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Water is running out: How inevitable are international conflicts?

[Eritrea] Water shortages are a perennial problem in many parts of Eritrea. This man from the Afar tribe is collecting water near Idi, in Southern Red Sea zoba. However, this limited amount and poor quality of drinking water is severely affecting the heal Eddy Posthuma de Boer/International Federation
"The world is running out of water”. Many countries have been declared to be in a state of water-stress or water-scarcity, and some experts believe that in the future wars will be fought over water not oil
The world’s population is growing and water consumption is increasing, but water resources are decreasing. “The world is running out of water,” stated Tony Clarke and Maude Barlow, activists and experts on water issues, in their article ‘Water Wars’, published by the Polaris Institute in 2003. They said that by 2025, world population would increase to 2.6 billion more than the present day and water demands would exceed availability by 56 percent. People will live in water-scarcity areas, and disputes over resources are inevitable.

There are currently 263 rivers and countless aquifers that either cross or demarcate international political boundaries, according to the Atlas of International Freshwater Agreement, and 90 percent of countries in the world must share these water basins with at least one or two other states.

The Global Policy Forum, a United States-based nonprofit organisation with consultative status at the United Nations, uses the term ‘water-stress’ to describe situations in which each person in a country has access to less than 1,500 cubic meters of water each year. The term ‘water scarcity’ refers to situations in which each person in a country has access to less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per year. It is estimated that two-thirds of the world’s population will live in areas of acute water stress or water scarcity by 2025.

Nowadays, tensions and disputes between countries are rising due to increasing problems of water scarcity, rapid population growth, degradation in water quality and uneven economic growth. “If current trends continue, we could be faced with a very grave situation,” said former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, who is now president of the Green Cross International, an organisation that provides analysis and expertise in environmental and economic issues.

The issue of water and the sharing of water has always been a key concern in the Middle East. Across watersheds of Jordan to the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the potential for strife today is even higher than before, as the regions are running out of water as political insecurities increase. Since 1950, approximately 80 percent of all violent disputes over water resources globally have occurred in the Middle East. According to Aaron Wolf of the Transboundry Freshwater Dispute Database at Oregon University in the US, people living in the region for generations have taken for granted the availability of water. Only recently have they started to realise the shortage of this vital resource. He warned that this diminishing supply could further weaken the fragile relationships between nations, between economic sectors and between individuals and their environment in the region.

Armed conflict between Israel and Palestine over the Jordan River has been going on for more than 50 years, and it is getting worse. This sacred river for Christians, Muslims and Jews is now facing a serious problem, as it carries not only less water each year but the water itself is increasingly unclean. An Israeli ‘kibbutznik’ said, “It’s hard to believe now, but we used to actually drink the water and go swimming with the children without worrying.” Friends of Earth Israeli director Gidon Bromberg said the Israeli government needs to act immediately to solve the problem of the Jordan River. “The river’s ecosystem has been so badly compromised that the damage may be irreversible,” he said.

The world’s population is increasing and becoming more urbanized. However water resources are decreasing. By 2025 the world’s population will grow by a further 2.6 billion, and water demand will exceed availability by 56 percent. Two-thirds of the wor
Photo: Munich Re
The world’s population is increasing and becoming more urbanized. However water resources are decreasing. By 2025 the world’s population will grow by a further 2.6 billion, and water demand will exceed availability by 56 percent. Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in an area of acute water scarcity
In Southeast Asia, the nations of Bangladesh, India and Nepal dispute the best uses of water from the Ganges-Brahmaputra Basin. Tensions and disagreements over water are also erupting along the Mekong River in Indochina as well as around the Aral Sea in Eastern Europe. There have been longstanding disputes between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt over the Nile River: The vast majority of the river’s flows are used by Egypt, even though it originates in Ethiopia. “We generate about 85 percent of the total Nile waters,” said Misfinta Genny, Ethiopia’s deputy minister of water. “We have not utilised this resource at all so far. […] We must develop these resources, basically for the benefit of our people.” Egypt’s main concern is that Ethiopia would deplete the water supply before it reached Egypt, with serious implications for agriculture and small industries along the banks of the Nile. Competition for water is also on the rise within countries.

Increasingly, experts have cautioned that if certain countries do not improve water management and cooperation in the future, water wars are inevitable. Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali threatened that, “The next war among countries will not be for oil or territorial borders, but only for the problem of water.”

Background on international water

Globally, there are some 263 river basins that span across international borders. Europe has the greatest number of international basins (67), followed by Africa (59), Asia (57), North America (40) and South America (38). These international river basins cover almost one-half of the earth’s land surface and are also home to approximately 40 percent of the world’s population. These rivers generate 60 percent of freshwater flows around the globe.

Most of these basins cross two or more political borders. The Danube, for instance, has 17 riparian states. The Congo, Nile, Niger and Rhine are all located in nine different countries. The Amazon, the Mekong River, the Euphrates, the Tigris, the Aral Sea, the Ganges, the Jordan, and La Plata in South America are situated in or flow through at least five sovereign states. The third international World Water Forum in Kyotoa, Japan, in 2003 emphasised the critical and urgent need of water management and cooperation between riparian states in order to preserve water supply and prevent disputes. Gorbachev, representing Green Cross International, stated, “Water management can only be effective based on the basin approach. All countries involved – the entire basin - have to be considered together.”

Photo: Tom Spender/IRIN
Since 1950, 80 percent of all violent and armed conflicts over water resources have occurred in the Middle East
Basis of conflict

According to the World Water Organization, a humanitarian network based in Montreal, Canada, there is a lengthy history of conflicts and tensions over water resources. The Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security began a project in the 1980s to trace all incidents and tensions originating from water issues. Water-related conflicts are chronologically presented from 3000 BC until the present day. The different categories and types of conflict based on the severity of the event include:

• Control of water resources (state and nonstate actors): where water supplies or access to water is at the root of tensions;
• Military tool (state actors): where water resources or water systems themselves are used by a nation or a state as a weapon during a military action;
• Political tool (state and nonstate actors): where water resources or water systems themselves are used by a nation, state, or nonstate actor for a political goal;
• Terrorism (nonstate actors): where water resources or water systems are either targets or tools of violence or coercion by nonstate actors;
• Military target (state actors): where water resources or systems are targets of military actions by nations or states;
• Development disputes (state and nonstate actors): where water resources or can be caused by using water as military tool, water systems are a major source of contention and dispute in the context of economic and social development.

Water resources are crucial for domestic, industrial, agricultural, and environmental use. By controlling water resources, a country has the ability to control the economy and population. For instance, upstream regions or countries enjoy the benefit of using water flows firsthand, while downstream areas might receive lesser amounts of many watersheds across state borders. Cooperation between riparian states can be highly problematic.

Industrial development or the expansion of agriculture can also cause water conflicts when the excessive use of water by one state affects the water supply of another. In India and China in particular, the massive and unregulated use of private pumps is depleting underground aquifers at unsustainable and unprecedented rates.

Urbanisation has also disproportionately increased the demand for water for urban populations, when it is arguably their rural counterparts, with farms and livestock, who need more water. The problem of uneven water distribution and the deterioration in water quality due to pollution and chemical contamination all contribute to the emergence of tensions and conflicts both within and between states.

Water and civil conflict

Photo: Hugo Rami/IRIN
As water resources are decreasing, intra-national and international conflicts over water may be inevitable. In Sri Lanka for example, in late July 2006, one local newspaper headline stated: “Water War Has Begun!”
On 6 July 2000, thousands of farmers in the Yellow River basin in China clashed with police over a government plan to relocate excess water from a local reservoir to cities and industries. The farmers had been expecting to use the reservoir to irrigate their crops following a bad drought that dried up the usual river flows that fed their fields. The incident took place downstream in Shandong, the last province the Yellow River runs through before reaching the sea. China's Yellow River has run dry before reaching the sea several times since 1972. The longest record, for 226 days, was recorded in 1997.

In the same year, water disputes also occurred between northern and southern provinces in Thailand, where the water level of the Chao Phraya River had markedly decreased. Tensions have also simmered for years in the downstream areas of the Indus River, where Pakistan's Punjab and Sind provinces fight over water use. In April 2001, desperate demonstrators shouting, "Give us water!" clashed violently with police in Karachi.

Typically, tensions erupt into violent conflict when access to resources is tightened due to exceptional factors such as drought. In southern India in 2002, clashes broke out between two southern Indian states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, over access to the Chauvery River, which flows from Karnataka to Tamil Nandu. Karnataka accused Tamil Nandu of wasting water and greedily expanding its irrigated land. Tamil Nandu said its neighbour had forgotten the principle of sharing and suggested the farmers there concentrate on crops other than rice. Farmers and local youths blocked roads with burning tyres and shouted slogans against Tamil Nandu. When the Indian Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release more water from its dams, public anger in Karnataka worsened. Similar water-related violence occurred in 1991 in Bangalore, where 25 people died.

In Kenya in January 2005, thousands of people fled their homes due to clashes over water in Kenya’s Rift Valley, northwest of the capital, Nairobi. Youths from the Maasai and Kikuyu communities fought using machetes, spears, bows and arrows and clubs. At least 15 people were killed.

In late July 2006, a headline from one newspaper in Sri Lanka shouted, “Water War Has Begun!” Violent conflicts were reported between the government armies and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam . The government accused the rebels of shutting the Maavilaru sluice gate in northeast Sri Lanka. The Tigers defended themselves by saying they had closed the gate in protest over government delays in improving the water system in the region. This conflict affected 50,000 people, who have limited alternative drinking- water supplies and no access to water to irrigate their farms as a result of the closure.

Another critical concern for southern Sri Lanka is a lack of sufficient groundwater. The Maavilaru waterway is the region’s main water supplier, but because it has been blocked, the area has become more vulnerable. It is reported that tractors have been used to transport water to the region. The conflict has directly affected farmers, who for five of the last six seasons have had difficult times, experiencing water shortages, low prices for rice and high costs of fuel, labours and pesticide. Only a few have made any profit and surplus. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka’s head secretary for peace, told Reuters, “Water is critical to human existence. Our objective is to secure the water, and we will get it [back]”.

Sri Lanka government has stated that the Tamil Tigers have breached the laws of war by blocking the water supply. These events are the latest in hostilities between the government and the Tamil Tigers rebels that have led to the deaths of at least 800 people this year and more than 85,000 people since 1983.

Water expert Aaron T. Wolf stated that by 2015, nearly 3 billion people, or 40 percent of the expected world population, will be living in countries that have difficulty mobilising enough water to meet their industrial and domestic needs. Competition for water between cities and farms, between neighbouring states and provinces, will be intense. Tensions at the regional or intra-national level can eventually intrigue conflict across borders. As water quantity decreases every year and water quality worsens in many parts of the world, national, regional and international stability are at stake. Internal water stresses will also shift international political alliances and create more humanitarian crises.

The Nile River, Uganda. The Nile River has become the source of dispute between Egypt and the 10 other countries who share its basin. According to the Nile colonial treaty of 1929, any country south of Egypt needs Egypt’s approval to use the river for i
Photo: Manoocher Deghati/IRIN
The Nile River, Uganda. The Nile River has become the source of dispute between Egypt and the 10 other countries who share its basin. According to the Nile colonial treaty of 1929, any country south of Egypt needs Egypt’s approval to use the river for irrigation or hydropower purposes
Water and international conflict

Increasingly, politicians and experts in water-related issues believe that nations will go to war over water and not oil in the twenty-first century. It is calculated that at least 90 percent of water resources are situated under several sovereign nations.

Riparian states have natural advantages or disadvantages. Downstream states face potentially nightmare situations of having little if any control over the quantity of water flowing into their land. The vulnerability of states further away from the source of any river is naturally increased. Egypt and the Nile basin illustrate the problems this can cause. Egypt lives in fear of its upstream neighbour, Sudan, in terms of water consumption. This example is discussed in detail later in this essay.

In a similar case, Turkey, which profits from the headwaters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, has developed 19 hydroelectric power stations and 22 dams as part of their Southeastern Anatolia Project, which is commonly known by its Turkish acronym GAP. The project is intended to increase the quantity of irrigated water available to Turkish farmers. A side effect, however, is that downstream Iraq and Syria have seen a decline of approximately 50 percent of water from both rivers since the 1990s - and the project is still four years from its planned completion date in 2010. Syria obtains around 80 percent of its water supply from these rivers, while Iraq is 100 percent dependent.

In February 1992, at the opening of the Ataturk Dam, Turkey’s former President Suleyman Demirel said, “Neither Syria nor Iraq can lay claim to Turkey's rivers any more than Ankara could claim their oil. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have a right to do anything we like. The water resources are Turkey's; the oil resources are theirs. We don't say we share their oil resources, and they can't say they share our water resources."

This plan almost caused military conflict between Turkey and Syria later in 1998. Damascus accused Ankara of restraining water supply to downstream countries, while Ankara accused Syria of protecting Kurdish separatist leaders. The implications of less water are massive for predominantly agrarian societies that depend on river water in their agriculture and for their nascent industries.

In 2000, a dispute between China and India arose over the Brahmaputra River. India accused China of not sharing any information on water pressure and heavy rainfall in the upstream countries. Excess water caused a landslide and collapsed dam in Tibet, which unleashed a 26m wall of water that rushed into India and Bangladesh, causing flooding, destroying properties and claiming lives. Further concern emerged when China was reported to be planning to divert the river’s water for building dams and hydropower potential.

Several water experts said that heavily populated countries would likely feel the greatest impact from water scarcity. The Global Policy Forum said that India, a country with one of the lowest water-resource levels in the world, would become severely starved for water by 2015.

The Okavango is the fourth-largest river in southern Africa. Its basin spans Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In 1996, Namibia planned to divert the river’s water to its capital city, Windhoek. Angola and Botswana protested Namibia’s plan, saying it would harm people and the river’s ecosystem. Even though the Okavango Commission was formed in 1994 to manage disputes in the area, water rivalries continue.

Who owns water?

Sovereignty over water flows is hard to define and enforce, even though agreements between some riparian states have been reached. Clear identification of ‘ownership’ of water resources is problematic but necessary in order to enhance political stability and international relations. Negotiation of agreements can take years. In the meantime, the ecosystem of a river may continue to be harmed or even destroyed, with the accompanying deterioration of the quality and quantity of water impacting the local population. The Indus treaty took 10 years of negotiations, while the agreements dealing with the Ganges took 30 years and the Jordan 40 years.

According to the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, there have been 507 international disputes concerning water resources in the last 50 years. Only 37 of these have become violent, the majority involving Israel and its neighbours. Nevertheless, analysts warn that with ever-diminishing resources, overuse and exploitation of water, and rapidly rising populations, the threat of violence becomes even more serious. Peter Gleick, an international water expert and president of the Pacific Institute, told IRIN, “There is long history of water conflict, and as water becomes more scarce, it will, indeed, lead to violent conflict in the future.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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