We’ve talked a lot about oil on Make Wealth History, and the potential for conflict as supplies become increasingly limited, an explosive combination of rising demand and falling reserves. Unfortunately, oil isn’t the only resource worth fighting over, and in some parts of the world resource conflicts are much more elemental – the wars are over water.
You may not have heard of many of them, but the last 50 years have seen no less than 1,800 international disputes over water, 37 of which have become armed military conflicts. Perhaps the most serious was the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. In the 1960s Israel invested heavily in a system of canals and pipelines to bring fresh water from the Jordan River to the rest of the country, under an ambitious project called the National Water Carrier. In a ploy to weaken Israel, an alliance of Arab states attempted to thwart the plan by diverting the rivers that supply the Jordan, reducing the National Water Carrier by 35%. Israel attacked the building works in Jordan to protect their water supplies, and this provoked the border skirmishes that in turn sparked the Six Day War. The people of the occupied territories still live with the consequences.
Like the Six Day War, many of the water conflicts are based around rivers. Rivers are a continuous supply of both water itself, and indirectly through irrigation, of food. Where rivers pass through more than one country, there may be competition. The Rio Plata, for example, is shared by Brazil and Argentina. The Nile passes through four countries, but supplies water to ten. The Danube is shared by 17 countries, the Niger by 11. All in all there are 19 international rivers shared by five or more nations. When an upstream country takes too much from a river, downstream countries run dry.
The Nile is particularly contentious. Under an old colonial agreement, Egypt was given the rights to three quarters of the Nile’s water, with the other quarter going to Sudan. But all the Nile’s water comes from tributaries upstream, the White Nile and Blue Nile in particular. Ethiopia needs more water, but if it draws it from the Blue Nile, it will be a violation of Egypt’s water rights. As Cairo newspaper stated recently: “The Egyptian government has long recognized upstream development of the Nile waters as a potential national security threat and has stated its readiness to go to war to preserve its access to fresh water.”
Similar disputes fester between Turkey and Syria over the Euphrates, an argument that nearly spilled into armed conflict in 1998. The US meanwhile, with Mexico over the Rio Grande. When drought hit northern Mexico recently, the country drew more than its allowance from the river that forms the US-Mexico border, leaving them in ‘water debt’ to the US.
It is usually the downstream countries that are most vulnerable, especially when your river crosses your border into someone else’s territory. Not only are your water supplies at risk, you may also receive your neighbour’s sewage and industrial waste, killing your fish and polluting your land.
One extreme example is the Aral Sea, in what Julian Caldecott describes as “one of the most spectacular ecological disasters of the Twentieth Century” in his book Water – Life in Every Drop.
Once the world’s fourth largest lake, the tributaries of the Aral Sea were diverted into the Kazahkstani desert so that the USSR could create a localized cotton industry. It succeeded, and the world’s most environmentally wasteful cotton is still grown in the region, but the effect on the Aral Sea was irreversible. You don’t need to look much further than the former port of to see what happened – twenty miles of toxic sand and salt now lie between the port and the sea, and I don’t need to explain what that meant to the fishermen and traders.
The same problems exist within nations. Due to demand, China’s Yellow River , drying up as industry and housing increased needs take more and more from it. This is currently leaving farmers without irrigation water and fishermen without catch.
A growing problem
Conflicts over water resources rose from five a year in the 1980s to twenty-two in 2000. Between 1990 and 1997, over $50 billion was spent by 23 countries engaging in conflicts over water for agriculture. Several factors are at play in the growing problem of world water supplies. One is population increase, and thus greater demand for water and for food. Another is increased standards of living. As more people gain running water and sanitation, demand rises again for showers and flushing toilets. Current climactic changes don’t bode well either, with changing rainfall patterns and the increased risk of drought and desertification.
Actions, debates, solutions
Water is an enormous problem, and one that will require major international cooperation. There are however a few things that could be done to ease the problem. One of the most important things is to cut down on water wastage, and this needs to be done at the top level.
For example, the US operates a water subsidy system that keeps irrigation cheap. Farming uses 80% of America’s water, and taxpayers pay $3 billion a year towards water subsidies. When farmers don’t have to pay a market rate for water, there is no incentive to conserve it, and so the subsidy system both allows and even encourages waste.
Bad water policies in the past need to be undone to make better use of water supplies. As I’ve already mentioned, much of the cotton grown in Central Asia is irrigated from the rivers diverted from the Aral Sea. Uzbekistan should not be able to grow cotton, it doesn’t have the climate for it, and so the cotton grown there uses far more water than it should. The kind of protectionist policies that demanded a local cotton industry are no longer required now the Cold War is over, and the region should be helped to adapt to growing more suitable and more sustainable cash crops.
As the world comes to terms with water shortages, some countries have proposed a very dangerous solution. I won’t go into it in detail now, but groups such as the World Water Commission have suggested that only the mechanisms of the market can guarantee stability in water supplies, and that all water sources should be privatized. By making it a commodity, a market will emerge and the balance of supply and demand will ensure that water ends up where it needs to be. I would argue the complete opposite, that water falls as rain and runs as rivers, that it’s a gift, and that like the air we breathe, access to water should be a fundamental human right. The commodification of water must be resisted. Obviously, privatizing water would put the power into the hands of the rich, and leave the poor even worse off than before. This isn’t happening yet, but like carbon trading, people can’t resist making an economic opportunity out of a disaster, and this will be a debate to watch over the next few years.
On a more personal level, the small choices that each one of us make every day add up to a huge amount of water. UK readers will be familiar with these, as the government has to remind us of them all when we get a dry summer – things like taking showers instead of baths, watering plants by hand rather than with a sprinkler, or not leaving the tap running when we brush our teeth. These actions do matter, particularly in water-stressed parts of the world.
Finally, there is the issue of water injustice. If you flushed a toilet today, you used more water in that one flush that 1 in 5 of the world’s people use in a whole day. Over a billion people still live without access to clean water, and a child dies every 20 seconds from water-borne disease. While people in developing countries use 10 litres a day, we in the UK use 150. While over 2 billion people live without proper sanitation, we have swimming pools, fountains, and beautifully green gold courses. I will mention them again in another post, but I would encourage you to support or Samaritan’s Purse’s campaign to redress this balance, and bring water to those who need it most.
Find out more:
- Water – Life in Every Drop, by Julian Caldecott
- Why bottled water is a bad idea