The Emerging Water Wars

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Written May 2002

Updated May 2005

Growing up in Israel in the 1960's, we were always urged to conserve precious water. Rainfall was rare and meager, the sun scorching, our only sweet water lake under constant threat by the Syrians. Israelis were being shot at hauling water cisterns or irrigating their parched fields. Water was a matter of life and death - literally.

Drought often conspires with man-made disasters. Macedonia experienced its second worst dry spell during the civil strife of last year. Benighted Afghanistan is having one now - replete with locusts. Rapid, unsustainable urbanization, desertification, exploding populations, and economic growth, especially of water-intensive industries, such as microprocessor fabs - all contribute to the worst water crisis the world has ever known.

Governments reacted late, hesitantly, and haltingly. Water conservation, desalination, water rights exchanges, water pacts, private-public partnerships, and privatization of utilities (e.g., in Argentina and the UK) - may have been implemented too little, too late.

Rising incomes lead to the exertion of political pressure on the authorities by civic movements and NGO's to improve water quality and availability. But can the authorities help? According to the World Bank, close to $600 billion will be needed by 2010 just to augment existing reserves and to improve water grade levels.

The UNDP believes that half the population in Africa will be subject to wrenching water shortages in 25 years. The environmental research institute, Worldwatch, quoted by the BBC, recommends food imports as a way to economize on water.

It takes 1000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain and agriculture consumes almost 70 percent of the world's water - though only less than 30 percent in OECD countries. It takes more than the entire throughput of the Nile to grow the grain imported annually by Middle Eastern and North African countries alone. Some precipitation-poor countries even grow cotton and rice, both insatiable crops. By 2020, says the World Water Council, we will be short 17 percent of the water that would be needed to feed the population.

The USA withdraws one fifth of its total resources annually - proportionately, one half of Belgium's drawdown. But according to the OECD, Americans are the most profligate consumers of fresh water, more than double the OECD's average in the 1990's. Britain and Denmark have actually reduced their utilization by 20 percent between 1980 and 1996 - probably due to sharp and ominous drops in their water tables.

Stratfor, a strategic forecasting firm, reported on May 14, 2002 that Mexico and the USA are in the throes of a conflict over Mexico's "failure to live up to its water supply commitments under a 1944 treaty", which allocates water from the Colorado, Rio Concho, and Rio Grande among the two signatories.

Mexico seems to have accumulated a daunting debt of 1.5 million acre-feet between 1994-2002 - the result of a decade long drought. Each acre-foot is c. 1.2 million liters. Mexico's reservoirs are less than 25 percent full. Some of the water, though, has been used to transform its borderland into a major producer of fresh vegetables for the American market - at the expense of Texas farmers.

Faced with the worst drought in more than a century in some states, the Bush administration has announced on May 3, 2002 that it is considering sanctions, including, perhaps the suspension of water supplies from the Colorado to Mexico. Texas lawmakers demanded to re-open NAFTA and amend it punitively.

Mexico is a typical case. Only 9 percent of its streams and rivers are fit for drinking. Its underground water is almost equally polluted. Its infrastructure is crumbling, leading to severe seepage of more than two fifths of the water. Half of the rest evaporates in open canals.

Moreover, water is under-priced, thus encouraging wasteful consumption, mainly by farmers. Stratfor cites an estimate published in the May 5, 2002 issue Fort Worth Star-Telegram - more than $60 billion will be needed over the next decade to refurbish Mexico's urban and rural networks.

William K. Reilly, former administrator of the EPA, writing in the "ITT Industries Guidebook to Global Water Issues", mentions the human cost of water scarcity: a million dead children a year, a billion people without access to treated water, almost double this number without sanitation.

More than 11,000 people died in a cholera epidemic induced by polluted water in Latin America in the 1990's. Every year, according to the World Bank, the amount of water polluted equals the quantity of water consumed. In many parts of the world, notably in Africa, people walk for hours to obtain their contaminated daily water rations.

Water shortage hobbles industrial production in places as diverse as Sicily and Malaysia. The lower estuaries of the Yellow River - China's most important - are now dry two thirds of the year. The water table beneath China's fertile northern plane is falling by 1.5 meters a year.

The drought in Sri Lanka is so severe and so prolonged that the International Red Cross had to intervene and launch an appeal for emergency funds. The Mekong River, which flows from China to Vietnam, is being obstructed by 7 Chinese dams under construction. Once completed, its flow will be reduced by half.

Close to 200 million people in seven countries will be affected. In a retaliatory move, Laos is planning to hold back c. 70 percent of its contribution to the Mekong by constructing 23 dams. Thailand follows with 20 percent of its contribution and a mere 4 dams. Vietnam is likely to pay the price of this "dam war". Thailand is sufficiently rich to simply buy the water it needs from its truculent neighbors.

Australia is in no better shape. The diversion of Snowy River inland led to massive salinization of the lands it irrigates - Australia's bread basket. Many of the tributaries are now unfit for either irrigation or drinking. In India, the holy river, Ganges, is depleted and impregnated with poisonous arsenic.

A long running dispute is simmering between India and Bangladesh regarding this dwindling lifeline, recent progress in negotiations notwithstanding. This is reminiscent of a low intensity conflict that has been brewing along the banks of the Nile between an assertive Egypt and the encroaching Sudan and Ethiopia since the Nile Basin Initiative has been signed in 1993.

A July 2000 conference of the riparian states, backed by the likes of the World Bank and the United Nations, eased the tension somewhat by promulgating a workable plan to redistribute the African river's throughput. The emphasis in the February 2001 meeting of the International Consortium Cooperation on the Nile, though, was on hydro-power over the contentious minefield of water usage rights.

Turkey is constructing more than two dozen dams on the Tigris and Euphrates within the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP). Once completed, Turkey will have the option to deprive both Syria and Iraq of their main sources of water, though it vowed not to do so. In a cynical twist, it offers to sell them water from its Manavgat river. Iraq's own rivers have shriveled by half. Still, this is the less virulent and violent of the water conflicts in the Middle East.

Israel controls the Kinneret Sea of Galilee. It is the source of one third of its water consumption. The rest it pumps from rivers in the region, to the vocal dismay of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Despite decades of indoctrination, Israelis are water-guzzlers. They quaff 4-6 times the water consumption of their Palestinian and Arab neighbors.

"The Economist" claims that:

"The argument over Syria's water rights to the Sea of Galilee is now the only real stumbling-block to a peace treaty between Syria and Israel. Negotiations broke down last January, after the two sides appeared to agree on everything save the future of a sliver of territory on the north-east coast of the sea. Israel had insisted on keeping control of that, since the Sea of Galilee supplies more than 40% of its drinking water."

Only two decades ago, the Aral Sea featured in encyclopedias as the world's fourth largest inland brine. In a typical hare-brained subterfuge, the communists diverted its two sources - the Amu Darya and Syr Darya - to grow cotton in the desert. The "sea" is now a series of disconnected, toxic, patches overlaid on a vast wasteland of salt.

But excess water can be as damaging to multilateral relationships - and to the economy - as scarcity. Floods brought on by the Zambezi River have devastated the countries on its path, despite their efforts to harness it. Often, these calamities are man-made. Zimbabwe wrought a deluge upon its region by opening the gates of the Kariba dam on March 2000. The countries of West Africa, from Ghana to Mali are "one river states". Their fortunes rise and fall with the flow and ebb of waterways.

Sometimes watercourses are conduits of destruction and death. A single - though massive - chemical spill in Romania on January 31, 2000 devastated the entire Tisa River which runs through Yugoslavia and Hungary. Only when the waste reached the Danube did the West wake up to the danger.

Nor are these phenomena confined to the poor precincts of our planet. The people of Catalonia in Spain are thirsty. They contemplate diverting water from the river Rhone in France to Barcelona. A five years old government plan to redistribute water from rain-drenched regions to the arid 60 percent of Spain meets with stiff domestic resistance. The Ogallala aquifer in the USA, its largest, has been depleted to near oblivion. The BBC estimates that it lost the equivalent of 18 Colorado rivers by 2000.

All the lakes around Mexico City have dried and it is now sinking into the cavernous remains of its withered reservoirs. Soil subsidence is a major problem in cities around the world, from Bangkok to Venice. According to "The Economist", the town of Cochabamba in Bolivia, once a florid valley is now a dust bowl. Some of its residents receive water only a few hours every two or three days. A World Bank financed project attempts to pipe the precious liquid from mountain rivers near the city.

Singapore, concerned by its dependence on water from capricious Malaysia, decided in November 2001 to purchase water from private sector suppliers who will be required to build one or more desalination plants, capable of providing it with 10% of its annual consumption.

Singapore is so desperate, it even considered importing water from the strife-torn (and now tsunami-devastated) Aceh province in Indonesia. The cost of Malaysian fresh water skyrocketed following a bilateral accord with Singapore signed September 2000.

Control of water sources has always served as geopolitical leverage. In Central Asia, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan often get their way by threatening to throttle their richer neighbors, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - and by actually cutting them off from the nourishing rivers that traverse their territories. This extortion resulted in inordinately cheap supplies of gas, coal, and agricultural products.

To avoid such dependence, Turkmenistan has decided to divert water from the catchment basin of one of the rivers - the Amu Darya - to a $6 billion artificial lake. This inane project is comparable only to China's much-disputed Three Gorges Dam - the $30 billion, 180 meters tall hydroelectric plant that will block the fierce Yangtze River.

On January 2000, a Kinshasa-based firm, Western Trade Corporation, and an American partner, Sapphire Aqua, proposed to raise financing for a $9 billion set of 1000-2000 km. pipes from the Congo River to the Middle East and South Africa. Stratfor justly noted that the water were to be given free, casting in doubt the viability - or the even the very existence - of such a project.

Con-artists and gullible investors notwithstanding, water is big business. Water Forum 2002, sponsored and organized by the World Bank, attracted many NGO's, donors, and private companies. The Agadir conference in June 2002 attracted scholars and governments as well. According to the government of Morocco, it dealt with "views and experiences on water pricing, cost recovery and the interactions between micro and macro policies related to water".

T. Boone Pickens, a corporate raider, has bought water rights from Texans during the 2001 drought. He succeeded to amass c. 200,000 acre-feet worth c. $200 million.

Economic competition coupled with acute and growing scarcity often presage conflict.

"Water stress" is already on the world's agenda at least as firmly as global warming. The Hague Ministerial Declaration released on March 2000 identified seven 'water-related challenges'. This led to the establishment of the 'World Water Assessment Program' and UNESCO's 'From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential' (PC to CP) which 'addresses more specifically the challenge of sharing water resources primarily from the point of view of governments, and develops decision-making and conflict prevention tools for the future'."

Simultaneously, Green Cross International and UNESCO floated "Water for Piece" project whose aims are "to enhance the awareness and participation of local authorities and the public in water conflict resolution an integrated management by facilitating more effective dialogue between all stakeholders." In its efforts to minimize tensions in potential and actual conflict regions, the project concentrates on a few case studies in the basins of the Rhine, the Aral Sea, the Limpopo/Incomati, the Mekong, the Jordan River, the Danube, and the Columbia.

Peter Gleik of the Pacific Institute suggested this taxonomy of water-related conflicts (quoted in

Mark de Villiers, author of "Water Wars" contrasts, in ITT's aforementioned Guidebook, two opposing views about the likelihood of water-related conflicts. Thomas Homer-Dixon, the Canadian security analyst says:

"Water supplies are needed for all aspects of national activity, including the production and use of military power, and rich countries are as dependent on water as poor countries are ... Moreover, about 40 percent of the world's population lives in the 250 river basins shared by more than one country ... But ... wars over river water between upstream and downstream neighbors are likely only in a narrow set of circumstances. The downstream country must be highly dependent on the water for its national well-being; the upstream country must be able to restrict the river's flow; there must be a history of antagonism between the two countries; and, most important, the downstream country must be militarily much stronger than the upstream country."

Frederick Frey, of the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees:

"Water has four primary characteristics of political importance: extreme importance, scarcity, maldistribution, and being shared. These make internecine conflict over water more likely than similar conflicts over other resources. Moreover, tendencies towards water conflicts are exacerbated by rampant population growth and water-wasteful economic development. A national and international 'power shortage,' in the sense of an inability to control these two trends, makes the problem even more alarming."

Who is right?

The citizens of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states in India are enmeshed in bloody skirmishes over the waters of the Carvery River. Colonel Quaddafi has been depleting the Iittoral aquifer in the Sahara for decades now - to the detriment of all his neighbors - yet, not a single violent incident has been recorded. In 2001, the Rio Grande has failed to reach the Gulf of Mexico - for the first time in many decades. Yet, no war erupted between the USA and Mexico.

As water become more scarce, market solutions are bound to emerge. Water is heavily subsidized and, as a direct result, atrociously wasted. More realistic pricing would do wonders on the demand side. Water rights are already traded electronically in the USA. Private utilities and water markets are the next logical step.

Water recycling is another feasible alternative. Despite unmanageable financial problems and laughable prices, the municipality of Moscow maintains enormous treatment plants and re-uses most of its water.

Wars are the outcomes of cultures and mores. Not every casus belli leads to belligerence. Not every conflict, however severe, ends in battle. Mankind has invented numerous other conflict-resolution mechanisms. There is no reason to assume that water would cause more warfare than oil or national pride. But water scarcity sure causes dislocation, ethnic tension, impoverishment, social anomy, and a host of other ills. It is in fending off these pernicious, all-pervasive, and slow-acting social processes that we should concentrate our efforts.

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