International Herald Tribune
By Kevin Watkins and Anders Berntell
A global problem
'Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over," Mark Twain once said. At the start of the 21st century, his gloomy view on the water side of the equation has been getting endorsements from an impressive - if unlikely - cast of characters.
The Central Intelligence Agency, the accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and, most recently, Britain's Ministry of Defense have all raised the specter of future "water wars." With water availability shrinking across the Middle East, Asia and sub- Saharan Africa, so the argument runs, violent conflict between states is increasingly likely.
The specter is also on the agenda for the experts from 140 countries gathered this week at the annual World Water Week forum in Stockholm. Meetings of water experts are not obvious forums for debating issues of global peace and security. But the ghost of Mark Twain is in Stockholm this week as we reflect on the links between water scarcity and violent conflict between states.
So, here's the question. Are we heading for an era of "hydrological warfare" in which rivers, lakes and aquifers become national security assets to be fought over, or controlled through proxy armies and client states? Or can water act as a force for peace and cooperation?
Observing recent events, it is difficult to avoid joining the ranks of pessimists who see water wars not as a future threat, but a living reality. Take the recent conflict in Lebanon. Beyond the unfolding horror captured on our television screens, one event went almost unnoticed. The destruction by Israeli bombs of irrigation canals supplying water from the Litani River to farmland along the coastal plain and parts of the Bekaa Valley threatens thousands of livelihoods.
The Litani irrigation system is not an isolated example. Last month in Sri Lanka, the refusal of Tamil Tiger rebels to open a sluice gate for canals that supply water to rice farmers sparked a full-scale military assault that claimed the lives of 17 aid workers.
Water conflicts are invariably shaped by local factors. But the sheer scale of these conflicts makes it impossible to dismiss them as isolated events. What we are dealing with is a global crisis generated by decades of gross mismanagement of water resources.
The facts behind the crisis tell their own story. By 2025, more than two billion people are expected to live in countries that find it difficult or impossible to mobilize the water resources needed to meet the needs of agriculture, industry and households. Population growth, urbanization and the rapid development of manufacturing industries are relentlessly increasing demand for finite water resources.
Symptoms of the resulting water stress are increasingly visible. In northern China, rivers now run dry in their lower reaches for much of the year. In parts of India, groundwater levels are falling so rapidly that from 10 percent to 20 percent of agricultural production is under threat.
From the Aral Sea in Central Asia to Lake Chad in sub-Saharan Africa, lakes are shrinking at an unprecedented rate. In effect, a large section of humanity is now living in regions where the limits of sustainable water use have been breached - and where water-based ecological systems are collapsing.
The disputes erupting within countries are one consequence of increasing scarcity. But water is the ultimate fugitive resource. Two in every five people in the world live in river and lake basins that span one or more international borders. And it is this hydrological interdependence that has the potential to transmit heightened competition for water across frontiers.
The Tigris and Euphrates river systems figure prominently at World Water Week. No river system better demonstrates the nature of hydrological interdependence. In Turkey, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen as an underexploited source of power and irrigation. Viewed from Syria and Iraq, Turkish dams are a threat to hundreds of thousands of livelihoods, with farmers losing access to water. Underpinning the rivalry between states is the idea that sharing water is a zero-sum game: Every drop of water secured by Turkish farmers appears as a loss to Syrian farmers.
Consider, too, the huge river-diversion programs under consideration in China and India, which see them as part of a national strategy for transferring water from surplus to deficit areas. Neighboring governments fear a catastrophic loss of water. Bangladesh has warned that any diversion of the Ganges to meet the needs of India's cities could undermine the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable farmers.
Identifying potential flashpoints for conflict does not require a doctorate in hydrology. In the Middle East, the world's most severely water-stressed region, more than 90 percent of usable water crosses international borders. Forget oil: The most precious resource in the region flows in the River Jordan, or resides in the aquifers that link Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The threats posed by competition for water are real enough - but for every threat there is an opportunity. Cooperation tends to attract less news than violent conflict. Perhaps that is why "water wars" get such exaggerated coverage. The agreement under which Lesotho provides water to the greater Johannesburg area in South Africa in return for watershed management finance does not make front page news. Nor does the Nile Basin Initiative, through which Egypt, Ethiopia and other countries are exchanging the benefits of cooperation on the Nile. And cooperation in West Africa between Senegal, Mali and Mauritania to share the Senegal River is not likely to make prime- time new slots in Europe. Yet cooperation over water is far more widespread than conflict.
None of this is to play down the risk of water wars. Like oil and other energy resources, water is a source of life and livelihoods. It follows that water security is every bit as integral to human progress as energy security, with one large caveat: unlike oil, water has no known substitutes. That is why no country can afford to suffer a catastrophic loss of water resources.
How can the world move toward a future of cooperation rather than conflict on water? We believe that there are four broad rules.
First, governments have to stop treating water as an infinitely available resource to be exploited without reference to ecological sustainability. Yes, water is scarce in many countries. But the scarcity is the product of poor economic policies. Improving the efficiency of water use and encouraging conservation through pricing and more efficient technologies in agriculture and industry would help reduce scarcity. Some countries also have the option of conserving local resources by importing the "virtual water" embedded in imported agricultural produce.
Second, countries must avoid unilateralism. Any major upstream alteration to a river system, or increase in use of shared groundwater, should be negotiated, not imposed.
Third, governments should look beyond national borders to basin-wide cooperation. Building strong river-basin institutions could provide a framework for identifying and exploiting opportunities for cooperation.
Aid donors could do far more in this area. At present, transboundary cooperation receives about $350 million a year in aid. This is a small investment in an area that has the potential to generate high returns. The European Union has a crucial role to play because of its experience in building institutions for managing the great European rivers, such as the Danube and the Rhine.
Fourth, political leaders need to get involved. Too often, dialogue on transboundary water management is dominated by technical experts. Whatever their level of expertise, dedication and professionalism, the absence of political leadership tends to limit the scope for far-reaching cooperation.
The most obvious reason for greater political and financial investment in transboundary water cooperation is spelled out in an unlikely source. "By means of water," says the Koran, "we give life to everything." As a single human community sharing a single planet we need to look beyond our national borders to work out ways of sustaining the ecological systems on which human progress depends. By means of water, perhaps we can display a capacity for resolving problems and sustaining through cooperation.
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