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Averting conflict over water

by Brahma Chellaney

In an increasingly water-stressed world, shared water resources are becoming an instrument of power, fostering competition within and between nations and exacerbating impacts on ecosystems.

The Budapest Water Summit, which takes place this week, is the latest initiative to search for ways to mitigate the pressing challenges. Consider some sobering facts:

• Bottled water at the grocery store is already more expensive than crude oil on the spot market.

• More people today own or use a mobile phone than have access to water-sanitation services.

• Unclean water is the greatest killer on the globe, yet a fifth of humankind still lacks easy access to potable water.

• More than half of the global population currently lives under water stress — a figure projected to increase to two-thirds during the next decade.

Potentially calamitous water shortages in the coming decades in the densely populated parts of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa — the world’s most-parched regions — could produce large numbers of “water refugees” and overwhelm some states’ institutional capacity to contain the effects. The struggle for water is already escalating interstate and intrastate tensions.

Downstream Egypt, for example, uses the bulk of the Nile River’s water, yet it is now threatening unspecified reprisals against Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam.

China, the world’s most-dammed nation and unrivaled hydro-hegemon, has approved the construction of 54 new dams — many of them on rivers that are the lifeblood for countries in Southeast and South Asia — as it seeks to build a strategic grip on transboundary water flows.

Turkey, like China, is trying to reinforce its regional riparian dominance by accelerating an ambitious dam-building program, which threatens to diminish cross-border flows into Syria and Iraq. The internal war in Syria and the continuing sectarian bloodletting in Iraq have muted regional opposition to Turkey’s dam-building spree.

Meanwhile, intrastate water-sharing disputes have become rife, although they receive little coverage in the international media. Water conflicts within culturally diverse nations such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan often assume ethnic dimensions, thereby accentuating internal-security challenges.

But as illustrated by the disputes, for example, within the United States, Spain and Australia, intra-country water conflict is not restricted to the developing world. Water conflicts in America have spread from the arid west to the east. Violent water struggles, however, occur mostly in developing nations, with resource scarcity often promoting environmental degradation and perpetuating poverty.

Adequate access to natural resources, historically, has been a key factor in peace and war. Water, however, is very different from other natural resources. A person can live without love but not without water.

There are substitutes for a number of resources, including oil, but none for water. Countries can import, even from distant lands, fossil fuels, mineral ores, and resources originating in the biosphere, such as fish and timber. But they cannot import the most vital of all resources, water — certainly not in a major or sustainable manner. Water is essentially local and very expensive to ship across seas.

Scarce water resources generate conflict. After all, the origin of the word “rival” is tied to water competition. It comes from the Latin word rivalis, or one who uses the same stream.

The paradox of water is that it is a life preserver but it can also be a life destroyer when it becomes a carrier of deadly bacteria or takes the form of tsunamis, flash floods, storms and hurricanes. Many of the greatest natural disasters of our time have been water related. One recent example is the Fukushima disaster, which triggered a triple nuclear meltdown.

Because of global warming, potable water is set to come under increasing strain even as oceans rise and the intensity and frequency of storms and other extreme weather events increases.

Rapid economic and demographic expansion has already turned potable water into a major issue across large parts of the world. Lifestyle changes, for example, have spurred increasing per capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products.

It is against this background that water wars in a political and economic sense are already being waged between states in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers or, if the country is located downstream, by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. U.S. intelligence has warned that such water wars could turn violent.

According to a report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies, the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism could become more likely in the next decade in some regions.

The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, meanwhile, has called for urgent action, saying some countries battling severe water shortages risk failing. The U.S. State Department, for its part, has upgraded water to “a central U.S. foreign policy concern.”

Water stress is imposing mounting socioeconomic costs. Commercial or state decisions in many countries on where to set up new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly being constrained by inadequate local water availability.

The World Bank has estimated the economic cost of China’s water problems at 2.3 percent of its GDP. China, however, is not as yet under water stress — a term internationally defined as the availability of less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per head per year. The already water-stressed economies, stretching from South Korea and India to Egypt and Morocco, are paying a higher price for their water problems.

Water is a renewable but finite resource. Nature’s fixed water-replenishment capacity limits the world’s renewable freshwater resources to nearly 43,000 billion cubic meters per year. But the human population has almost doubled since 1970 alone, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Consumption growth has become the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive. It is about 10 times more water-intensive to produce meat than plant-based calories and proteins.

As a result, water is becoming the world’s next major security and economic challenge.

Although no modern war has been fought just over water, this resource has been an underlying factor in several armed conflicts. With the era of cheap, bountiful water having been replaced by increasing supply and quality constraints, the risks of overt water wars are now increasing.

Averting water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms. However, there is still no international water law in force, and most of the regional water agreements are toothless, lacking monitoring and enforcement rules and provisions formally dividing water among users. Worse still, unilateralism is endemic in the parched world.

The international community thus confronts a problem more pressing than peak oil, economic slowdown and other oft-cited challenges.

Addressing this core problem indeed holds the key to dealing with other challenges because of the nexus of water with global warming, energy shortages, stresses on food supply, population pressures, pollution, environmental degradation, global epidemics and natural disasters.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War”(Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).