by Chris Arsenault
August 28, 2012
from AlterNet Website
The author Mark Twain once remarked that "whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over" and a series of reports from intelligence agencies and research groups indicate the prospect of a water war is becoming increasingly likely.
In March, a report from the office of the US Director of National Intelligence said the risk of conflict would grow as water demand is set to outstrip sustainable current supplies by 40 per cent by 2030.
Internationally, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water, according to the United Nations.
By 2030, 47 percent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Environmental Outlook to 2030 report.
Some analysts worry that wars of the future will be fought over blue gold, as thirsty people, opportunistic politicians and powerful corporations battle for dwindling resources.
Governments and military planners around the world are aware of the impending problem; with the US senate issuing reports with names like Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
With rapid population growth, and increased industrial demand, water withdrawls have tripled over the last 50 years, according to UN figures.
Of all the water on earth, 97 per cent is salt water and the remaining three per cent is fresh, with less than one per cent of the planet's drinkable water readily accessible for direct human uses.
Scarcity is defined as each person in an area having access to less than 1,000 cubic meters of water a year.
The areas where water scarcity is the biggest problem are some of the same places where political conflicts are rife, leading to potentially explosive situations.
Some experts believe the only documented case of a "water war" happened about 4,500 years ago, when the city-states of Lagash and Umma went to war in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.
But Adel Darwish, a journalist and co-author of Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East, says modern history has already seen at least two water wars.
Some analysts believe Israel continues to occupy the Golan heights, seized from Syria in 1967, due to issues of water control, while others think the occupation is about maintaining high ground in case of future conflicts.
Senegal and Mauritania also fought a war starting in 1989 over grazing rights on the River Senegal.
And Syria and Iraq have fought minor skirmishes over the Euphrates River.
Middle East hit hard
UN studies project that 30 nations will be water scarce in 2025, up from 20 in 1990. Eighteen of them are in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Israel, Somalia, Libya and Yemen.
Water shortages could cost the unstable country 750,000 jobs, slashing incomes in the poorest Arab country by as much as 25 per cent over the next decade, according to a report from the consulting firm McKinsey and Company produced for the Yemeni government in 2010.
Darwish bets that a battle between south and north Yemen will probably be the scene of the next water conflict, with other countries in the region following suit if the situation is not improved.
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.
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.
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.
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:
In other words, more people and scant resources will invariably lead to discord and violence.
Recent scholars, including Thomas Homer-Dixon, have analyzed 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.
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:
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.