Unreliable water is a significant social risk.

Toxic foam flows from Bellandur Lake near Bengaluru, India, in this file photo from 2017. While its surface water is contaminated, groundwater scarcity has prompted public officials to warn about a “Day Zero” scenario when the city could run dry. Photo © J. Carl Ganter/Circle of Blue

By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue – March 22, 2024

Another World Water Day, another batch of water crises.

Residents of Bengaluru, India’s tech capital, are queuing for water as the city’s reservoirs decline and wells go dry. Experts foresaw the risk years ago as the 13-million person metropolis expanded rapidly, paving wetlands and putting its water security in jeopardy.

In South Africa, meanwhile, residents of the country’s largest city are also bereft of reliable water. Intermittent outages, which frequently plague Johannesburg and its neighbors, became more pronounced in recent weeks, hitting hospitals, homes, and businesses.

By chance, these big-city miseries coincide with World Water Day, an annual UN-sponsored, awareness-raising event when water, and all its connections, has a spotlight. The theme this year: Water for Peace.

Situations like those in Bengaluru and Johannesburg are certainly outliers. Water flows freely in most wealthier cities. But they are by no means unique. Cape Town, Mexico City, and Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay – each has seen a precipitous drop in water supplies in recent years that required an equally extreme civic response. Cape Town restricted daily water use to 50 liters (13 gallons) per person. Montevideo supplemented its drinking water reserves with brackish water that exceeded international health standards for salt.

Together, these urban crises point to a larger problem, one hinted at by the World Water Day theme this year: mismanagement, underinvestment, extreme weather, and war are destabilizing water systems and generating the conditions for conflict and violence.

“Dwindling supplies can increase competition and inflame tensions between people, communities, and countries,” António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general, said in a written statement. “That is increasing the risk of conflict.”

The word rival comes from rivus, Latin for river. Those who shared a stream were rivalia, or rivals. The conceptual jump to its English coinage is easy to understand. Different users of a river, different ideas about how it should be used.

Conflict, in this form, is inherent for water. As with any resource, people have always had competing ideas for water. Water creates economies, sustains life. It is a source of power and wealth. Constrain it, and the pressure rises. When one’s welfare is at stake, the world becomes smaller.

It’s not just actual water deficits that are a problem. The perception of scarcity is also an obstacle. Some of the world’s largest businesses – tech companies, mining firms, beverage makers – have had their social license to operate called into question because of concerns about water use. A Google data center in Oregon, a Tesla factory in Berlin, gold mines in Peru.

Local mismanagement is tolerable only to a point. In Johannesburg and other cities in South Africa’s Gauteng province, the recent water crises are pushing residents closer to the line.

“Gauteng citizens use too much, the cities waste way too much and there is too much theft of drinking water,” writes Craig Sheridan of the University of the Witwatersrand. “The social pact is breaking down as a consequence.”

What does that breakdown look like? Sheridan points to a burst of civic activism to restore reliable water and promote government accountability. A productive outlet, in other words, for resolving the conflicts inherent to water.