Seeds of Opportunity: Water
Radio Canada International
Eddy Hawkins

Climate change may benefit Finland, as water becomes a valuable commodity.

Climate change is nearly always discussed as a problem to be alleviated and a threat to be feared. There is no denying, that if climate trends continue, many countries in the world will be thirsting for water. Finland, however, will have more precipitation. More water to use – not less. It will also be warmer and no longer hedged off by a wall of ice. Is it possible for Finland that climate change also contains the seeds of new opportunities?

According to some forecasts, by 2050 as many as seven billion people will be in danger of suffering from a shortage of water. Not only essential for drinking, it is required in food and energy production, transportation, leisure and a healthy natural environment.

In southern Europe, climate change is projected to severely reduce water availability, hydropower potential, and crop productivity. Some areas around the Mediterranean may turn to desert. Central and Eastern Europe is likely to face increasingly higher water stress and the serious consequences that will have on their economies and their populations.

The scenario for the North is quite different.

Water – Finland’s New “Blue Gold”?

With population growth and economic development accelerating the demand for water, its value is becoming increasingly clear. In some ways, it could replace oil as the most sought-after natural resource.

Some countries have more than enough already. Finland has fresh water, and lots of it. It has been calculated that only a bit more than 2% of the country’s annual water reserves are actually used today. In future, there will be even more. Annual precipitation in Finland is expected to rise by 15–25% by the 2080s.

All that water could be a crucial factor in not just surviving climate change, but gaining from it, although the benefits are probably not as straightforward as they might seem at first glance.

“For Finland to become a significant source of water exports would be complex,” says Professor Seppo Rekolainen, Director of the Fresh Water Centre of Finland’s Environmental Administration. “Shipping water in the quantities that will be needed, where it will be needed, would be difficult and expensive. The other solution would be that people move here to where the water is.”.

Water is not a commodity in the same sense as oil. It is an element in a natural cycle that is unpredictable and thus problematic as the basis of a new economic direction.

“What makes water more complex than oil is security,” Professor Rekolainen points out. “If we speak of energy security, then we are only talking about whether or not we have a sufficient supply. However, with water, it is also a question of whether it causes damage through droughts or floods. Water is far more complex and much more difficult to manage than oil.”

Instead of exporting water, the way petroleum producing nations ship oil around the world, Finland could find opportunities knocking on the door. The new “blue gold” of lakes and rivers may become as crucial to success as the “green gold” of its forests in the 20th century.

“In a global market system, industries and investors go wherever they can make a profit, and if a certain resource is essential, they will seek it out. At the moment, it is cheap labour, but the situation could well change in the long term. One day, that key factor could be a plentiful supply of fresh water,” notes Rekolainen.

Finnish Expertise in an Open Arctic

The effects of climate change are happening, by some estimates, twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere in the world. A melting Arctic Sea could soon open up new resources and commercial possibilities for the countries along its rim. This could well be true for Finland, too, even though it doesn’t have an Arctic Sea coast.

A melting Arctic Sea could soon offer viable shipping routes. The ice is melting at such a pace that the first trans-Arctic shipping lanes could be a reality in just a few years. For example, in 2009 the ice had retreated to such an extent that two German ships were able to navigate Russia’s North-East Passage.

Some futurists now are promoting a vision of Finland as the major transport hub linking Europe, Asia and North America across the top of the world. The logistics business is listening, as is the government.

In November 2009 the government commissioned a report to clarify Finland’s goals in the melting Arctic region. The Finnish Parliament has since required that guidelines concerning Finland’s policy for the Arctic region be drawn up. In mid-February, the Prime Minister’s Office appointed a working group to prepare a report for submission during the spring 2010 session.

Even though summer ice in the North Pole has decreased by 40 per cent in the past decade, Lotta Numminen, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, counsels patience. The author of the report “Key Questions in the Melting Arctic”, she agrees that a more ice-free North will present new opportunities, but exploiting them will require time and effort.

“It is very important to be aware that this development will take years. It will be decades still before the ice melts,” says Numminen. “There are infrastructure issues. There is the cold and the winter darkness. All these have to be overcome. It is great that ideas are brought up and discussed, but one has to be realistic about them.”

Asked for an estimate of the time frame for the big changes that will open the door to trans-Arctic shipping, her reply is “sometime during this century”.

In the foreground of her own snapshot of the future in the region is the potential for Finland to sell the environmental and Arctic know-how it already has available.

“We should explore the opportunities for Finland’s traditional expertise in areas such as ice-breakers. We also have great opportunities in the so-called green technologies including oil spill clean-ups, and so on, that can be further developed. These are the types of things we should look closer at right now.”