Water is one of the most precious natural resources of our planet. Only 2% of the world’s water resources are made up of freshwater. This scarce resource, however, plays a crucial role in all segments of nature, society and economy.
In view of the projected growth in popular demand for water and an accelerating climate change, it is expected that by 2030, some 40% of the world’s population will suffer from water shortages. The Budapest World Water Summit is the latest initiative in the search for ways to mitigate the pressing challenges.
‘Yesterday, nations went to war for land. Today, our conflicts involve energy. And tomorrow,’ Brahma Chellaney writes, ‘the battles will be about water.’ The award-winning author believes that Mark Twain was right when he said, ‘Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over.’
There is ‘blue water,’ ‘green water,’ even ‘virtual water.’ But however labelled, water is the world’s single most important resource and it will likely determine our future. It is becoming scarce too. In the 20th century, the world’s population grew by a factor of 3.8 and water use by 9. Today, with the number of people passing the seven billion mark, it should come as no surprise that more than half of humankind lives in water-stressed areas. That figure could increase to two-thirds during the next decade.
Presently, more than a fifth of the inhabitants of this planet do not have easy access to potable water. Scarcity causes illness, thereby making the lack of this resource ‘the greatest killer on the globe’. There are, incredibly, more people with a mobile phone than access to water-sanitation services. Already, bottled water at the grocery store is more expensive than crude oil on the spot market.
There are substitutes for a number of resources, including oil, but none for water. Countries can import, even from distant lands, fossil fuels, mineral ores, and resources originating in the biosphere, such as fish and timber. But they cannot import the most vital of all resources, water’ certainly not in a major or sustainable manner. Water is essentially local and very expensive to ship across seas.
Potentially calamitous water shortages in the coming decades in the densely ‘populated parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa ‘the world’s most-parched regions’ could produce large numbers of ‘water refugees’ and overwhelm some states’ institutional capacity to contain the effects. The struggle for water is already escalating interstate and intrastate tensions.
Egypt, for example, uses the bulk of the Nile River’s water, yet it is now threatening unspecified reprisals against Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam. China, already the world’s most-‘dammed’ nation and unrivalled hydro-hegemon, has approved the construction of 54 new dams’ many of them on rivers that are the lifeblood for countries in Southeast and South Asia’ as it seeks to build a strategic grip on transboundary water flows.
Turkey, like China, is trying to reinforce its regional riparian dominance by accelerating an ambitious dam-building programme, which threatens to diminish cross-border flows into Syria and Iraq. The internal war in Syria and the continuing sectarian bloodletting in Iraq have muted regional opposition to Turkey’s dam-building spree.
The Yemeni city of Sanaa, now home to two million, will be the first national capital to run dry in this century which could happen as soon as 2025. Abu Dhabi and Quetta, experts believe, might also turn to dust. The international community should expect ‘water refugees’ in just over a decade; there could be well over two hundred million of them by the midpoint of this century.
But as illustrated by the disputes, for example, within the United States, Spain and Australia, intra-country water conflict is not restricted to the developing world. Water conflicts in America have spread from the arid west to the east. Violent water struggles, however, occur mostly in developing nations, with resource scarcity often promoting environmental degradation and perpetuating poverty.
So forget deforestation, climate change, or peak oil, and think about the coming crisis over ‘blue gold’. The golden age of safe, cheap, and easily available water has come to an end in most parts of the world, replaced by a new era of increasing supply and quality constraints.
Water creates instability in surprising ways. For example, the Arab Spring was about water, at least in the large sense, as it was triggered by rising food prices caused by a ‘worsening regional freshwater crisis’. The crises caused by a lack of water are sometimes even more intricate and subtle.
The real geopolitical challenge of water scarcity will be national competition for rivers, lakes, shorelines, and glaciers’a series of ‘water wars’. So far, no modern war has been fought just over water, but water has been a factor in a number of them. The 1967 Six-Day War, for instance, was essentially a struggle for headwaters. Israel ended up with control of the sources of the Jordan River, and Ariel Sharon, in his memoirs, emphasizes the role of water in the conflict. A water war was also hidden in the 1965 fighting between India and Pakistan, in mountainous Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s objective was to take an area where three rivers collected a substantial portion of their flows. In all, the United Nations counts thirty-seven cases of water-related violence between nations since the end of the Second World War.
Conflict over water arises in large part because it flows from one nation to the next or sits on top of geographical boundaries. Across five continents, there are two hundred and seventy-six transnational river and lake basins separating one hundred and forty-eight countries and accounting for three-fifths of the world’s river flows. Excluding Antarctica, almost half the planet’s land mass is covered by river basins spanning more than one country. And if that weren’t bad enough, there are at least two hundred and seventy-four underground freshwater basins beneath national borders. Some of these aquifers even encompass more than two countries.
Water rivalries (‘rival’ comes from the Latin rivalis, or ‘one who uses the same stream or brook’) are growing, with some of them already taking on the character of ‘silent hydrological wars’. Antagonism and resentment inevitably follow when a dominant riparian, mostly but not always upstream, diverts water with little regard for neighbours, ‘commandeering shared resources’.
At this moment, there are only eighteen agreements with specific allocation provisions. Significantly, none of these arrangements was signed this century, and most of them were concluded ‘when serious water shortages were uncommon’. This suggests that similar deals will be hard to reach in times of increasing water stress.
The 1997 ‘UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses’, intended to become the world’s water law, is in trouble. It has yet to come into effect, lacking ratification by the minimum number of countries. Until more states sign on, most rivers and lakes will remain subject to free-for-all among thirsty populations and nervous national leaders.
Water-related conflicts are a growing international threat. However, armed conflict over this one truly indispensable resource is inevitable. But preventing water wars will require rules-based cooperation, water-sharing, uninterrupted data flow, and dispute-
But agreements by themselves are not enough, particularly given the fact that authoritarianism is endemic in the water-thirsty world.
Unfortunately, agreements with hard-line states do not ensure solutions to water disputes. As Ronald Reagan told us, the nature of governments matters, and this is evident from the peace along ‘the world’s most international river,’ the Danube basin, which includes a record nineteen countries. There is tranquillity along the vital river because it is lined with democracies.
Yes, the world has a water problem. But it has a bigger problem with authoritarianism. Despots and dictators will use this liquid gold to disrupt peace, accumulate power, and force neighbours to submit.