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Water Scarcity and Conflict around the World

-  Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink -



Why is water important?

There is no substitute for fresh water.  It is essential for all socio-economic development and for maintaining healthy ecosystems. One cannot grow food, manufacture goods, or even safeguard human health without water.1 This makes any amount of water scarcity a immediately desperate situation for all involved.

Why is water becoming scarce?

Water scarcity is the point at which the aggregate impact of all users impinges on the supply or quality of water under prevailing institutional arrangements to the extent that the demand by all sectors, including the environment, cannot be satisfied fully.2

The world still has the same amount of water as it did in Mesopotamia, even as demand has steadily increased over the centuries.  However, just since 1950, the renewable supply per person has fallen 58% as world population has gone from 2.5 billion to 6 billion people in half a century.3So while the amount of water is the same, more people are demanding more for several different purposes:

  •     Growing populations: often result in increased demands for better living standards, while not necessarily increased efficiency in water usage.
  •     Irrigation for agriculture: wasteful as much of evaporates before it is used by the plants.
  •     Pollution: water available is unfit to use even if abundant.
  •     Use of subterranian supplies of groundwater instead of relying on rainfall or surface water: causes rivers, wetlands and lakes that depend on these underground sources to dry out. Saline sea water can flow in to replace fresh water, making all of the water non-potable. Emptied underground aquifers can also become compressed, causing surface subsidence.4
  •     Climate change: causes changing precipitation patterns so that some places are experiencing more rain and flooding while others experience desertification because of decreased rainfall.

"Hot stains" are those regions in the world that are experiencing symptoms of severe water scarcity - Northern China, large areas of Asia and Africa, the Middle East, Australia, the Midwestern United States, and sections of South America and Mexico.5 These are the areas the world needs to be watching.  Not just because of scarcity, but because these are the areas where other phenomena like "hot wars" and domestic conflict could errupt.

How does water then create conflict?

It is a common assumption that resource scarcity brings people to conflict and this is no exception for water.  After the resource wars seen throughout Africa, and the fights for oil in the Middle East, why would water be any different or not worse?

It is true that the world is facing a water crisis due to pollution, climate change, and  population growth at such magnitudes that close to two billion people now live in water-stressed regions. Unlike other minerals or resources, water is not transported across large distances for consumption, but is instead demanded right where is runs down from glaciers, in rivers, or within lakes.6 Because water is a resource that cannot be substituted, people are left without options except finding more. Water scarcity has a potentially destabilizing effect and could create what are commonly called "water wars." More than 90% of the world's population lives in countries that share their water supplies with other countries.7 Because of this, more than 50 countries on 5 continents might soon be spiraling toward water disputes unless governments move quickly to strike agreements on how to share the rivers that flow across international boundaries.8 Possible flashpoints within the "hot stains" are the Nile, Niger, Volta and Zambezi basins.9

Water conflicts could develop internationally or intra-nationally, between rich and poor, between rural and urban, between government and citizens, between the public and private interest, and between the natural world and domesticated humans. Growing shortages and unequal distribution of water are causing disagreements, sometimes violent, and becoming a security risk in many regions.10 Water does not respect political boundaries, but governments are determined to use man-made boundaries to protect their interests over everyone else's.11

Learning about Water Scarcity:

FAO: Water Scarcity

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XGgYTcPzexE


Asia 

South Asia is feeling the challenge of water scarcity on several fronts and on many different rivers.

In India, there are disputes over the waters of the sacred Ganges River, the Indus, and the Brahmaputra.  With a growing population where almost 50% of people live below the poverty line, the lack of potable water is felt by a large percentage of the population. To cope with their exponential growth, India is planning to build a massive pipeline from the Tehri Dam in the Himalayas to divert water from the Upper Ganga Canal, the main source for the sacred Ganges, to supply Dehli with drinking water.

This is just one step that India is taking to link all of its rivers in the creation of super-dams, water canals, and pipelines. The absurdity of this project lies in the fact that the proposed costs for this project are 200 times what the government spends on education and three times what it collects in taxes. There is also a great amount of controversy internationally over the proposed plan of diverting the Ganges, which is sacred to the majority Hindu population.

China, as always, is implementing several controversial projects to deal with water scarcity in the north near the Gobi Desert.

Similar to India's project, China is attempting a similar feat of engineering as it constructs a pipeline to divert water from the Tibetan Highlands to the Yellow River that runs through northern China. Most of the waters of the Yellow River are drying up because farmers are competing with citizens for water for irrigation.  The Yellow River is also severely polluted and much of the water cannot be consumed. 

Taking water from the Tibetan plateau is controversial because it provides water to ten different water sheds spanning across Asia. China's plans to divert this water is not only heightening tensions with the Tibetan people, but all others on the continent who rely on that water for daily survival.

The pipeline project also includes a section that will draw river from the Yangtze River and pipe it to Beijing to support its growing population. China has dammed and drained all of its own rivers and is now looking beyond its borders for solutions. It is also proposing to divert water from the Brahmaputra River, continuing to heighten tensions with India.12


South America

Cochabamba, Bolivia experienced an extreme effect of privatization of its water system.  The privatization of its water system was stipulation under a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that required the country to sell of "all remaining public enterprises" as a part of the required "structural reforms."  This included national oil refineries and Cochabamba's local water agency, SEMAPA.13

Previously, subsidies had been given in Cochabamba to ameliorate increases in water costs.  The city's water system had been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. In September 1999, the Bolivian government signed a $2.5 billion contract to give Cochabamba's municipal water system to Aguas del Tunari, a multinational consortium of private investors under the US engineering giant Bechtel.

Water rates skyrocketed almost doubling or tripling water rates after privatization, resulting in water bills for some homes equal to a quarter or more of their income.14 The company even charged citizens for the rainwater they collected in cisterns.15   The city exploded, leading to months of civil unrest.  The crisis culminated in April 2000 when the La Paz government sent soldiers into Cochabamba to quell a protest of almost 30,000 people in the central plaza. 

After several days of violence and one dead and hundred injured, the conflict only abated when the water system was returned to public control.16  Before this, the violence spread into rural areas, and the protest turns into a national condemnation of the country's overall economic malaise and high unemployment along with government inaction. Bolivia is an important example of how the availability of water can become personal.

More information on the Water Wars of Cochabamba:

Part One and Part Two


The Middle East 

_"Whisky is for drinkin'; water is for fightin'," Mark Twain17

The Middle East is an area full of economic, political, religious and cultural strife. Many are afraid that adding heightened tensions over water will be a catalyst that will set off all other issues.

The delicate equilibrium that existed for centuries in the Middle was disrupted as modern nations – with all of their human and economic needs tied inexorably to the local supply of fresh water – built up along the shores of the Jordan centuries ago. This region is already subjected to the historical claims of three major religions and race for superiority between Jews and Arabs. Shortages are felt nowhere as severely as they are in the Middle East. Over the past 50 years, most international conflicts have taken place between Israel and its neighbors, being divided on racial lines. Violence broke out in the 1960's after an all-Arab plan to diver the headwaters of the Jordan River which begin at a crossroads of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. 

As more water is diverted to these growing nations, the level of the Dead has begun to fall, most recently about one-half meter per year. Israel is planning to build a World-Bank funded, 200 kilometer pipeline to bring water from the Red Sea to replenish the Dead Sea.19 I don't know what the replenishing part would entail as there is nothing living in the Dead Sea, save bacteria and one type of alga.19 Nevertheless, the efforts by each country to thwart attempts of another are increasing tensions in an already hostile region. The troubles over water in the Middle East are indicative of the difficulties of dividing water across political lines.20 


Analysis

The biggest problem with "water war" theories is that there seems to be a lack of evidence historically and for the future.  There certainly exists an increasing potential for countries to clash over the water they share as population demands increase and the resource becomes comparably scarce, but history shows that cooperation is usually chosen over conflict in disputes over water. According to a study by Oregon State, arid climates harbored no more conflicts than humid climates, and international cooperation actually increased during droughts.21 

The only recorded incident of an outright war over water was 4,500 years ago between two Mesopotamian city-states, Lagash and Umma, in present-day Iraq. Also, between 805 and 1984, countries around the world signed more than 3,600 water-related treaties, showing a strong will to cooperate over such an unmistakably valuable resource.  In Oregon State's analysis of 1,831 international water-related events over the last 50 years, it was found that about two thirds of these situations were of a cooperative nature. Nations agreed, for example, to implement joint scientific or technological work and signed 157 water treaties instead of exchanging fire.22

Within basins where countries clash over shared water sources, there are several trends.  The first is that countries that share access to water tend to implement water-development projects unilaterally first on water within their territory so as to avoid the political ramifications of actually sharing. When a country acts unilaterally without taking action to inform its neighbors, the project can become a flashpoint that heightens tensions and regional instability.23  This has been seen mostly in areas where tension already exists between countries in a region, such as the actions of Israel, China, and the United States.  Regional powers act as if they do not need to consider the ramifications of unilateral projects that could prevent other countries from enjoying such a precious resource.

Conclusion: With only a few exceptions, most countries in the world have committed themselves to the principle that international water resources must be shared on an equitable basis, rather than divided up by some equation of power.24 In this, I strongly believe that water is far too often viewed as a market commodity instead of a human right.25  Water scarcity is an inevitable issue in this world and the the only viable solutions can come with international cooperation, adequate water governance, and the efficient use of water across all sectors of society.

Other areas where water conflict has been experienced:

  • China, Myanmar and Thailand each plan dam construction and development projects along the Salween River, but the absence of a treaty - or even a regular dialogue - spells potential conflict.
  • Damsn and irrigation projects continually cause tensions between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
  • The Colorado River Basin's many competing interests continue to create water rights struggles with no end in sight.
  • The Nile River Basin, shared by 10 countries, has seen both hostilities and cooperative solutions.
  • Namibia's plans to divert the Okavango River water to its capital city have met with opposition from Angola and Botswana, whose people and ecosystems depend on the river's flow.26
  • India and Pakistan's dispute over the headwaters of the Indus River in the already conflict-ridden areas of Jammu-Kashmir.
  • Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan all fight over the Amu Daria and Syr Daria Rivers and the already depleted Aral Sea.
  • Mozambique and Senegal fight over control over the Senegal River.

  • Organizations and Interesting Resources

Water Conflict Chronology - http://www.globalpolicy.org/images/pdfs/Security_Council/conflictchronology.pdf

WHO's Ten Facts About Water Scarcity - http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/water/en/index.html

Water Conflict and Cooperation - http://waterwiki.net/index.php/Water_Conflict_and_Cooperation

UN-Water

UN-Water strengthens coordination and coherence among UN entities dealing with issues related to all aspects of freshwater and sanitation. This includes surface and groundwater resources, the interface between freshwater and seawater and water-related disasters. UN-Water, an inter-agency mechanism formally established in 2003 by the United Nations High Level Committee on Programmes, has evolved out of a history of close collaboration among UN agencies. It was created to add value to UN initiatives by fostering greater co-operation and information-sharing among existing UN agencies and outside partners. As UN-Water is not an implementing body, its specific activities and programmes are hosted by individual member agencies on behalf of UN-Water.

    http://www.unwater.org/

Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO): Water Development and Management Unit

In the face of increasing water scarcity, and the dominance of agricultural water use, FAO is in the forefront to enhance global agricultural performance while promoting the sustainability of water use for food production. The Water Development and Management Unit (NRLW) is engaged in a programmatic approach to agricultural water management addressing water use efficiency and productivity, and best practices for water use and conservation, throughout the continuum from water sources to final uses. Specific targets are integrated water resources management, water harvesting, groundwater, use of non-conventional water, modernization of irrigation systems, on-farm water management, water-quality management, agriculture-wetlands interactions, drought impact mitigation, institutional capacities, national water strategies and policies, river basin and transboundary waters management.

    http://www.fao.org/nr/water/index.html

UNESCO: From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential (PCCP)

Housed within IHP, and a contribution to WWAP, PCCP addresses situations where water users need support to manage their shared water resources in a peaceful and equitable manner. It capitalizes on the desire of the concerned parties to successfully manage their shared water resources in order to create a foundation upon which peace and cooperation are consolidated. The goal of PCCP, in accordance with the mandate of WWAP, is to render services to UNESCO's Member States and to foster co-operation between nations. It is also guided by the Organization's paramount mandate: to nurture the idea of peace in human minds. PCCP aims to foster co-operation between stakeholders in the management of shared water resources, while helping to ensure that potential conflicts do not turn into real ones. The project focuses on the development of tools for the anticipation, prevention and resolution of water conflicts.

    http://www.unesco.org/water/wwap/pccp/


Footnotes

1. Coping With Water Scarcity: A Strategic Issue and Priority for System-Wide Action. (n.d.). UN Water. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://www.unwater.org/downloads/waterscarcity.pdf.

2. Ibid

3. Postel*, S. L. (n.d.). Dehydrating Conflict. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40343.html

4. Dawn of a thirsty century. (n.d.). BBC NEWS. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/755497.stm

5. Barlow, M. (2008). Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

6. Swain, A. (2004). Managing Water Conflict: Asia, Africa and the Middle East. New York: Routledge.

7. Spectre of 'water wars' distracts from urgent need for cross-border cooperation. (n.d.). UNDP | Europe & CIS. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://europeandcis.undp.org/poverty/mdghdpm/show/CCD25651-F203-1EE9-BEC98ADBE4D78140

8. Postel*, S. L. (n.d.). Dehydrating Conflict. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40343.html

9. Smith, B. N. (n.d.). Africa's potential water wars. BBC NEWS . Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/454926.stm

10. Barlow, M. (2008). Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

11. Conflicts Over Water Have Potential to be Catalysts for Peace, Cooperation. (n.d.). Global Policy Forum. Retrieved December 3, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198-natural-resources/48416-conflicts-over-water-have-potential-to-be-catalysts-for-peace-cooperation.html

12. Barlow, M. (2008). Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

13. NewsHour Extra: Water Fights Present Dangerous Challenges in Coming Decades | March 20, 2009. PBS. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/bolivia/timeline.html

14. Postel*, S. L. (n.d.). Dehydrating Conflict. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40343.html

15. Barlow, M. (2008). Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

16. Postel*, S. L. (n.d.). Dehydrating Conflict. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40343.html

17. Jehl, D. (2003). Whose Water Is It?: The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Washington DC: National Geographic.

18. Ibid.

19. Barlow, M. (2008). Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

20. Jehl, D. (2003). Whose Water Is It?: The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Washington DC: National Geographic.

21. Ibid.

22. Postel*, S. L. (n.d.). Dehydrating Conflict. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40343.html

23. Jehl, D. (2003). Whose Water Is It?: The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Washington DC: National Geographic.

24. Ibid.

25. Velasquez-Manoff, M. (n.d.). Could water scarcity cause international conflict? Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://features.csmonitor.com/environment/2009/10/26/could-water-scarcity-cause-international-conflict/

26. Jehl, D. (2003). Whose Water Is It?: The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Washington DC: National Geographic.

References

1.  Velasquez-Manoff, M. (n.d.). Could water scarcity cause international conflict? Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://features.csmonitor.com/environment/2009/10/26/could-water-scarcity-cause-international-conflict/

2.  Postel*, S. L. (n.d.). Dehydrating Conflict. Global Policy Forum. Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198/40343.html

3.  Smith, B. N. (n.d.). Africa's potential water wars. BBC NEWS . Retrieved November 10, 2009, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/454926.stm

4.  Spectre of 'water wars' distracts from urgent need for cross-border cooperation. (n.d.). UNDP | Europe & CIS. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://europeandcis.undp.org/poverty/mdghdpm/show/CCD25651-F203-1EE9-BEC98ADBE4D78140

5.  Dawn of a thirsty century. (n.d.). BBC NEWS. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/755497.stm

6. http://www.globalpolicy.org/images/pdfs/Security_Council/conflictchronology.pdf"

7.  NewsHour Extra: Water Fights Present Dangerous Challenges in Coming Decades | March 20, 2009. PBS. Retrieved November 30, 2009, from http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/bolivia/timeline.html

8.  Jehl, D. (2003). Whose Water Is It?: The Unquenchable Thirst of a Water-Hungry World. Washington DC: National Geographic.

9.  NewsHour Extra: Water Fights Present Dangerous Challenges in Coming Decades | March 20, 2009 | PBS. PBS. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/world/jan-june09/water_03-20.html

10.  Barlow, M. (2008). Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press.

11. Swain, A. (2004). Managing Water Conflict: Asia, Africa and the Middle East. New York: Routledge.

12. Coping With Water Scarcity: A Strategic Issue and Priority for System-Wide Action. (n.d.). UN Water. Retrieved November 12, 2009, from http://www.unwater.org/downloads/waterscarcity.pdf.

13. Conflicts Over Water Have Potential to be Catalysts for Peace, Cooperation. (n.d.). Global Policy Forum. Retrieved December 3, 2009, from http://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/198-natural-resources/48416-conflicts-over-water-have-potential-to-be-catalysts-for-peace-cooperation.html

Photos

1. Cochabamba Riots, http://www.citizen.org/images/protestcops.jpg

2. Jordan River, http://www-tc.pbs.org/newshour/extra/images/medium/jan-june09/jordanriver_lg.jpghttp://www-tc.pbs.org/newshour/extra/images/medium/jan-june09/jordanriver_lg.jpg

http://schools-wikipedia.org/images/869/86970.png

3. Water Scarcity Map, http://earthtrends.wri.org/images/water_scarcity_small.jpg

4. China River Diversion Map, http://petekelsey.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/chineseriverdivesrsion.gif

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