360° Analysis

Water Wars: Is It Just a Mirage?


September 16, 2013 18:24 EDT

Water scarcity is a key threat to world peace.

Within the last decade, climate change has become a hotly debated topic. Many people struggle to imagine what the effects of climate change will be and whether the danger is real. At the heart of climate change, however, there are some very real and imaginable effects that may be seen within the near future. Perhaps the most prevalent of these is a threat to the global supply of fresh water.

Ban Ki Moon recently stated at the United Nation's International Day of Biological Diversity: “We live in an increasingly water insecure world where demand often outstrips supply and where water quality often fails to meet minimum standards. Under current trends, future demands for water will not be met.” This year, 500 scientists who met in Bonn, Germany on  May 17 have released a joint statement estimating that the majority of the people on Earth will face severe challenges to accessing fresh water within two generations time.

As water is such a seemingly copious and renewable commodity to many, it may appear ridiculous to state that it is a serious threat to global stability. Yet in reality, water irrigates farms, is used in energy production and, most importantly, is necessary for survival. Water is priceless and the Earth is running out of it.

Previously, limited oil supplies were seen as the most likely cause of war, but now many experts are coming to view water supply as a key factor to the threat of global conflict. The reason for this is that in regions where nations compete for access to water, the relations between the countries are likely to be unstable, especially where water supply is scarce. With roughly 1,250 square km of fresh water remaining in the world’s semi-arid and arid regions and distributed unevenly between countries sharing the same water source, governments around the world may turn to military intervention as a solution. 

The Effects of Climate Change

The impact on fresh water supply from climate change is mainly due to the observed and projected increases in temperature, sea level and precipitation variability that will come with it. The glaciers that feed river basins for more than one sixth of the world’s population are melting and will not come back. Semi-arid and arid areas, such as the west of the United States, the Mediterranean basin, southern Africa and northeastern Brazil, will be severely hit by this change in global climate. Increases in evaporation will drain large lakes such as the Great Lakes of North America. Compounding this is the fact that climate change is likely to cause an increase in the frequency and severity of droughts, floods, heat waves and storms.

All of these problems will be exacerbated by an increasing global population, and with this, increased urbanization, where the pollution of existing fresh water will only get worse. Today, approximately 4.5 billion people live within 50km of a source of water that is degraded. Charles Vörösmarty, a professor at the Cooperative Remote Sensing Science and Technology Centre, stated: “We have discovered tipping points in the system. Already, there are 1 billion people relying on ground water supplies that are simply not there as renewable water supplies."

The problem is not just limited to drinking water. Food supply is heavily dependent on sources of water for irrigation. Wells are drying up and underwater tables are falling so fast in the Middle East, parts of India, China and the US, that food supplies are seriously threatened. The prospects of this shortage are grim.

A Security Issue?

Surely this is a development issue, so why then will water scarcity be a source of potential conflict? The problem is that there is a lack of international law and inter-country consensuses regarding fresh water reserves. There have already been worrying examples of confrontations. Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia have become increasingly tense following Ethiopia’s announcement of the construction of a major dam across the Nile River. Egypt has complained that this will drastically alter their supply of fresh water. As there is no definitive treaty between the two countries regarding ownership of the Nile, the situation is hard to resolve. 

Mohammed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian president, promised to "defend each drop of Nile water with our blood." Both Egypt and Ethiopia are heavily dependent on fresh water as their climates are continually bordering on drought, and as their energy requirements would thrive from hydroelectric power. The potential benefits of securing the Nile therefore are significant, especially as the reliance on it will only increase — perhaps enough to warrant intervention or war. 

The problem lies in the fact that the majority of water sources in this region cross borders, which are shared among multiple countries, such as the Jordan River Basin and the Tigris-Euphrates Basin. With few agreements on how to share these resources, there is every chance of these disputes spilling over into conflict – demonstrated by the increased hostilities between Turkey and Syria over the use of the Euphrates River. 

These are not the only examples of countries risking less than cordial relations in order to harness the potential of hydrological power. China and India are engaged in a huge "water grab" in the Himalayas, as they seek new sources of electricity to power their economies. Indian geopolitical analyst Brahma Chellaney, stated: “China-India disputes have shifted from land to water. Water is the new divide and is going center stage in politics.” 

There is a dire lack of international law regarding water ownership. Water, in theory,cannot be owned, but it is possible for a country at the source of water to "turn off the tap." Unfortunately, there are few precedents for the UN International Law Commission or the International Court of Justice to establish rules to arbitrate on water sharing. Additionally, there is no law preventing a stronger nation from denying a weaker one access to water. 

Throughout history, water access has been a source of conflict and, more recently, there have been marked examples where it has brought about a number of wars, such as in 1987 and 1989 when Senegal and Mauritania fought two limited wars across the Senegal River.

This is only likely to get worse as the dependency on water resources become more extreme. The reliance on water for so many essential parts of life can lead to both instability within and between countries. The problem is probably best described by Ed Davey, the British energy secretary, who stated: "Climate change intensifies pressures on states, and between states… Its effects can lead to internal unrest… and exacerbate existing tensions. We have to plan for a world where climate change makes difficult problems even worse." 

Climate change is likely to exacerbate existing tensions, especially as fear of thirst and hunger are such instinctual forces that can lead to desperate acts. Given the importance of water as a source of food, electricity and survival, the costs of not having enough of it are worth the cost of war, especially when there is no international law arbitrating it. 

Is There a Solution?

Is there any hope that this crisis can be avoided? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recommended a strategy of Integrated Water Resources Management. It should “include capturing society’s views, reshaping planning processes, coordinating land and water resources management, recognizing water quantity and quality linages, conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater, protecting and restoring natural systems, and including consideration of climate change.”

While it may not be physically possible to restore water sources to their previous level, how do we replenish water sources if there is not enough water? The climate has been altered so drastically that there may be no quick fixes. Even if a miracle solution was theorized, it may not be economically, politically and socially feasible to implement, especially for developing countries where the effects of water scarcity are most likely to be seen. Perhaps the first step should be to devise international law that could possibly prevent the tragic outbreak of war over what should be a right for all: the access to water.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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