Could international water trade help ease the growing refugee crisis?

The uneven distribution of freshwater around the globe is increasingly obvious as our climate changes. More than a few corners of the world have experienced severe drought in just the last few years. In Ethiopia, 50 years of drought has resulted in a famine affecting 18 million people. Chronic water shortage has led to the political implosion of Yemen. Witness to the rapid depletion of Saudi Arabia’s groundwater, King Abdullah declared the country will cease production of wheat and other water-intensive crops starting this year.


With refugee crises already overwhelming European nations and catalyzing political fear-mongering in the United States and Britain, water refugees are unlikely to be welcomed by water-rich countries. Already many seeking relief from drought-induced famine have been forced into overcrowded refugee camps with limited resources. In fact, developing countries host around 86% of the world’s refugees including both internally displaced peoples and those fleeing conflicts thousands of miles away. 680,000 people live in Ethiopia’s refugee camps alone.

The migration of people in search of better living conditions is a series of dead ends for most and the situation will continue deteriorate over the next decade.

If only there were a way to transport water from water-rich regions to those in drought.

The complexity of this problem is overwhelming. Both a question of engineering and politics, even if one nation agrees to sell another their water resources, water is heavy and dense and, well, water; it’s not exactly conducive to long distance travel. And then there’s the concern from water-rich nations that once a market for water trade is created, it will be virtually impossible to turn off the tap, leaving source nations more vulnerable to the future drought or groundwater depletion.

The tiny African nation of Lesotho is currently stuck in exactly this situation. In 1998 the first phase of a water trade agreement between Lesotho and South Africa was completed, ushering water from the highland Katse Dam 45 kilometers over the border to Johannesburg. Today, Lesotho is crippled by drought. Crops and livestock are dying but the country’s population can’t touch the water they do have; it belongs to South Africa*.

While some countries, like Canada which possesses 7% of the world’s freshwater, are vehemently opposed to the inclusion of water in international free trade agreements, others place water’s monetary value over its value as a basic human right. After being shelved for thirty years, the Russian government, for example, is now reconsidering a Soviet-era proposal to transfer water from the Ob River to the Aral Sea basin shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Entrepreneurs are also doing their fair share of water transfer scheming.

In the early 1970s, Resources Development Ltd. in New Zealand nearly completed the country’s first commercial water export, loading tankers with water headed to Bahrain. When a labor dispute delayed the shipment at the last minute, the customer in Bahrain summarily cancelled the order sending Resources Development into dire financial straits. Now on the third iteration of a water export scheme, today called Southland Water Company, owner John Fletcher is still trying to convince local officials to allow the business to move forward.

In the U.S., S2C Global devised a plan to establish “water hubs” in the Arabian Sea, the East China Sea and the Caribbean Sea to facilitate the export of water from Sitka, Alaska to countries in need. Their first expected shipment – Sitka to the west coast of India – was scheduled for the end of 2010. For those paying attention, S2C Global caused an uproar. Strangely, after announcing their 2010 delivery date, the company seems to have almost entirely disappeared with the exception of an “Initial Information Disclosure” released publicly in May 2013 mentioning “significant financial challenges facing the Company.” Perhaps transporting freshwater across the world was not as straightforward as S2C Global expected?


The sum of all successful water transfer projects up to this point is, as they say, a drop in the bucket for water security and widespread access. However, it’s likely that fledgling projects like those in New Zealand and Alaska are only the beginning of international water trade. Already barges and small tankers travel short distances to deliver water to islands with limited freshwater access and we will undoubtedly see new technological innovations that will facilitate the transfer of water from one region to another (like “water bags,” large sealed bags that can carry up to 4.5 million gallons towed behind a ship).

Despite current environmental, political and economic concerns, the real deciding factor when it comes to the international water trade is likely to be the continued displacement of communities facing malnourishment and conflict sparked by drought. Providing these regions with access to freshwater may mean the difference between global security and an insurmountable world refugee crisis.

*Episode 706: Water’s Worth of The Planet Money podcast is a fascinating investigation of the Lesotho – South Africa water trade agreement.



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