Why water never leads to wars

Water Policy

December 3, 1999

The 21st century will be the century of water wars. As world water supplies run low and population continues to grow, nations will fight over water as much as they have over land and, in the 20th century, over oil. Or so many people will have us believe. But the editors of the first journal dedicated to the development of international water policy argue very differently. Water, they say, is an agency of peace.Associate editor Aaron T. Wolf of Oregon State University, in the journal's second issue, makes the case concisely. There are 261 international rivers, covering almost half of the total land surface of the globe, and there are untold numbers of shared underground water reserves. Yes, there have been past tensions over these waters. Between Arabs and Israelis over the River Jordan and its principal tributary, the River

Yarmuk; between Mexicans and Americans over the River Colorado; between Indians and Bangladeshis over the Ganges; between the Iraqis, Turks and Syrians over the Euphrates. All ten states along the Nile are in dispute over its future. The list goes on. Even the Welsh have placed bombs beneath pipelines taking their water into England.

But what Wolf finds most interesting is that none of these disputes have ever led to war. In an exhaustive search he found "only seven minor skirmishes in this century, and no war has ever been fought over water. In contrast, 145 water-related treaties were signed in the same period." He concludes that "war over water seems neither strategically rational, hydrologically effective, nor economically viable".

I am not sure that this holds for underground water reserves, especially ancient "fossil" water that is not being replenished by rains - the kind Libya is pumping in vast quantities from beneath the Sahara, worryingly close to the Egyptian border. But it does hold for rivers. River water is not a fixed asset like land; it is a constantly moving resource. And capturing it requires vast dams and other infrastructure that are open to sabotage.

I have always been struck by the moderate tone of hydrologists in Israel, for instance. In the years before the peace accords with Palestinians and others, they constantly stressed that Israel had enough water to be generous with its neighbours. Disputes rumble on Russia's southern flank, among former members of the old Soviet Union. Yet where is the war over the shared rivers that drain into the dying Aral Sea? The countries may be horribly abusing the region's water, causing ecological mayhem around the dried-up sea, but nobody has even suggesting going to war over the matter.

Almost the only thing that India and Pakistan have successfully agreed on since the partitioning of their two countries half a century ago is the Indus, whose waters they share. The river is absolutely essential to the lives of tens of millions of Pakistanis, and its headwaters are to be found in the disputed territory of Kashmir. And yet the skirmishes in Kashmir are patently not about water.As Wolf puts it: "Shared interests along a waterway seem to consistently outweigh water's conflict-inducing characteristics." Water Policy hopes to help keep it that way, as the journal of the World Water Council, one of a series of international water bodies established over the past decade to further civil and political debate on the resource. Until their formation, discussion of water had been largely a matter for hydrologists and other technocrats. Now - through initiatives by the World Bank, green anti-dam campaigners and others - it has become part of a wider public discourse.

Early issues of the journal cover a wide range of both thematic and local issues: slow progress on the Zambezi Action Plan; whether Poland can meet European Union water-quality objectives for its filthy rivers; the failure of privatisation to remove water in Britain from the political arena.

Kader Asmal, South Africa's minister for water affairs and chairman of the World Commission on Dams, calls the management of water "a metaphor for governance". He argues that the fashion for governments to withdraw from funding of large water projects, whether dams or irrigation projects or hydro-electric plants, is shortsighted. In his own region, he says, the Komati basin "could support much more economic activity in Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa. But it could take around 45 years to reap a return on investments needed to tap those waters."

Private investors will not wait so long, he say; only states will do it. Only the state could have built Egypt's Aswan dam, he argues. "What would have become of Egypt without it?" Wars or no wars, water policy is a debate to watch.

Fred Pearce is an environmental writer and author of The Damned .

Water Policy: The Journal of the World Water Council (six times a year)

Editor - J. Delli Priscoli
ISBN - ISSN 1 366 7017
Publisher - Elsevier
Price - $475.00
Pages - -

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