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Diplomacy in Action

"Whiskey is for Drinking; Water is for Fighting Over" Coping with Transboundary Water Disputes in a Water-Scarce World

Dr. Kenneth Verosub
Washington, DC
April 27, 2010



[music playing]

Andrew Reynolds:

Good morning, I’m Andrew Reynolds. I am the Deputy Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State, and we all welcome you here to the State Department for our outside guests, and for our State Department and AID colleagues, welcome, as well. This is a continuing series presented by our distinguished professors, the Jefferson Science Fellows, who are here for one year of assignment, tenured professors at their universities, who we hope embed, become subject matter experts, and working colleagues who we can continue to utilize, and they us, once they return to their chairs. And, the Jefferson Fellows now number forty-one alumni from all over the country; we have 10 fellows currently, of which Ken Verosub is a member of that cohort. And we have now appointed 12 new Jefferson Fellows who will join us in August for interviews at AID and State and begin working in the fall. I can tell you that when science and technology diplomacy have become currency in international relations, both foreign policy diplomacy and development, this new asset, this new cadre of people, give us a leg-up on the future, the present as well. And Ken Verosub, as other colleagues who have spoken before him, bring testimony to that great benefit.

Let me just say before bringing Ken up, at World Water Day, on the 22 of March, Secretary Clinton spoke at the National Geographic Society about this important topic. I’m glad it was the National Geographic Society particularly, because our geographers in the room too, and we all love geography. She pointed out, when you look into the crystal ball darkly, which we like to do increasingly, as a matter of strategic importance, at 2025, nearly two-thirds of the world’s countries will be water-stressed. And you, the practitioners, the experts in the field, know what that means, and Ken will drill into that particular topic from very interesting angles today. We sponsor this lecture series with our colleagues from the Oceans, Environment, and Science Bureau, OES, who operationally are really at the mainstream of this activity, and are now staffing straight up into our Under Secretary for Diplomacy and Global Affairs, Maria Otero, as well as the Assistant Secretary, Kerri-Ann Jones, of the OES Bureau, who are very much involved in the broad responsibilities of the Water Initiative.

And let me just say from the Secretary’s speech, she pointed out that five areas are really focusing the efforts. First, to build capacity at local, national, and regional levels, including international collaboration, because these issues are naturally unattainable, or they cannot be conquered, unless we work globally with our friends from around the city as well. We’re glad that some of the embassies are here. Second, to elevate the diplomatic effort, and to better coordinate them on the water issue as a general matter. Mobilizing financial support is third, harnessing the power of science and technology. Thank you, Secretary Clinton, for mentioning that, and within that responsibility, moving ahead with whole of government approaches to the water issue, and engaging NGOs in the private sector. And she concluded with some very important information, and I think a testimony to what we will hear today from Ken Verosub, and I quote, “In the United States, water represents one of the great diplomatic and development opportunities of our time. It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives, feed the hungry, empower women, advance our national security interests, protect the environment, and demonstrate to billions of people that the United States cares -- cares about you, and your welfare. Water is that issue.”

So without further adieu, because there is lots to hear, and we want everyone to have a chance to ask Ken Verosub questions, I introduce my good friend Ken Verosub, who is working now in the Oceans, Environment, and Science Bureau, appropriately enough, on the water issue. Ken.

Kenneth Verosub:

Thank you, Andy, and thank all of you for coming. I think I’ll just get started. Topic is, “Whiskey says -- whiskey is for drinking, and water is for fighting over,” and you might note that it’s in quotation marks, and some of you may know that that’s a quotation from Mark Twain, who died almost exactly 100 years ago -- actually 100 years and six days ago. And it’s pretty amazing that a quotation that he made over 100 years ago can bring this many people out. I will not ask the question, “How many of you are here for the whiskey and not for the water?” But we won’t worry about that. First, some disclaimers. First of all, I am speaking as an individual, not as a representative of the State Department. Second, all the material I am presenting is unclassified. I basically started from scratch and got everything off the Web, again, so there’d be no misunderstandings. And I am speaking off the record, so if anybody attributes anything to me, I will admit nothing and deny everything, which is what it said on these two coffee cups that I found in a little shop in Langley.


Okay, so let’s talk about trans-boundary waters. Well, trans-boundary waters are waters or rivers that are shared by two or more countries, and I particularly like this map of Africa, which is somewhat washed out, the lighting here has some -- projector has some problems, but this is all of Africa. And what I like about the map is that it clearly shows in black the boundaries of the water basins, and in white, the boundaries of the countries. And you’ll immediately see that the boundaries of the countries bear absolutely no relationship to the water basins, which means that all of these basins, essentially, are trans-boundary waters. And over the entire world, there’s over 260 river basins that fall in this category. Why are these important?

Well, they’re important because, as the Secretary said, water is important. One way of realizing that is to look at the amount of water that is used in different countries for agriculture. We immediately see that countries in -- many of the countries in Africa, almost all the countries in South Asia, and countries in South America are using at least 65 percent of their water for agriculture, and it’s a little hard to tell the black from the dark red in this projection, but many of these countries are actually very dark, meaning they’re using more than 80 percent of their water for agriculture. If you then project a 50 percent increase in population, which is what we seem to be talking about by 2050 or 2040, that means that these countries are going to have to be using well over 100 percent of their water simply to sustain their population with food. Well, clearly that isn’t going to work. So this is one of the reasons why these waters become more and more important as time goes on.

And even in the present, many of these countries are not using sustainable -- their water in a sustainable way. They are actually using more water than goes back into their system each year. Just like a bank account, if you keep spending and putting less in each year than you spend each year, ultimately you get down to zero. And that’s where a lot of the countries are now in that kind of deficit spending. This one slide -- there it is. Okay, we can also look at that in terms of water availability, and the impact of climate change on all of this. You can see countries in red have what is defined as water scarcity. That’s less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person. And then orange and yellow are also areas that are defined as water-stressed. This is 2028 -- 2008, if we go to 2030 -- these two slides, there it goes -- go to 2030, the areas that are in red stay red, the areas that in orange are either staying orange or went to red. Yellow either stays yellow or goes to orange. And so this situation is going to get worse, it’s going to be exacerbated by any changes in precipitation patterns that comes with climate change, so all of these things contribute to the fact that water is going to be important -- water is already important. We are at critical limits in many countries, and it will only -- the situation will only get worse as time goes on. Sorry, okay.

And here’s another way of showing that. By 2025, Northern Africa and this part of Asia will all be in physical water scarcity. That is, there just won’t be enough water, and all of the places in yellow will have what is called “economic water scarcity;” there may be water, but it’s going to be very, very expensive at that point. [inaudible] Sorry. There we go. Okay, so let’s look at some specific examples of trans-boundary waters, and the problems that we already have at the present time with these different rivers.

First one I want to look at is the Nile. I learned in third grade that the Nile consists of the Blue Nile and the White Nile which come together in Khartoum, and then flow out through Sudan and Egypt. I’m not sure we teach things like that anymore, unfortunately, but I certainly did learn about that. I later learned, when I became a geologist, that different minerals are contributed by the Blue Nile and the White Nile, so that when they actually come together, you have perfect fertilizer. The water has the perfect balance of chemical elements to serve as the fertilizer for the -- for Egypt when it would flood, and refurbish the soil. One thing that’s important to note is that 85 percent of the water that flows in the Nile actually comes from the Blue Nile, and most of it comes out of Ethiopia, and I will come back to that in a minute.

So for 5,000 years, the Nile basically was equated with Egypt. Egypt was the Nile, the Nile was Egypt, and in the 19th and 20th century, that was recognized, especially when the British either controlled Egypt, or Egypt was a client state of Britain. And various treaties were negotiated with upstream countries in Northern Africa along the Nile. Most of the water rights were given to the Egyptians. And because they had most of the water rights, they could go ahead and build the Aswan Dam, and impound a lot of water from the Nile. There was a lot of water coming out in the Nile, they could impound that water, and create the Aswan Dam, which has had huge environmental impacts that I don’t have time to talk about. But nonetheless, they had the right, at that point, to the water.

But this is the 21st century, and the world is somewhat different, and now when we look at the Nile, what we say is, “Oh, the Nile is a trans-boundary basin, and it’s shared among nine countries. Egypt is only one of the nine, and all of these should have some say in how those waters are used.” And so, in an attempt to address that, with the encouragement of the World Bank, there is something called the Nile Basin Initiative that has been set up, which is an attempt to sort of rationalize the discussion about who gets what water from the Nile River. This process has moved forward in fits and starts, and about two weeks ago there was a ministerial meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, at which nine -- excuse me, seven of the nine countries agreed to something called the Cooperative Framework Agreement as a way to share waters and deal with this. Unfortunately, Egypt and Sudan refused to participate in this discussion, and so now we have a problem where these nine countries want to move forward and make some decisions, but Egypt and Sudan are refusing to be part of the process, at least for the moment.

The Egyptians are particularly worried about Ethiopia, which doesn’t show up too well here, but anyway, this is Ethiopia, because 85 percent of the water comes from Ethiopia. Ethiopia is trying to develop its energy industry, its country in general and its energy in particular, and it sees hydroelectric power as a way to do that. It also sees that 85 percent of the Nile as an opportunity for irrigation. So the Egyptians are very worried about what the Ethiopians might do, and that’s part of the reason why they’ve refused to participate in this agreement. There’s another issue though, involving Ethiopia and a different river.

This is the Omo River in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians have plans to build a dam, which is called the Gibe III High Dam. It will be 240 meters high, which is very high for a dam. And there have been serious questions raised about this dam. A lot of issues relate to what’s going to happen to the lake which is created behind -- the area behind it that will be flooded. There are various cultural groups that live here, and the whole dynamics of this region will change. But this is an Ethiopian problem. This is what’s going on in Ethiopia. The other part of this issue has to do with the fact that the Omo River feeds into Lake Turkana. It’s the primary river into Lake Turkana, and in order to fill the Gibe III Dam, the Ethiopians would have to cut off the flow into Lake Turkana for two full years, which is causing a small amount of concern in Kenya. So this is one of the kinds of issues that people will get -- are getting into.

And in fact, there’s no date on this, but this was just last month, there was a group of international campaigners, environmental groups, and so forth, that have actually launched an online campaign to get Ethiopia to back off from the dam project. Part of this involves the issue that the World Bank, and I believe the United States, are providing funding for this, and so this has become a major issue about who will -- whether or not this dam will be supported.

Okay, another trans-boundary river, to hop around, is the Mekong. The Mekong actually rises -- the headwaters of the Mekong are all the way up in the Himalayas, in Tibet. It comes out through China and then flows through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. And now that the Vietnam War is over, and a lot of other things have happened, like everybody else these countries are trying to develop, and one of the things they need is electricity, and so there have been a number of proposals to put in hydroelectric facilities on the Mekong River, which creates what I call the “Dam Problem” on the Mekong River. Almost 20 dams have been proposed or built on the Mekong.

The Chinese were in there first. They built five dams up here on the upper, upper reaches of the Mekong River. The dams have been built, the dams are operational, and the only problem is that the Chinese provide no information about how they -- how and when they operate these dams. And so, there have been unannounced releases of water from the dams that have caused sudden changes in level downstream, and these have actually led to fatalities and other problems. But more seriously is that in the last couple of years, the last two or three years, there have been almost no releases from the dam. And as a result of that, the Mekong, especially in the vicinity of Thailand, has been -- has fallen to record low levels, which is affecting industry and productivity along the river. It’s affecting transportation, because the river can no longer be used for transportation in certain places, and the Thai government is very, very upset about this and says to the -- tells the -- says to the Chinese government, “You need to stop doing it.” The response of the Chinese government is, “It’s not our fault. We are having the worst -- one of the worst droughts in Chinese history, in southern China, and there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s not that we’re holding water back, there’s no water to release.” Well, this has gone back and forth. There is a group called the Mekong River Commission, which is trying to deal with some of these issues. The Chinese say it’s the drought. The countries say it has to do with China.

And what’s interesting is that whenever you get one of these disputes, usually the next to last sentence in the story, in the news -- in the newspaper, is some official saying, “What we really need is more data.” In this case, the Chinese are not providing any data about the extent of the drought, or about their management of the dams, and about the flows in the river. So, what they always say is, “We need more data.” And a lot of these trans-boundary water issues involve people arguing in the absence of data about what the normal levels should be, or what the actual levels should be.

There’s another problem with the Mekong, in that Cambodia and Laos want to build a bunch of dams on the lower parts of the Mekong, and several of these dams would cut off the movement of fish, the migration of fish, up and down the river, and in this part of the world, 80 percent of the protein comes from fish. So, even though the countries want to build these dams, other people are concerned that they would have serious impacts on the fisheries.

Okay, jumping around again to what used to be called Soviet Central Asia, I want to look at the Amu Darya River, which actually is the Oxus River of Alexander the Great. And there was a big battle, he crossed the river, in the big battle on the river, but this was -- in Greek, for many -- for thousands of years, or hundreds of years, Greeks called this the Oxus, it’s now called the Amu Darya, it flows out of Tajikistan, picks up some waters from northern Afghanistan, and then flows into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan -- excuse me, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and then into the Aral Sea. During the Soviet times, when this was Soviet Central Asia, the Soviets realized that Uzbekistan, which is flat, and high, and has good soil, was a great place to grow cotton. And so they developed the cotton industry in Uzbekistan, and even now, Uzbekistan produces 12 percent of the world’s exports of cotton. This is their big cash crop. This is what they make -- this is what they make their money on. But, as many of you know, cotton is one of the most water-intensive crops. And so, in order to grow that cotton, going all the way back to Soviet times, they needed the water. The water came from the Amu Darya, and as a result of that, it never got to the Aral Sea, and over about a 40-year period, the Aral Sea went from looking like this, to this, to this, to this. And it practically does not exist anymore. And this is what the Aral Sea looks like now. It’s basically died from the effects of growing cotton in Uzbekistan. It’s unlikely we can do much for the Aral Sea, but these issues still continue because Tajikistan is the place where there are the headwaters of the Amu Darya River.

This topographic map shows that Tajikistan is primarily a mountainous country, has very little arable land. During Soviet times -- if God gives you lemons, you make lemonade. If she gives you mountains, you make hydroelectric power. And so during the Soviet times, the Soviets decided to build -- or supported the construction of a very large dam here called Nurek -- Nurek Dam or Nurek Reservoir, in order to produce electricity so that the Tajiks could smelt aluminum. Aluminum needs electricity. It’s a very electricity-intensive process. One of the few natural resources of Tajikistan is it has some good aluminum deposits, bauxite deposits. And so the Soviets helped them build the Nurek Dam, which is 300 meters high, and is, in fact, the highest dam in the world.

And now, the Tajiks are looking to develop more resources, and again, all they basically have in terms of natural resources, or one of their best natural resources, is their mountains. So they want to build another dam here called the Rogun Dam, which would further impound the waters. The problem is, the Uzbeks are getting very nervous about this because another huge dam, the Rogun Dam, may or may not be larger than the Nurek Dam, depending on the final construction. But it’s going to be an enormous dam, it will impound an enormous amount of water, and the Uzbeks are very worried about what will happen if that dam is allowed to go forward. And this has been a dispute between the Uzbeks and the Tajiks. On the other hand, it has other repercussions, and only a month ago, the Uzbeks blocked a convoy that was carrying supplies for Afghanistan from going into Tajikistan from Uzbekistan. So these things get very, very complicated.

Now let me talk about another trans-boundary water situation involving several different states. In this case, state doesn’t mean country, it means a state of the United States. But in many respects, the issues are the same, and there is an important lesson here. This is the Colorado River which drains through -- what do we got here -- seven states and Mexico, out from Colorado out into the Gulf of Mexico. And in the 1920s, perhaps heeding Mark Twain’s words, the people in the -- in Southwestern United States said, “Let’s not have a water war. Let’s divide the water in the Colorado in a very civilized way.” And they actually did that, and they came up with something which is called the Colorado River Compact. And it gave an allotment of water to every one of those seven states plus Mexico, a certain amount of water every year. And once that was signed -- once the compact was signed, the United States went ahead and built Hoover Dam, which provided electricity so that Las Vegas could be developed. I don’t know if that was a positive or negative impact, but that was one of the impacts.

But once this -- all of this was done, the first state on line to start taking water was California because it was developing most rapidly because of the oil industry, because of agriculture, because of the movie industry, and California started taking as much water as it was allowed, and then some from the Colorado River coming out to Los Angeles, and also the Imperial Valley. And that made a lot of agriculture in the southern part of the state possible. This is an infrared photograph of the Imperial Valley, and you can see the dark red -- or the bright red indicates how healthy the crops are, and down here -- this is the international boundary, this is Mexico, and they were getting much lower-quality water, so their crops are not as good. But that’s another issue.

So this is what the Colorado River Compact did in terms of dividing the water, and you’re not responsible for all of these numbers, but what I want you to look at is the grand total down here, which said that when you added up all the water that was allotted to all of these states, you came up with 16.5 million cubic feet of water -- million acre feet of water every year. That’s what was being -- had been allotted. Well, we’ve gone back and reconstructed flows in the Colorado River going back 500 years -- there’s actually a 1,200 year record of flows in the Colorado River -- and what did we discover? We discovered that 16.5 million acre feet of water is not the average flow in the Colorado River as had been assumed when they made this calculation. It occurs occasionally, but not very frequently. The average flow in the river is 14.4 million acre feet.

So now that Arizona is developing, and New Mexico is developing, and California continues to need water, and Mexico is raising its hand and saying, “We’d like some water, too,” we’re getting to the point where we have a treaty -- or, we have a compact, we have an agreement, and we have allocated water to everybody, but the amount of water we’ve allocated is 20 percent greater than the water that’s there in most years. So this is a serious problem. And with climate change, we’re likely to have even less water in the future.

Okay, one more example, and I’ll move on to something else. And this is the Indus River, and this one is really quite complicated. The Indus is, again, a trans-boundary river. It’s shared by Pakistan, India, and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. When India was partitioned in 1947, immediately the Indus River became an issue because it was both in India and Pakistan, and it was a very, very important river. It took 13 years of negotiation through the World Bank to actually get to the point where Nehru and Mohammad Ayub Khan could sign what was called the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, which agreed on how the waters in the Indus River would be divided.

There’s basically six major tributaries to the Indus, and three of them were the three southern or eastern ones down here, where a lot of the waters in those rivers were -- at least the part of it, in India -- was allotted to India, and the other three were allotted to Pakistan with some reservations about the water flowing on this river in India. The “none” part had to do with Afghanistan, which wasn’t even considered in this entire discussion. The Indus River Treaty has actually held up through several major wars between India and Pakistan, or skirmishes, or whatever you want to call them, and an awful lot of very intense negotiation that has gone on. And it’s often held up as an example of how successful these things -- these types of treaties can be.

But there are severe tensions that have developed that are slowly developing and building that existed and are getting much worse, and if you look at a topographic map, you see what some of the issues are, one of which is that you see that all the major tributaries of the Indus drain off of the Himalayas. So the Himalayas are, in fact, the source of the Indus River, and therefore whatever happens in the Himalayas is going to affect the Indus River, and depending on how climate change affects the glaciers that feed the Indus River, there will be either a lot less water, or somewhat less water, than there is now in the Indus River. So this is an important element in understanding what’s going on in the Himalayas becomes suddenly very critical for dealing with this treaty. And of course, I’m sure all of you know, that there’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going on with the glacial melt in the Himalayas.

It’s also important who controls the glaciers that feed the Himalayas, and India and Pakistan have been fighting over Jammu and Kashmir for I guess 60 years now, and -- or 63 years now -- and although there are many elements to why they are fighting over it, one of the things they’re fighting about is who controls the headwaters of the Indus River. And if you look at the Indus River Basin in a satellite photograph, you see this large area here which is vegetated, which appears to be quite fertile, and this is what is called the Punjab. Part of it is in India, part of it -- a larger part of it is in Pakistan, and it is the breadbasket of Pakistan. This is where most -- much of the agriculture of food in Pakistan is raised. Comes -- where it comes from, the problem here though is that the Punjab, which is up here, is in an extremely arid part of South Asia. Most of the rain falls either on the eastern coast of India, or over here on the western part of India and in Bangladesh. This is a very arid region. So if you want to maintain that breadbasket, especially with a burgeoning population, you need more water resources. And as soon as the Indus Waters Treaty was signed, and it was understood who had what water, then India and Pakistan went ahead and started to build large dams.

This is the Tarbela Dam on the Indus itself, I believe -- yeah, this is on the Indus. This is a very large dam that Pakistan built. And just to show you, this is the drainage basin from the Himalayas that comes down and feeds into the Tarbela Dam. Excuse me. Now, in order to sustain all this agriculture on the Punjab, not only did they build the dams, but Pakistan built a very, very elaborate and complex system of irrigation canals, and water system, in order to distribute the water to the Punjab over this entire area. So, these are two elements of this problem. Another part of the problem is that because over the last 30 or 40 years, it was perceived that there was a fair amount of water available in Pakistan, the primary mode of irrigation was flood irrigation. So people came in -- people now flood their fields. And people look at this and say, “Well, wait a minute. There’s some problems here. There’s some governance problems with Pakistan. There’s some infrastructure problems. Basically, if you want water, you have to bribe somebody to get them to open the gates to give you the water. Many of the canals are in disrepair, and so they leak all over the place, and people are flooding, which is not the right way to do it.”

So one of the solutions that has been proposed is that Pakistan improve its governance, improve its infrastructure, line its canals, and stop flooding the fields. Well, okay, that may be -- I should’ve shown this already -- Pakistan already has, or is about to have, a water scarcity crisis. And I’ll just leave it at that. But when people talk to Pakistan and say, “You know, you may have a crisis,” they have a very simple answer. “We wouldn’t have a problem if they,” meaning India, “wasn’t stealing our water.” And so if you read any of the Pakistan newspapers, mostly what you get is not that there’s -- that this is a homegrown problem, but that if India were not stealing our water -- which is never documented -- but there’s always the accusation that India is stealing our water, we wouldn’t have a problem. People look at Pakistan and say, “No, you do have a problem. You have to fix all of these things.”

However, there’s an added point here that I want to make, and that is that if you really dig into the literature, and I think this is an example of where somebody with a science and technology background looking at these problems finds new information, the more I read about Pakistan and its water problems, the more I realize that most of their water now in the Punjab is coming from groundwater. They pump it out of the ground in tubewells, maybe because the other system is not very use -- effective. But they’re pumping the water out of the ground, and the net effect is that they’re drawing down the groundwater table. The problem is, if you now go in, and you line the canals, and you stop flood irrigation, and you get people to collect rainwater -- which has also been proposed -- you’re not going to be recharging the aquifers. So what appears to be the solution to the problem may only aggravate it if it turns out that most of the water is water that they try to pump out of the ground and use for irrigation. So, these issues get to be very, very complicated.

Okay, I want to talk now about going to war over water. And since I don’t want to point fingers at any particular country, I will talk about a fictitious situation. I should point out, also, that to date, no countries have actually gone to war over water, but a lot of them have threatened to do so. And it’s interesting to just sort of speculate how this might -- what might actually happen. So I’m going to talk about something called the Absurdi River Dam, and I’m going to talk about a country called Absurdistan, and I did not invent this country. A man named Gary Shteyngart wrote a book called “Absurdistan.” And I will imagine that it looks like this -- he didn’t provide a map. I will imagine it looks like this, and they all live in this country called the Absurdi River, and according to Shteyngart, the people in Absurdistan are divided up into two groups.

They’re the Svanis and the Sevos. They’re both Orthodox Christians -- groups, they’re identical ethnically, and the only difference is that the Svanis believe that the lower part of the Orthodox cross, which I guess is called the footrest of Christ, the footrest, should go from left to right -- should slant down this way, and the Sevos believe it should slant the other way, okay? And they’ve been fighting and killing each other about this for 1,000 years, according to Shteyngart in this novel. And I suppose that kind of argument is as good as any other argument that people have about religion, and that leads to them fighting and killing one another. So I’m going to take this one step further and assume that the Sevo and the Svani have had a 10-year bloody civil war, which results in the United Nations stepping in, dividing the country in half, and all the Svanis move to the north, and all the Sevos move to the south, and we have a country up here called Svanistan, and a country down here called Sevonia. And again they still share this river called the Absurdi River. So I have to give you two disclaimers: okay, one is, any resemblance to any country, living or dead, is purely coincidental, and that no rivers were harmed in the making of this presentation.

Okay, so let’s assume that Svanistan proposes to build a dam on the Absurdi River. Sevonia objects because this will alter the flow of the river. What could Svanistan do, and what are Sevonia’s options? Well, Svanistan’s -- things they could do, is they could withhold all the water from Sevonia while the dam fills. Sound familiar? It’s been threatened; it’s been done in one case already. I won’t mention which one, but it’s been done. Svanistan could divert water into its irrigation canals, thereby stealing water, robbing water, reducing the amount of water that flows into Sevonia. Svanistan could release water at the wrong time for Sevonian agriculture. They could say, “We’re still giving you all your water!” “Yeah, but it comes not at the growing season, it comes in the middle of the winter or whatever when we don’t need it.” Or, they could just simply reduce the flows enough that it would threaten the river fisheries in Sevonia.

So, what are Sevonia’s options? I’m assuming here that both Svanistan and Sevonia were part of the coalition of the willing, and in return for their support of the United States, we’ve given them F-16s, and Apache helicopters, and Abrams tanks, and all these other things, so they’re each able to mount a major military offensive, and Sevonia then could attack the dam site as construction begins. They wouldn’t want to attack the dam itself after it’s built, because if they blew up the dam, that would only create a flood and wipe them out. So they’d have to attack early, which has to be in part of their planning. Or, they could wait until the dam is built and then attack, and simply destroy the generators if it’s an electric dam, or the penstocks that take in the water. They could raid Svanistan and just destroy their water distribution system, or they could occupy parts of Svanistan around the dam, especially if the dam is built close to the border. The reasons why Svanistan might do that: so Sevonia would come in and just simply take over that part of the dam.

So the question is, what do we do in this kind of a situation? And as I said before, the problem is often that there’s a lack of information. Nobody knows. There’s been 20 years of -- 10 years of civil war, there are no water gauges, there are no records that are available. What is the record of water flows? Can we have a rational discussion about water resources? And I think part of the problem in many of these cases, we don’t have the data to have a rational, technical discussion, and because we can’t do that, the entire discussion has to be political. So here’s where the science and technology part comes in. How can we provide -- how can we use, science and technology to provide some of that ration -- that data for a rational, technical discussion, and diffuse the situation?

So first I want to talk about some things we can do with the things that NASA has, and one of them is something called MODIS, which is Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectro -- Spectroradiometer. What’s most important about it is that it has 35 spectral bands, so it’s visible in infrared and a lot of other things. It’s now being -- it’s been flown for 10 years on two separate satellites, but it has a resolution of 250 meters, which is awfully good. And here, for example -- this does not show up as well as I had hoped -- this is the eruption of Eyjafallajokull in -- it took me a half hour to learn how to pronounce that -- Eyjafallajokull in Iceland, and you can actually see, if the lighting were better, you could see how this plume is coming off. You can see the details of this plume coming off the island.

So you can easily get 250 meter resolution from a satellite that’s been up there for 10 years. Well, since it has many spectral bands, we can use this in a lot of different ways. One of the ways that we can do is look in the infrared, and we can tell what crops are healthy and what crops are not. So by using this kind of data, we can actually assess the state of drought or the health of the crops in different countries, and see how badly they’re being affected by the management of the water. There are ways of processing this data and using it to determine snow cover. And you can sort of see here -- it’s not -- does not show up, it’s got to show up better -- this is -- this is snow all up here. In this picture it would show up. There’s very little snow up here. This white is where there’s actually no snow in these two years. But you can actually get snow cover out of that. So you could make an assessment of how much water there was in the uplands of Svanistan, so you would know how much water might be coming down during the -- during the spring and summer.

There are also ways of processing the data from the MODIS instruments to estimate what areas are being affected by drought at any particular time. So we have more tools now that we can use to provide better data, and we have quite a bit of satellite data that we’ve accumulated. The other thing that we can use is a -- an interesting set of satellites. This is two satellites called GRACE, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment. It’s two satellites. They orbit together, 220 kilometers apart, and they very accurately measure the distance between the two satellites. And if you do lots, and lots, and lots of calculations, you can use that to measure very small changes in gravity at the surface of -- or at that point, between these two satellites. And here’s one example of how it can be used in order to assess groundwater. This is the Indian government’s assessment of the amount of groundwater -- or of the degree to which the groundwater is stressed in various parts of India, and not surprisingly, the Punjab and Rajasthan out here in the dry areas, is very, very severely stressed. The aquifer is being drawn down substantially. This is the -- this is India here, and this red bull’s-eye is the result of the satellite data. So with a satellite, we can actually analyze how badly the aquifers are being depleted on the ground. So this gives us another way of providing information that might be useful to have a rational discussion about water resources.

I had to show this slide just to give you an “Oh, gee!” moment or something. This is a GRACE data on the filling of the Three Gorges Dam, and on the depression of China. This area -- this is China, here -- this shows where the dam is located, and this is three years, 2000 -- well, a six-year period, 2003, 2009, so the level of darkness here is this measurement, .075. This is in millimeters. Three-quarters of a millimeter is how far China has been depressed by the filling of that dam, and it can be detected by these GRACE -- this GRACE satellite pair.

Okay, there’s a couple of other things that we can use using NASA. NASA has something called FEWS-NET, Famine Early Warning System. It operates in all the countries, in different ways in all the countries that are shown here. Very briefly, what NASA does is it takes ground temperature data which it can get from one satellite, takes water vapor in the atmosphere that it gets from another satellite, takes precipitation data that it gets from yet another satellite, and it uses all of that data, puts it together, and estimates what are the likelihood of a drought or a flood in any given area that it surveys. And this is the kind of map that NASA can put -- that they put out, that FEWS-NET puts out. This is West -- excuse me, East Africa, and they have a near-term and a long-term drought outlook, and they can predict what areas are going to be food secure for the next three months, and what areas are extremely food insecure during that period of time. Again, these are the kinds of information that would be very useful in trying to diffuse some of these issues.

And then there is something called SERVIR which is now operating in Central America, and will soon operate in Africa and Asia, and it involves precipitation, earthquakes, volcanic floods -- volcanic eruptions, and floods for the Central American area. This is South America, this is North America, this is all of Central America. All of this data is simply put out on the Web, and people can then download it. And I’m told that most weather reports in Central America now have weather forecasters who are standing in front of the products of the SERVIR system. So there’s lots of material that we can put out.

Okay, but I want to go beyond that, and talk about one other -- two other things. One is diffusing the situation with a little help from NGA. NGA is the National Geospatial Agency. They’re the ones that run the secret satellites -- that run the spy satellites. But before I talk about them, I need to talk about something called GeoEye. GeoEye is a satellite that was put up about a year or two ago. It’s a commercial satellite, has five spectral bands, and it has 40 centimeters resolution in the visible. This is 40 centimeters, okay. That’s what you can see from space with this -- with this satellite. It’s a commercial satellite. Anybody -- good guy, bad guy, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can go and buy this satellite, and it is -- it is not an NGA asset. It’s not secret; it doesn’t even belong to U.S. government.

This just gives you an idea of what one of these images look like. If the lights were better, you might be more impressed. This is, of course, the Coliseum, but you can see individual people here. If you look carefully, you can see, this is, I think, the Roman -- the guy in the Roman gladiator suit, who you take your picture with. But, I mean, you get a sense of what kind of resolution is available commercially now. Okay, 40 centimeters.

Here’s another picture. This is not as exciting as the Roman Coliseum. This is an airport in Kansas City. But I like this picture because, again, if the lights were a little -- well, even here, you can see -- you can see the moisture filling the run -- the cracks in the runway, okay. You can estimate -- over here you can see the width of the stripes -- this is a parking lot -- you can see the width of the stripes in the parking lot. It gives you an idea of the kinds of spatial resolution that we now have available.

Okay, that brings me to something called the MEDEA Program. The MEDEA Program is something that was started in the Clinton administration, actually, I think primarily by Al Gore who said, “Well, we’ve got all these satellites up there, and we have really, really high resolution imagery. Perhaps we could make degraded resolution imagery available to the climate community to look in -- to study climate change.” And the MEDEA Program went ahead and did that. They took imagery, they got specific requests from scientists, and they went ahead and they made some of that imagery available. This wonderful program was killed by the Bush administration, but has now been revived. And now that it’s been revived, we don’t need to worry about 240 meter resolution. We can actually go down to 1 meter resolution, because that’s what’s available commercially.

So, let me just show three ways that this program could be used. One would be to look at glacial melt. We all know about glaciers melting. From space is a wonderful way to study the glaciers that are melting, and the biggest problem that we have right now is understanding the melt of the Himalayan glaciers, and understanding how it has evolved over the last 20 or 30 years. Well, if we just happened to have pictures from satellites from this part of the world over the last 20 or 30 years, we might actually be able to, through the MEDEA Program, get pictures with a 1 meter resolution, which could then be used to understand how the Himalayan glaciers are melting, which is a very complicated issue, and needs to be studied in great detail. So that’s one possibility.

A second is to look at river flows. The typical way you measure a river flow is you stick a post into the ground, and you mark the height of the river, and you go out and you read the height of the river, and you have something called a rating curve, because it turns out that the height of the water is related to the discharge of the river. So the more water in the river, the higher it’s going to be. That’s just the way it is. So if you have a discharge curve, you can tell how high the -- how much water is flowing from the height of the water on that -- on that mark that you have. Well, what I’m proposing here is that instead of using the height, which is hard to measure, you might use those photographs, use those images -- that imagery to measure the width of the river. And then, if you know the topographic profile of the river, you can -- you can use the width of the river to calculate the height of the water, and then if you have the discharge curve you can calculate the flow. So that means we could actually go back on the Amu Darya, and on the Indus, and on all these other rivers, and calculate perhaps 20 to 40 years of river flow data, which would be an enormous aid to all of this.

And then, one final example is groundwater assessment. There’s a -- something called InSAR, which can be -- which is a radar technique that can be used, again, to look at the breathing of the ground as water goes in and out of the ground. This is San Francisco Bay, this is the Santa Clara Basin, this is the change in the elevation in centimeters -- excuse me, in millimeters -- initially as the rainy season starts, it starts to soak up water like a sponge, and it starts to pop up a little bit. As more water comes in, it gets higher and higher, and then when we go into the summer a year later, it’s back down. So, we can use from space -- we can actually look at these groundwater aquifers and watch them fill and empty, and we can use this data to provide more information about what the aquifers are doing, and what they have done in the past.

And then, one other quick thing, and that is, what do we do with all of this information? There’s the International Court of Justice, but they only get involved when there’s a treaty, and people are assuming there’s a violation of a treaty, and it’s a long, complicated process. And what I would like to propose people think about is some kind of an International Board of Water Arbitration, which would consist of legal experts, water law experts, and technical experts, namely the kinds of people who could collect, analyze, and interpret the data that we could get from some of these other resources, and then make some decisions, recommendations, or even binding arbitration about how to deal with some of these trans-boundary issues.

So just to end with a quote from Mark Twain, he said that, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” And perhaps, by bringing some rational data -- some data into the discussion, we might have a rational dialogue, and reduce the size of the fight in some of the dogs that are facing off about some of these issues. And that’s it. Thank you.


Female Speaker:

This is an issue that’s been of interest to me for some time, and that’s been sort of the intersection of water climate and agriculture. And you mentioned all three in your presentation. And at the end you talked about the establishment of an International Board of Water Arbitration, which sounds fascinating to me. But the question that I have for you is, if you are an expert in water, but you don’t sort of address these other issues in the context of finding a solution, then, you know, how can your solution ultimately work over a long period of time? I mean, don’t you have to take these other things into account?

Kenneth Verosub:

Absolutely. There just isn’t time in a talk like this to go into some of these issues. I think there are specific questions about water that can be addressed somewhat narrowly, but -- and resolving some of them would certainly be progress. But overall, these are all interconnected, and I couldn’t agree with you more that they have to be looked at together. And in fact, in the case of what we need to do in Pakistan, I think that’s a good example of looking at these as a -- you need a systems approach to this. These are complex systems. And one of the things that has disturbed me the most about -- in my eight months here so far -- is that often, people are looking through very narrow lenses or very confined lenses at some of these problems. And they have a solution for agriculture, but you look at it a little more widely, and yes, but it requires more energy than this country can produce. Or they have a solution for energy, but it’s going to wipe out the fish population. So I agree completely. And, I mean, if I can throw something back, I don’t see enough people who take that sort of systems approach to solving these problems.

Cindy Lakovy:

I’m Cindy Lakovy, and I work for IIP. I’m wondering -- there’s some very exciting developments in solar technology. They’re having spray-on solar cells that take advantage of the -- not only of the visible light, but the ultraviolet light of the sun, that can get power even through clouds; it’s very exciting. If you could take out the power implications from dams, if no dams were needed for energy production, how would that change the landscape?

Kenneth Verosub:

I’m not convinced that solar will do it, but if it does -- I’ll accept that as a possibility -- if solar would take out the energy issue, it would help some of these things. But as the previous question addressed, climate change and agriculture are intimately bound up in all of these issues. So, while some disputes would be, maybe, easier to resolve, I think the fundamental disputes over water -- most of them would still remain. Now, of course, many of these dams are multi-purpose. So they would say, “Well, we’ll still build a dam.” Okay? Yes, sir?

Male Speaker:

I -- this is a, kind of a dark question, but I think we have to think about it. You said so far there haven’t been any wars over water, so far. Where do you predict the first war will be in this regard? Thank you.

Kenneth Verosub:

Can I take the Fifth on this? [laughs] Is this a forum where I can take the Fifth Amendment? I don’t know, and I really can’t predict. And so far, this -- the interesting point is that, so far, countries have almost -- have gone to the brink, and then backed off. And that’s -- maybe that’s encouraging. And the question is, have the dynamics changed so that one of these situations will not? Also, the water is only part of the discussion in many cases. I mean, there are other animosities that are going on behind it, and on the one hand, I can say, well, no two countries have ever actually gone to war over water, but there are -- and I can’t give you an example, but I’m sure there are conflicts -- well, some of the conflicts between India and Pakistan that have actually gotten to the point of shooting, water was in the discussion. And I can’t say, well, it was only because of water. It becomes part of the rhetoric. And I guess the question I worry about is, what happens when a country really feels it’s being pushed to the brink in terms of water scarcity? And the only solution for it is to do something about the people who are stealing its water. And that’s -- that’s part of the problem. I don’t have an answer. Another question?

Male Speaker:


Kenneth Verosub:

Yes, sir.

Male Speaker:

And that would be, before we go to preach abroad, maybe we should get the Colorado River Basin under control. So, this is a two part --

Kenneth Verosub:


Male Speaker:

-- and that is, do you see a prospect for greater cooperation for that significant discovery because we did a historical account, and we’re two million acre feet over on the annual allocation, and using the instrumentation and so forth, build a very fine case study where the United States got it together, and having that case study, use that with our best allies to work toward your very noble idea for a water commission? The second part of the question is which countries today are most concerned, as we are, about water being a flashpoint for the future, and therefore, our best allies in this proposition?

Kenneth Verosub:

Well, as far as the first point goes, I think we’re getting there with the Colorado River. About four or five years ago, the biggest water hog in the United States, my own state of California, was forced to back off. We were actually taking more than our enormous allotment of water from the Colorado River, and Secretary of the Interior basically went to war with the governor, and said, “We’re going to cut off a lot of things -- including your knees -- if you don’t back off.” And that led to very, very complicated negotiations, because the water balance in California is very, very delicate. But ultimately, a compromise was reached to reduce the amount of water that California takes from the Colorado River to something like their real allotment. I think the realization that these numbers -- what the real numbers are on the Colorado -- is leading people to more and more discussions. There is the infrastructure that we have in place, but I think new uses of the Colorado are going to be controlled by more of a reality. I mean, people just have to deal with the fact that it’s 14.4 or less. And people are concerned about that. I think that’s pretty reasonable. I mean, I think it’s reasonable -- it’s fair to say that people are concerned about how you manage these resources better.

And part of the reason that there was funding for these kinds of studies, part of the reason we have a 1,000 year record of water flow in the Colorado River Basin, is that people realize that we couldn’t have a discussion about this unless we really knew what these numbers looked like. So, that kind of research has gone forward, and there are people who are very strongly committed to this kind of work. So I think that’s a positive start.

I think the countries -- some of the countries I’ve talked about are some of the ones that we’re -- I mean, I talked about some of the most likely flashpoints. Engaging those countries and getting them to be our allies, [unintelligible] is difficult, and the tricky part -- the tricky part is, you don’t want to engage one side and not the other. So, in a sense, you -- you have to say this is what we’ve done, and then sort of sit there quietly, and hope that something like the Nile Basin Initiative, or the Mekong River Commission, or somebody finally gets to the point where all of those countries together will come to us and say, “We’d like your help in this.” But if we march in, and we start feeding all this data to Country A, or to Svanistan, you know, the Sevonians are going to get very mad about it, and we’re not going to be able to use -- we’re not going to be able to be very effective. So that’s part of the -- part of the problem. Oh, sorry.

Sharri Clark:

Go ahead. Hi, I’m Sharri Clark, and I work in the office for the Coordinator for Counterterrorism right now, and I’m also a AAAS Fellow, so I work a lot on critical infrastructure protection now, but my background is actually archaeology. And I did my dissertation work in Pakistan in the Punjab at a site called Harappa, which was a 150-hectare site. And I just wanted to mention that water is such an important part of, not only the modern picture, but the ancient picture for us, and, you know, the connections between those two. So I was thinking as you were talking about the extreme irrigation situation in that part of Pakistan at least, and I don’t know specifically about India, but has created problems for us as archaeologists, for example, and the over-irrigation has caused an extreme salt problem. So the water is extremely mineral-laden; it’s very difficult to drink. Even Pakistanis from [unintelligible] part of the country get sick when they drink the water when they come and work with us there. We have to boil it, so forth. But for us as archaeologists, the other implication is anything we dig up, we have to desalinate, because everything is full of salt. And when it dries, the salt crystals cause the artifacts to explode, basically. Same thing with architecture and so forth.

So if you also translate this problem to other parts of the societies, such as Mohenjo-daro, which is a World Heritage Site, they have the same kind of problem, even though it’s a different part of the country. All of these sites are along rivers, or the most -- the major sites are along rivers. So in Mohenjo-daro, for example, UNESCO has spent tons of money trying to solve this problem there, as well. Everything from planting trees that are supposed to draw the salt out of the ground, and that sort of thing. And I won’t go on and on about this, I was just commenting, because this is so connected. The whole idea about what was the Indus civilization and what happened to it is tied to water. Did the rivers dry up, and that’s why everything ended? Identity issues between India and Pakistan are tied to this. Was the ancient so-called Sarasvati the actual center of the civilization, so therefore, are the Indians able to lay claim to this Bronze Age civilization as their great -- as their past? So, anyway --

Kenneth Verosub:


Sharri Clark:

-- I -- I don’t really have a question. I’m sorry to go on and on, I just -- I’m really struck by the importance of this. And studying the ancient water systems as well can possibly solve a lot of these problems, and have a lot of modern implications. Thank you.

Kenneth Verosub:

The salvation of the water is -- of the groundwater is one of the things that wound up on the cutting room floor last night, as is the arsenic problem. In the Punjab, there is an arsenic problem. I’ll have you talk to somebody afterward about that, a little bit. And as far as the archaeology, I consider myself kind of an armchair archaeologist, so if people want a 20-minute lecture on -- on the karez system in Qanat, I can do that, too, because that’s how they used to supply -- they had an absolutely ingenious way of providing water that I’m getting to, but -- but yeah, there’s a lot in there. And all these, you know, they -- a lot -- all these cultures have been dealing with water for -- many of them have been dealing with -- with water scarcity for a long time. Sorry, go ahead.

Janice Berman:

My name is Janice Berman. I work with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. I just maybe want to be provocative and throw out the -- the caveat that many of the world’s women fight their own personal water wars every day, and the idea that, as you mentioned, the quality of the water, the quantity of the water for drinking purposes is probably where we as State Department people can have the most impact in a development sense, of helping the micro-level get it right so that the geopolitical can follow, because it’s just a personal struggle every day to find enough clean water, and access to water, and I think that’s a war that we can help end.

Kenneth Verosub:

Yes. I agree completely, and I was one of those involved in writing the briefing notes for the secretary on women -- on water and -- and gender. And so I am aware of those, again. There’s not enough time to cover everything, so. Anyway, I think that’s it.

[low audio]

Kenneth Verosub:

Okay, thank you all very much.


[end of transcript]

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