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25 Jun, 2009 06:46

Water trading on the horizon?

With the world's fresh water supplies drying up, many countries consider importing it. Russia holds the second largest amount of drinking water and may soon tap into its reserves, potentially making billions of dollars.

What once seemed one of the most readily available resources, water could soon cost just as much as oil. Less than 2% of the world's water is suitable for drinking, and reserves are decreasing all the time. A decade ago only ecologists were beating the alarm. Now, many countries face the prospect of buying water from abroad.

“The situation with fresh water will only deteriorate. In Africa, there’s no way more water will appear, but the demand is growing. In Europe, all the water is being used up by industry. Russia doesn’t face such problems. We only consume 1.5% of our fresh water reserves,” says Nikolay Osokin from the Russian Academy Of Science.

Russia possesses the world's second largest fresh water reserves after Brazil, but the country is not evenly populated. Most people live in the European part, which only holds 8% of the country's water, while the scant population of Siberia has access to 80% of the country’s reserves.

Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia, which is almost the size of Switzerland, can alone quench the thirst of one fifth of the world's population. It is also growing in size – by some 2 centimeters per year. Latest research reveals that it is, in fact, self-cleaning. Organisms living in Baikal can even digest oil spills.

Currently, almost 1.5 billion people on our planet do not have access to fresh drinking water. Lake Baikal is one of the few places on Earth where you can still enjoy the luxury of drinking straight from the lake. Tourists coming to see Baikal from all over the world are totally besotted by images of people drinking water from Baikal. Some even suggest that Russia should share its reserves with countries which are facing a dreadful shortage of fresh water supplies.

Russia doesn't mind selling either – the potential market of clean drinking water is estimated at over $400 billion. A special federal committee to handle the issue has been formed.

“Currently we’re only selling oil and gas. We don’t have a water market yet, but we're working on it. But we'll have to do it so that exports don't affect prices back home,” says Svetlana Orlova, Deputy Head of the Federation Council.

When it comes to the ecological aspect, things aren't as rosy. Environmentalists say water should never be a trading commodity.

“That's definitely an incorrect approach which cannot be taken. Water is a basic thing of our life and it's similar to air. We must not pay for having access to water,” says Ivan Blokov from Greenpeace Russia.

The same was said about crude oil and gas, when it seemed that humanity had them in abundance. It took several centuries before black gold became a sought-after import. The same could happen to water, and one day it may be barreled, not bottled.