource could be strong. Should disputes arise, would the WTO rules apply, or would international tribunals look solely to treaties and customary laws?
Bulk water transfers provide one of a number of options for augmenting water supplies. They may be a good local transboundary solution where environmental, political and other concerns can be addressed. However, the environmental impacts and energy footprint likely make long-distance transfers either economically unfeasible or logistically impracticable. Finally, bulk water transfers should not be relied upon by water-scarce nations unless political relations with the selling nation are strong to ensure consistent deliveries at reasonable cost.
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