Water wars: are we drinking in the last chance saloon?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, liked to joke that “there cannot be a crisis next week. My schedule is already full.” He was pointing to the obvious fact that old problems do not magically disappear because new ones suddenly race to the top of the international agenda. Equally, when politicians and diplomats are busy tackling current problems, new ones can surge from left base at any moment. So, juggling many balls in the air at any one time is what effective leadership is all about. No matter how much we become absorbed in the crisis of the day, we must always remember that the earlier we focus on the potential crises of the future, the more preventable and the less inevitable they will be. The solutions are easier, cheaper and invariably more effective.

I was reminded of all this when the United Nations marked World Water Day on 22 March. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now into its fifth week, continuing to monopolise the headlines, the prospects of growing water scarcity in the world did not gain much traction. Yet water is the most vital resource of all. We need it to preserve life and sustain the planet. It is the resource that enables us to produce the oil, gas and precious metals and chemicals on which the global economy and our personal livelihoods depend. Moreover, water is essential to produce food, our second most vital resource.

Since water is the one resource that the planet and its climate produce naturally, unlike oil and gas extraction, mining operations and agriculture which require massive human intervention, we tend to take it for granted. It is a basic human right to access water and in many countries of the world it has long been provided by governments for free. Water covers 70% of the planet, suggesting at first sight that scarcity should not be an issue. Yet only 3% of the planet’s water is fresh water suitable for human use. Of that, 70% goes to industrial production and 19% to agriculture. Only a small fraction is left for drinking or cooking. Indeed, two-thirds of the planet’s fresh water supply is contained in glaciers, and it cannot be accessed.

Water availability has been under pressure for some time, especially due to rising world population. This has increased thirtyfold over the last 2,000 years but water supply has not kept pace. Water is finite compared to mankind’s capacity to reproduce almost indefinitely. Today one third of all the countries on the planet are experiencing water stress. Last year the signs of this stress became manifest when Chennai in India and Cape Town in South Africa experienced ‘zero days’ when their reservoirs ran dry, the taps ceased to function, and water had to be brought in by tank trucks from elsewhere. Water is difficult and expensive to move from areas of abundance to areas of scarcity. Los Angeles in the United States has been toying with a ‘zero day’ scenario for several decades already.

90% of the Egyptian population live along the Nile and their livelihoods would be severely damaged if water flows decrease

Scarcity that was already being propelled by more human beings using more water is now being exacerbated by climate change. It has brought longer and more regular periods of severe drought, disrupted rainfall patterns and led to more water evaporation. With rising sea levels, river deltas have filled up with sea water rather than fresh water, making irrigation of farmland more difficult. With extended summers of 50°C plus now spreading across Africa, the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North America, people who cannot afford 24/7 air conditioning need to move. Life is not sustainable in the midst of forest fires and air pollution, crop failures and the respiratory and heart conditions brought on by exposure to excessive heat. The UN estimates that by mid-century the number of climate refugees (at around 30mn) will outstrip the number fleeing for conflict or economic reasons. The industrialised world will face some difficult trade-offs as it seeks to increase its energy and food security by ramping up domestic production while trying to conserve water and to use it more efficiently. Fracking for unconventional gas, mining for rare earths and using fertilisers and chemicals for intensive farming require enormous volumes of water. These extractive industries, albeit essential in the short term to keep global supply chains functioning and homes heated, also damage the fragile ecosystems which regenerate our water supplies. So where and how to strike the right balance?

As we become more aware of the higher value of water as a commodity, strategists are thinking about the types of conflict that water scarcity and competition to access adequate supplies might provoke in the future. The academic community is more or less unanimous in concluding that water disputes have not been – at least so far – the direct cause of war. This said, once conflicts have begun for other reasons, control of water resources has become an objective for the belligerents. A recent example was the way in which ISIL in Syria tried to take of dams in the northern sector of the country in order to control the flow of water to their Kurdish adversaries or tax water supplies to increase their war chest. Yet as advertisements for investments always warn prospective clients: “past performance is no guide to future earnings.” So, the fact that water wars have not yet happened does not mean that they will not break out in the future, particularly as climate change makes water security a growing concern for dozens of countries dependent on the goodwill of their more privileged neighbours. Already a number of hotspots are emerging.

One is in the Himalayas where China is diverting the flows of the three major rivers that run into India in order to develop the Chinese northwest desert region. These are the Brahmaputra, Indus and Ganges. Together they supply water directly to 140mn Indians downstream. China and India together make up one quarter of the world’s population, but they have no water sharing agreement. During periods of tension when Beijing and Delhi have clashed along the line of control on the Himalayan plateau, China has stopped providing data to India on water volumes in the rivers. If China reduces the flow of the rivers, it will also reduce the silt in the Ganges delta, which is an important source of fertiliser for Indian farmers. They are a powerful lobby in Indian politics and will not hesitate to put pressure on the government to take a tough line with Beijing.

A second recent hotspot is in East Africa where in the past month Ethiopia has brought its Great Renaissance Dam into operation, providing its first kilowatts of electricity to Ethiopian homes, farms and factories. Ethiopia is mightily proud of this achievement. Civil servants have paid part of their salaries towards the dam’s construction costs and Ethiopians have purchased government bonds to raise public finance. Yet the dam now controls the water supply along the Blue Nile whose waters also sustain the populations of Sudan and Egypt. Indeed 90% of the Egyptian population live along the Nile and their livelihoods would be severely damaged if water flows decrease as Ethiopia fills up the lakes behind the dam. In all, 11 African countries that depend on the hydraulic pathways created by the complex ecosystem that feeds the White Nile and Blue Nile also stand to lose out. So Egypt has repeatedly threatened to bomb the Great Renaissance Dam if Ethiopia does not accept new water sharing arrangements or give guarantees regarding water flows downstream.

Water sharing in Africa and the Middle East is often determined by old colonial era treaties that do not reflect modern day demographics

Potential disputes such as these, involving well-armed military powers, make it urgent to look at the equitable distribution and allocation of water supplies, as well as at better water conservation and more efficient use. What should be the priorities?

In the first place, it is key to get people around the table. The west coast of the US offers a good example. Back in the 1930s, California, Arizona and other regional states, such as Nevada and Colorado, drew up a water sharing agreement. The 1930s were a wet decade and there seemed to be enough water in the Colorado River basin to satisfy everyone’s needs. Yet half a century later, when the Colorado River was supplying seven US and two Mexican states, the picture started to look very different. The water supply had been greatly over-estimated and tensions rose as the individual states began to take unilateral action. At one stage the Arizona National Guard was deployed to the state border with California.

The US federal government stepped in and forced the states to come to the table on the understanding that if one goes down, everyone goes down. The result is that today the states operate a common monitoring and risk assessment mechanism for the Colorado River basin. They have replenished the delta and established a groundwater storage network. They have concluded agreements on managing and sustaining the river’s ecosystem and on the natural regeneration of the water table. By putting the collective interest first and using the Colorado River’s water in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way, the states have avoided a race to the bottom competing for an ever-diminishing flow of water.

What has been achieved within countries now needs to be transferred to the international level. In addition to the issues regarding China and Ethiopia already mentioned, there are other potential flashpoints. For instance, between Israel and Jordan over the Jordan River, or between Turkey and Iraq over the Tigris and the Euphrates. Water sharing in Africa and the Middle East is often determined by old colonial era treaties that do not reflect modern day demographics or economic development needs. Moreover, in many cases, the ownership of water reserves has never been determined so countries take water that rightly belongs to others.

City planners need to devise crisis management strategies to cope with prolonged drought

The task for the UN and regional organisations, as well as specific negotiation frameworks, is to bring the parties to the table and promote confidence building and transparency measures among them. Water disputes can be put to arbitration in regional tribunals or the International Court of Justice in the same way as for territorial and border disputes. Regulations concerning the right to draw water and codes of conduct for dispute settlement procedures or for environmental protection and sustainability can be negotiated. International loans or project finance, as well as development aid or trade agreements, can increasingly be linked to a country’s water policies and to the acceptance of responsible exploitation and dispute settlement mechanisms.

Cities also need special attention. 55% of the world’s population now live in cities, and increasingly this means megacities with over 20mn inhabitants in Asia or Africa. Cities are driving global growth and GDP, but they also have antiquated water pipes, which leak millions of gallons every year. Many have inadequate sanitation and sewage systems and water of poor drinking quality, which increases the risk of sickness and disease. Excessive use of chemical products makes it difficult to decontaminate used water and to recycle it for further use. Aquifers are being depleted at an alarming rate with little planning for water storage and conservation.

City planners and administrators need to design more robust and sustainable infrastructures for water distribution in urban areas. They need to use local tax structures to incentivise water saving and the purchase of technologies and industrial appliances that use less water, such as toilets, air conditioning, washing machines or dishwashers. More modern metering systems can help to monitor consumption levels and adapt charges and taxes to different levels of water use. Saudi Arabia has introduced such an incentives scheme in its major cities of Riyadh and Jeddah. This goes hand-in-hand with the many public education and awareness campaigns that we are now seeing in several of the world’s water stressed cities. Above all, city planners need to devise crisis management strategies to cope with prolonged drought by building more water storage capacity and accessing alternative supplies on a contingency basis. Otherwise, we will see many more ‘zero days’ as happened in Chennai and Cape Town.

This brings us to market mechanisms. Should water be subject to the laws of supply and demand as for other commodities such as oil and gas? If so, the price of water would certainly go up sharply, particularly in the developing countries where many governments have traditionally provided water for free, especially in poor areas. This makes the introduction of market mechanisms a sensitive political issue. When Bolivia decided to privatise its state water company and introduce market pricing, there were riots in La Paz and it was forced to backtrack. Yet providing water for free benefits the wealthy in society who can afford to pay more. It also does not allow the state to recover the costs of water supply and invest profits in new technologies and in conservation and sustainability infrastructure. Additionally, it loses the benefit of competition in markets and free water hardly encourages a culture of frugality in water use.

These environmental resilience strategies need to encompass entire regions

Given the status of water as a global public good and its centrality to food production and every aspect of life, there will probably be a limit to market mechanisms, especially in developing countries resistant to sudden and radical change. Yet subsidies are costly and an inefficient use of public funds that need to be increasingly spent for water regeneration and conservation rather than consumption. So, a candid debate between water ministries and finance ministries as to where market mechanisms can help to rebalance supply and demand, promote better management methods and drive greater investment in supply, water purification and quality control would be useful. There is no shortage of market-based models for developing countries to learn from and again the international financial institutions, such as the World Bank or regional development banks, can pioneer these approaches in their loan and project evaluation policies.

Finally, politicians and policymakers need to understand the highly intricate and interdependent ecosystems that generate water and create the hydraulic pathways that put water into our rivers. They can often extend over thousands of kilometres. For instance, the origin of much of the water that ends up in the Blue Nile is the Congo basin. Deforestation and intensive agriculture, pollution and major construction projects or the use of chemicals and pesticides can disrupt these fragile and intricate ecosystems, making long established water pathways suddenly dry up. So environmental impact studies and water security policies cannot only take account of the immediate local vicinity, for instance, a particular river basin or delta. These environmental resilience strategies need to encompass entire regions and secure the buy in and ownership of several states and regions. Together they need to monitor environmental changes closely and have the cooperative structures, such as multilateral environmental agencies and common budgets, to respond quickly to degenerative trends. As in California and Arizona, Benjamin Franklin’s celebrated maxim applies: “Either we all hang together, or we will all hang separately.”

Nearly every British schoolboy or schoolgirl of my generation would be familiar with a famous line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink”. Yet humanity does not have to go the same way as Coleridge’s hapless sailor shipwrecked on the high seas. Water wars will almost certainly happen in the future if water continues to become scarcer and more valuable and thus a tool to threaten and undermine adversaries. They will be accelerated by exploding demographics, unwise development strategies and our inability to come up with more equitable and efficient sharing arrangements. If the world’s leaders and their array of officials and advisors do not pay more attention to water, we may soon be drinking in the last chance saloon. World Water Day will undoubtedly be getting a lot more traction next year than it did just a few weeks ago.

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