Water is one of the most abundant, valuable, and fragile resources on the planet. Although two-thirds of the earth’s surface is covered by water, only a fraction of this is potable and all of it is susceptible to pollution. Water resources are in high demand for drinking, irrigation, transportation, and industry. This demand often leads to issues of water scarcity and causes conflict over ownership of water resources.
Water is a resource that cannot be contained within national boundaries. Since there is no sovereign ownership of bodies of water, its resources may be exploited without the risks associated with accountability. Currently, there exists over 260 river basins shared by two or more countries and most of these do not have legal or institutional agreements associated with their use (World Water Council 2007). High levels of agriculture and development can lead to eutrophication of streams and lakes by causing nitrogen and phosphorus to accumulate in the water as a result of increased runoff containing fertilizers and pesticides (Carpenter et. al 1998). Streams and lakes can also be directly affected by point-source pollution, resulting from waste disposal of industries such as factories and wastewater treatment plants. This form of pollution can contain dangerous toxins and heavy metals, and it can significantly raise the temperature of the water into which it is dumped. Increased water temperature causes a decrease in dissolved oxygen concentration, leading to the death of aquatic life (Vigil 2003). Oil spills and other environmentally harmful practices also result from lack of accountability. This lack of accountability plays a role in the 13,000 tons of oil that was spilt into the oceans just in 2006 (ITOPF 2007).
The change in water supply due to climate change has created severe water shortages across the globe. Figures regarding water scarcity vary, but some estimate that approximately 80 countries with 40 percent of the world’s population suffer from water shortages in any given year (Leopold 1997). Moreover, water is not used evenly throughout the world; in wealthier countries, people use about 500 liters a day per person while in poor countries only one-tenth of that amount is used per person (McMichael 1993). Increased water scarcity in already arid regions may result in political destabilization as people struggle to maintain an adequate water supply as seen from the political crisis in Darfur (Niblock 2007). Although UN panels meet to discuss reform in Darfur and other areas affected by water shortages, little meaningful legislation can be passed without the full cooperation of participating countries.
Water scarcity intensifies as an increasing population places greater demands on water resources. More construction and development increase the amount of impermeable surfaces in an area. These surfaces do not allow water to penetrate into the ground and recharge aquifers. Rather than becoming absorbed and slowly filtered by vegetation, water runs off concrete, collecting chemicals, and quickly enters streams and rivers eroding riverbanks and creating flashfloods. Since water cannot reach the aquifers, these sources of drinking water begin to drain. Overuse of aquifers can cause saltwater to intrude into the pool of clean drinking water, making it brackish. (Outwater 1996).
In order to govern international bodies of water, there must be enforceable international legislation. International cooperation on water issues can occur: In Northern Africa, ten countries who share the resources of the Nile agreed to policy discussion concerning the river. These discussions, which are moderated by the UN, serve as an example of an international institution providing a forum for agreements that may lead to transboundary environmental legislation.
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Leopold, Luna B., Water, Rivers and Creeks, University Science Books, Sausalito, California, 1997.
McMichael, A.J., Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species, Cambridge University Press, Great Britain, 1993.
Niblock, Tim. “Sudan’s Economic Nightmare.” MERIP Reports. 135 (1985): 15-18+. 02 Febuary 2007.
Outwater, Alice, Water: A Natural History, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 1996.
Vigil, Kenneth M. Clean Water: An Introduction to Water Quality and Water Pollution Control. Oregon State University Press, 2003.
World Water Council. “Water Crisis.” Water at a Glance. http://www.worldwatercouncil.org/index.php?id=25&L=%252522%252520onfocus%2525253D %252522blurLink%252528this%252529%2525253B(accessed 11 December 2007).