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Are the Water Wars Coming?

Almost half of humanity will face water scarcity by 2030 and strategists from Israel to Central Asia prepare for strife.

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Commentators frequently blame Yemen's problems on tribal differences, but environmental scarcity may be underpinning secessionist struggles in the country's south and some general communal violence.

"My experience in the first gulf war [when Iraq invaded Kuwait] is that natural resources are always at the heart of tribal conflicts," Darwish told Al Jazeera. 

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 Egyptian army still has jungle warfare brigades, even though they have no jungle," Darwish said. 

On the Nile, cooperation would benefit all countries involved, as they could jointly construct dams and lower the amount of water lost to evaporation, says Anton Earle, director of the Stockholm International Water Institute think-tank.

"If you had an agreement between the parties, there would be more water in the system," he told Al Jazeera. The likelihood of outright war is low, he says,  but there is still "a lot of conflict" which "prevents joint infrastructure projects from going ahead".

Differing views

Water scarcity, and potential conflicts arising from it, is linked to larger issues of  population growthincreasing food prices and global warming.

There are two general views about how these problems could unfold. The first dates back to the work of Thomas Malthus, an eighteenth century British clergyman and author who believed that: "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."

In other words, more people and scant resources will invariably lead to discord and violence.

"Unequal power relations within states and conflicts between ethnic groups and social classes will be the greatest source of social tensions rising from deprivation," said Ignacio Saiz from the social justice group. "Water too often is treated as a commodity, as an instrument with which one population group can suppress another."Recent scholars, including Thomas Homer-Dixon, have analysed various case studies on environmental degradation to conclude that there is not a direct link between scarcity and violence. Instead, he believes inequality, social inclusion and other factors determine the nature and ferocity of strife.

Bolivia, South Africa, India, Botswana,  Mexico and even parts of the US have seen vigorous water related protests, says Maude Barlow, author of 16 books and a former senior adviser to the UN on water issues.

"The fight over water privatisation in Cochobamba, Bolivia did turn into a bit of a water war and the army was called in," Barlow told Al Jazeera. "In Botswana, the government smashed bore holes as part of a terrible move to remove [indigenous bushmen] from the Kalahari desert. Mexico City has been forcibly taking water from the countryside, confiscating water sources from other areas and building fotresses around it, like it's a gold mine. In India, Coke will get contracts and then build fortresses around the water sources," taking drinking and irrigation water away from local people. "In Detroit 45,000, officially, have already had their water cut off."

Human rights

Strife over water, like conflicts more generally, will increasingly happen within states, rather than between them, Barlow says, with large scale agribusiness, mining and energy production taking control over resources at the expense of other users.

The IPPC, the UN panel which  analyses climate science, concluded that: "Water and its availability and quality will be the main pressures on and issues for, societies and the environment under climate change."

Dealing with these pressures will require improved technologies, political will and new ideas about how humans view their relationship with the substance that sustains life.

 
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