Yemenis walk through a drought-affected dam on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen. Sana a city is running out of water and many relief agencies feel that it could become the first capital city in the world to run out of a viable water supply. Photo: Yahya Arhab / EPA

By Nathan Halverson
11 April 2016 

(Reveal) – Secret conversations between American diplomats show how a growing water crisis in the Middle East destabilized the region, helping spark civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and how those water shortages are spreading to the United States.

Classified U.S. cables reviewed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting show a mounting concern by global political and business leaders that water shortages could spark unrest across the world, with dire consequences.

Many of the cables read like diary entries from an apocalyptic sci-fi novel.

“Water shortages have led desperate people to take desperate measures with equally desperate consequences,” according to a 2009 cable sent by U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche in Yemen as water riots erupted across the country.

On Sept. 22 of that year, Seche sent a stark message to the U.S. State Department in Washington relaying the details of a conversation with Yemen’s minister of water, who “described Yemen’s water shortage as the ‘biggest threat to social stability in the near future.’ He noted that 70 percent of unofficial roadblocks stood up by angry citizens are due to water shortages, which are increasingly a cause of violent conflict.”

Seche soon cabled again, stating that 14 of the country’s 16 aquifers had run dry. At the time, Yemen wasn’t getting much news coverage, and there was little public mention that the country’s groundwater was running out.

These communications, along with similar cables sent from Syria, now seem eerily prescient, given the violent meltdowns in both countries that resulted in a flood of refugees to Europe.

Groundwater, which comes from deeply buried aquifers, supplies the bulk of freshwater in many regions, including Syria, Yemen and drought-plagued California. It is essential for agricultural production, especially in arid regions with little rainwater. When wells run dry, farmers are forced to fallow fields, and some people get hungry, thirsty and often very angry.

The classified diplomatic cables, made public years ago by Wikileaks, now are providing fresh perspective on how water shortages have helped push Syria and Yemen into civil war, and prompted the king of neighboring Saudi Arabia to direct his country’s food companies to scour the globe for farmland. Since then, concerns about the world’s freshwater supplies have only accelerated. […]

“Nestle thinks one-third of the world’s population will be affected by fresh water scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050,” according to a 24 March 2009, cable. “Problems will be severest in the Middle East, northern India, northern China, and the western United States.” [more]

We’re running out of water, and the world’s powers are very worried


21 April 2016 – United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim announced today the appointment of 10 Heads of State and Government, as well as two Special Advisors, to the High-Level Panel on Water.

The panel, which was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos last January, aims to mobilize effective action to accelerate the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG6), which focuses on ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, at a time of unprecedented challenges.

The newly appointed panel members are:

  • Ameenah Gurib, President of Mauritius (Co-Chair)
  • Enrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico (Co-Chair)
  • Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia
  • Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
  • János Áder, President of Hungary
  • Abdullah Ensour, Prime Minister of Jordan
  • Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands
  • Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa
  • Macky Sall, President of Senegal
  • Emomali Rahmon, President of Tajikistan
  • Han Seung-soo, Former Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea (Special Advisor)
  • Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, Minister of State for the Environment of Peru (Special Advisor)
“Ensuring water and sanitation for all is crucial for reducing poverty and achieving other Sustainable Development Goals,” said Mr. Ban in a statement issued by his spokesperson, through which he urged all partners to mobilize behind SDG 6 with political, financial and technological support.

Today, more than 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation and at least 663 million do not have access to safe drinking water. Poor sanitation, water, and hygiene lead to about 675,000 premature deaths annually, and estimated annual economic losses of up to seven per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in some countries.

Floods and droughts already impose huge social and economic costs globally, and climate variability will make water extremes worse. If the world continues on its current path, projections suggest that the world may face a 40 per cent shortfall in water availability by 2030. The consequences of such stress are local, transboundary and global in todays interconnected world.

The panel will provide the leadership required to tackle these challenges and champion a comprehensive, inclusive and collaborative way of developing and managing water resources, and providing improved access to clean water and sanitation.

“Growing cities and populations, as well as a changing climate, are placing unprecedented pressures on our water resources,” said Mr. Kim. “Addressing this challenge, and ensuring that we can provide clean water and sanitation for all, requires the kind of global action, strong leadership and commitment shown by the members of the High Level Panel on Water.”

UN and World Bank chiefs announce members of joint high-level panel on water

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