Potential global conflict over water shortage must be averted

Water, water everywhere, not any drop to drink.” This famous quote has taken an infamous, contentious overtone. Held in March, the Third World Water Forum in Japan made some dire and ominous predictions about geopolitical conflicts that will threaten international peace and security resulting from water shortages around the globe, particularly the Middle East.

The earth’s water exists as ice, salt water and drinkable fresh water. Ninety-seven percent is in the form of salt water, 2 percent in the form of ice and a mere 1 percent is fresh water. The world cannot miraculously increase its finite fresh water supply. Instead, it can change the way it uses this precious natural resource.

Set geopolitical boundaries, civil unrest, mismanagement, historical conflicts and differing political and religious ideologies have created a volatile atmosphere to peacefully share water. And there are simply a lot more of us around to share it.

It is feared that war could break out if a country near a river’s point of origin or source channels more water for itself, thereby lowering the amount of water reaching countries downstream. In March, BBC correspondent Ben Sutherland in Kyoto, Japan, reported that there is concern about the effect a proposed scheme in India to divert the Ganges River to dry areas might have on the water supply downstream in Bangladesh.

The already volatile Middle East, with the stabilization of Iraq, war on terror, White House accusations against Iran and the proposed “road map” for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might have another problem at hand. The Middle East harbors only 1 percent of the world’s fresh water that is shared among 5 percent of the world’s population. Obviously, there exists a strain on water resources in the region. The Nile River flows through nine nations. The amount of water in the Nile has not changed since biblical times, but populations sharing it have increased tremendously and are likely to double in this century. An interesting view expressed at the forum by Mona El Kody, chairwoman of the National Water Research Unit in Egypt, was that living without an adequate access to water creates a nonhuman environment composed of no clean water and no sanitation, which leads to frustration, and from there, possibly terrorism.

Before West Bank Palestinians can use water, it must be delivered via tankers that have to clear Israeli checkpoints. Israeli settlements within the West Bank channel the underground water and aquifers for themselves. Middle East writer and commentator Adel Darwish said that with the Israeli army in control, prohibiting Palestinians from pumping water, and settlers using much more advanced pumping equipment, Palestinians complain of “daily theft” of as much as 80 percent of their underground water.

Furthermore, many of the major rivers such as the Euphrates, Nile and Jordan run through mutually hostile countries.

In October 2002, Israel viewed the inauguration of a new pumping station on the Jordan River by the Lebanese government as a provocation for war. Israel warned that it reserved the right to defend its water resources because the installation would draw water from the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest freshwater reservoir. King Hussein of Jordan has said the only reason for him to go to war would be over water, and before leaving the post of secretary-general of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali candidly said the next destabilizing event in the region would be war over water.

The battle over water is not confined to the Middle East. Africa, Asia and South America are affected by the scarcity of and lack of access to clean water. What is the solution to these water problems? Quite insightfully, former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, now president of Green Cross International, indicated at the forum that countries in river basins have to cooperate to prevent tensions and avert some real conflicts. If all countries within a basin don’t work together, only dominant countries can control the water. And this is bound to create controversy.

A great majority of countries have not made a commitment to cooperate on water resources. Hence, it is likely conflicts between nations will break out over the legitimate right over water bodies. The complexity of the current geopolitical situation around the globe, the lack of law edicts in this matter and historical conflicts only complicate the issue.

Actions of one nation leading the deprivation of water for another will cause distrust and frustration. There has to be more communication and agreement between nations before it gets to the point of waging war.

Sana Ansari works at the University and welcomes comments at [email protected]