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Water Wars: Could water worries spill into war?

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Water—to those who have it, it seems in plentiful supply. Safe drinking water, however, is still denied to one-sixth of the world’s people. As Somalia plunges into famine TABJ ponders whether the next great war could be over something as seemingly trivial as water.

Whether it is for drinking, cleansing, industry or agriculture water has metaphorically, spiritually and physically transcended borders, religions and nationalities. Could something as sacred as water really provoke widespread killing?

The idea of going to war over this most fundamental of human rights is not an image most can very readily conjure. Yet, for many—including Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros Ghali—the concept of violent, large scale conflict over water is a clear and present danger. The former UN secretary firmly believes that many 21st century wars will be fought over water. He reasons that wars have been waged over other natural recourses, such as oil, so why not water?

Hard to swallow

The term ‘Water Wars’ has been around for many years (there is no definitive explanation regarding its origins) and does not necessarily refer to conflict on a grand scale. ‘War’ in the context of water could mean a low-tech, unsophisticated battle between resource poor, economically unsound nations. It could be guerrilla in its nature—even between civilians driven to desperate measures by drought or famine.

Organized military conflict, however, is also a serious possibility. Indeed, government’s which are concerned about a breakdown in communication, or another country redirecting water resources—as has happened between India and Bangladesh—may seriously consider going to war. The philosophy being that the casualties inflicted while fighting to protect or reclaim an established water source would be considerably less than those incurred as a result of not having a supply of clean water.

At present the international water scene is one of relative peace. Countries tend to cooperate when it comes to sharing water resources. The level of comradeship, however, is hard to ascertain—it maybe just a case of sharing because they don’t really know who owns it (land boundaries tend to be established whereas water, by its very nature, is hard to pin down).

Despite this relative harmony where water is concerned, the increasingly limited supplies have given rise to tensions, and some international relationships are beginning to fray or get even worse than they already are.

Current water shortages are occurring for a number of reasons. The global population is booming and, in spite of an increasingly brutal AIDS epidemic, this is especially the case in Sub Saharan Africa. Numbers of people are growing at a rate of three per cent every year and, since the 1960s, the population had doubled. In 20 years it will have doubled again. While other countries have adopted a more ’Western’ paradigm Sub Saharan Africa still produces comparatively large families.

Many rivers to cross

Some of the nations most at risk use the basin area of the Nile. The longest river on the planet, it courses through ten countries in north-eastern Africa, from Rwanda to Egypt. Water quality throughout its stretch varies from perfectly drinkable to life-threateningly polluted. Contamination occurs through the effects of industry, agriculture and household waste.

Egypt has a historical claim to the Nile’s resources, having acquired its rights several hundreds of years ago. Although this has been the focal point of speculation, it is nevertheless assumed that any reduction of Egypt’s supplies, or interference by upstream countries, would be seen as highly provocative.

Sudan has been the most active in securing its place as one of the highest Nile basin users by creating four damns in the last century.

In contrast, Ethiopia uses only one per cent of the Nile’s resources despite its tributaries providing the Nile with 86 per cent of its supplies. Perhaps the only reason that conflict has been avoided is that neighbouring states do not have the military recourses to enter into any kind of organized conflict and therefore succumb to the bullying tactics of richer nations.

Water has already contributed to conflict and could be cited as one of the main reasons for the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. In 1964, Israel had started to take large quantities of water for its National Water Carrier project. The Arab states responded by diverting water before it entered Israel, prompting Israeli defense forces to carry out a series of attacks on the diversion works.

Water fall

The Middle East, which constitutes five per cent of the global population, shares only one percent of the usable water supply. This has frequently added significantly to the omnipresent hostilities between Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Although all three rely on the River Jordan, it is Israel that controls and frequently limits the supply of water to its neighbours. Although oil has been traditionally the most fiercely protected commodity; provocation and global warming could prove a lethal cocktail, making this area a prime location for the first all-out water war.

With these examples in mind it is interesting to note that leaders of both Egypt and Israel (President Anwar Sadat and King Hussein respectively) have in the past claimed that they would only go to war with each other over water.

A further and undeniable threat is environmental change, including an unpredictable climate, erratic rainfall, drought and the negligible performance of underground water supplies known as aquifers. Often this will escape attention because the damage cannot actually be seen.

It is not only poor countries that have removed a disproportionate amount of underground water. In Arizona they are taking water at such a rate that only half will be naturally renewed. The invasion of natural underground supplies will almost certainly continue as previously under-developed countries enter a period of increased industrialization. An additional and constant environmental threat is, of course, the depletion of natural resources through the evaporation of rivers and lakes.

Ultimately, there is a very real chance that the combination of nature, greed, ignorance and lack of foresight could result in catastrophic consequences, including war.

It is possible that the global community is guilty of burying its head in the sand while the very source of life trickles through its fingers.

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