The Water Wars

Rahul Devnath
Published: August 2013

With growing demand on water resources, conflicts surrounding it are also increasing.

waterWater as a building block for life is crucial to every culture on this planet. Over the evolution of human race, water has been the chief reason for settling down of societies and emergence of new civilizations. But as the population grew, water, like land was divided by the mankind for its own voracity. But as demand for water hits the limits of finite supply, potential conflicts are brewing between nations, while a world without boundaries remains an element of fiction. Every country on earth exists in its own realm of governance and policies. However, most of them have at times gone beyond the confines of entity called country and have fought brutal wars for centuries to gratify man’s greed for more resources. Unfortunately, where there is no cooperation, there is war.

While at present the ease of flowing water in our surroundings and the easy accessibility to water that some of us enjoy, might make water scarcity a farfetched idea, the crisis that is being engendered due to unavailability of this precious resource is very much real. When we talk about water cooperation, we are faced with the hard fact of life that there are just limited resources but infinite demand. Supply and demand are two perpetual forces that shape our lives and a serious imbalance is being created between the two, disturbing the equations.

Land, rivers and groundwater are some of the resources that have been the points of disputation among nations for centuries. According to UN’s statistics, water basins cover around 46% of the earth’s land surface, host about 40% of the world’s population in 148 nations and account for approximately 60% of global river flow on earth. It is no secret that of all the water on earth, 97 per cent is salt water and of the remaining three per cent that is fresh, only one per cent of the planet’s drinkable water is readily accessible for direct human usage. The situation is particularly difficult in many developing countries, where there are growing concerns over escalating water crises and even outright water conflicts between countries and regions.

Man has been known to covet water resources since the beginning of the civilizations. The Sumerian king Lagash (2500 B.C.) diverted water from the edge of paradise region.

But is the global water crisis a new phenomena and just an assumption? The answer is a no. Water has been projected as a potent weapon in the hands of both Gods and mortals and there are historical records to prove the same. In fact the history of water wars dates back to more than five thousand years, with the earliest anecdote of the Sumerian deity Ea, who destroyed the world with a flood as a punishment for sins. The story of Noah, told in Genesis, gives a similar account. Historians think that both stories are based on a real flood that deluged the Near East.

Man has been known to covet water resources since the beginning of the civilizations. The Sumerian king Lagash (2500 B.C.) diverted water from the “edge of paradise” region. The recent use of water as weapon can been traced back to 2008, when the Taliban threatened to blow up Warsak Dam in Pakistan, the main water supply for Peshawar, during a government offensive in the region.

Governments and military planners around the world are also very well aware of the impending predicament with the US senate issuing reports with titles such as Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While history is replete with examples, today the water crisis is even more pronounced, with some very “hot” conflict zones around the world. To give a brief idea, water-related clash is clearly visible in the Mekong River Basin in Southeast Asia. At an estimated length of almost 5,000 kilometres, the Mekong is one of the world’s largest free-flowing river systems. However, China, Laos and other countries in the region are now driving to harness these water resources, particularly for hydropower production. Plans are in place to develop over 100 hydroelectric power plants along the Mekong and its tributaries. The dams would bring the riparian countries much needed income, but at the same time jeopardize many traditional water-related livelihoods. One particular concern is the loss of local fish stocks, which are a major source of income and food for millions of people, many of whom live below the poverty line.

The Nile is another potential flash point. In 1989, former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak threatened to send demolition squads to a dam project in Ethiopia. The areas where water scarcity is the biggest problem are some of the same places where political conflicts are rife, leading to potentially explosive situations.

With the looming crisis, few months back a report from the office of the US Director of National Intelligence claimed that the risk of conflict around the world would continue to grow as water demand is set to outstrip sustainable current supplies upto 40 per cent by 2030 while UN studies project that 30 nations will be water scarce in 2025, up from 20 in 1990. Eighteen of them are in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Israel, Somalia, Libya and Yemen. Currently, with more than 780 million people lacking access to safe drinking water worldwide, these figures make just so much more sense. Even if one goes by the analysis of think tanks, most of them worry for the fact that wars of the future will be fought over blue gold, as thirsty people, opportunistic politicians and powerful companies battle for diminishing resources.

If that is not enough reason to worry about, from purely economic point of view, water shortages could cost unstable countries 750,000 jobs, slashing incomes in the poorest Arab country Yemen, by as much as 25 per cent over the next decade (according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey and Company produced for the Yemeni government in 2010).

There are various schools of thought as how these problems could unfold, but notable of all, is the work of Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth century British clergyman and author who summarizes the essence of problem for all of us: “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” Ordinary citizens of every nation have a lot more power than most of us realize and have the power to shape the world in coming decades, with the possibility of negative and positive outcomes.

 - Rahul is a well travelled Bangalore based photo journalist with experience in reporting, writing and communication. Currently, onboard The Jain University Press, he specializes in aviation and technology.