Monday, September 18, 2006

Water wars

Water scarcity is becoming a big issue in our world. Although the earth's surface is largely covered by bodies of water, only a small percentage is freshwater suitable for our drinking and agriculture needs. Will problems arising from water shortages lead to conflict and mass suffering?

Reuters addressed this topic today with an article entitled, "'Water Wars' loom? But none in the past 4,500 years". The opening section of their report seems to debunk the notion of war resulting from water scarcity:

With a steady stream of bleak predictions that "water wars" will be fought over dwindling supplies in the 21st century, battles between two Sumerian city-states 4,500 years ago seem to set a worrying precedent.

But the good news, many experts say, is that the conflict between Lagash and Umma over irrigation rights in what is now Iraq was the last time two states went to war over water.

Down the centuries since then, international rivals sharing waters such as the Jordan River, the Nile, the Ganges or the Parana have generally favored cooperation over conflict.

So if history can be trusted, things may stay that way.

I certainly hope they are right, but it has not stopped some observers from noting that tensions and conflict often do arise from water disputes. Some have suggested that past Arab-Israeli conficts, such as 1967's Six Day war, actually arose out of attempts to control regional water sources.

More recently, fighting flared up in Sri Lanka (in what is now being called a civil war) after a dispute arose over access to an irrigation canal.

Obviously, water can be a triggering factor when fighting breaks out between nations and groups (or within them), a point conceded by Reuters' article:

Experts note that violence over water often breaks out within countries -- over rivers, lakes, oases or wells.

In Kenya, dozens of people died early this year in fighting between nomadic tribes over scant water and grazing rights. Tamil Tiger rebels were accused of shutting off sluices in Sri Lanka in August in their separatist war with government forces.

Steiner said countries most vulnerable to water scarcity included already conflict-prone Chad, Sudan and Somalia, as well as Ethiopia, parts of Pakistan, south India and China.

Still, Reuters' "Water wars" ends on a hopeful note by pointing out that even during times of war, cooperation over water resources continued even among warring nations. Let's hope there is some truth there.

For more info on water scarcity and the importance of water as a commodity, please see my review of Paul Simon's book, Tapped Out, as well as the many water focused articles available at Financial Sense Online.