Water and war

Steve Lonergan
says that tensions over water will increase as scarcity increases, but that outright conflict can be avoided

The purposes of the United Nations, as set forth in the UN Charter, are to maintain international peace and security; to develop friendly relations among nations; to cooperate in solving international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems and in promoting respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; and to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in attaining these ends. These purposes were reinforced in the United Nations Millennium Declaration of 2000 and further clarified. Three key areas now define United Nations activities: Peace and Security; Development; and Human Rights and Democracy.

As we enter the 21st century, new challenges to these areas are emerging. We are confronted with both old and new threats to international peace and security; poverty has been recognized by world leaders as the most daunting of all the problems facing the world in the new century; and fundamental values of freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility now form common values through which achievements in the former two categories can be realized. In each of these key areas environment and resources play a central role. Threats to common security now include so-called ‘soft threats': environmental degradation, resource depletion, contagious diseases and corruption, to name just a few.

It is now recognized that environmental degradation and both scarcity and abundance of natural resources are potential sources of conflict – and cooperation – and need to be more systematically addressed in this context. Access to fresh water and sanitation services are a precondition to achieving the other internationally accepted goals in the Millennium Declaration.

Nowhere is this issue more important than in the Middle East, where water is considered a ‘strategic’ resource and tensions between countries in the region over it are high. There it has become a major political issue, and the various peace agreements that have been proposed or signed in recent years all include water. This has led to claims from various sources – attributed (but unsubstantiated) to such individuals as Boutros Boutros Ghali and former King Hussein of Jordan – that ‘the next war in the Middle East will be over water’. This rhetoric has captured the public imagination and caused much consternation in the intelligence communities of various countries, who worry whether water – or other scarce resources – may be a future flashpoint for international conflict.

Scarce resource
In many cases, these comments are little more than media hype; in others, statements have been made for political reasons. Yet, regardless of the source, or the reason, water is clearly a scarce resource in some regions. Tensions exist over water use, water ownership and water rights – and are likely to increase in the future. The Middle East and Africa provoke perhaps the greatest concern about water shortage: by 2025, 40 countries in the regions are expected to experience water stress or scarcity.

Water scarcity is a function of supply and demand. Demand is increasing at an alarming rate in some regions, through population growth and increasing per capita use. In many water-scarce countries, such as Jordan and Israel, there is no obvious and inexpensive way to increase water supply, and tensions among different water users are likely to result. In other countries, such as Egypt, improvements in water efficiency, moving away from water-intensive crops, or importing water from nearby countries may offer reasonable solutions.

The second crisis is deteriorating water quality. Agriculture is the biggest polluter: increased use of fertilizer and pesticides has contaminated both groundwater and surface water supplies. Domestic and industrial pollution is also increasing, and the problem affects both developed and developing countries.

Finally, the use of water has a geopolitical dimension. Water moves from upstream to downstream users, and withdrawals and type of use in one place may affect the quantity or quality of supplies downstream. There are also historical, cultural, economic and social aspects of water use. To some, water is a gift from God, and should not be priced, while others, such as the World Bank, have pushed for full marginal cost pricing of water.

The lack of a suitable legal framework for resolving international water resource disputes presents another problem. Sovereignty over international rivers generally invokes one of four doctrines: absolute territorial sovereignty, which implies that riparian states may use water resources in any way they please, even to the detriment of other nations; absolute territorial integrity, which suggests that riparian use of a river should not negatively affect downstream riparians; limited territorial sovereignty, which invokes a combination of the two within a framework of equitable use by all parties; and community of co-riparian states, which promotes integrated management of river basins.

Global implications
Problems of water scarcity and water pollution affect human and ecosystem health, and hinder economic and agricultural development. Local and regional problems, in turn, may affect the rest of the world by threatening food supplies and global economic development. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development concludes that these problems could result in a series of local and regional water crises, with serious global implications.

Is there likely to be violent conflict over water in the future? Past experience suggests that this is unlikely. However, many claim that the probability of conflict is increasing. The basis for most projections for future conflicts is that with the growth of demand, the decline in freshwater availability (through groundwater mining and pollution), and the adverse health effects from poor water quality, scarcity will result in violence and water wars. Yet fighting over water makes very little sense economically or politically.
‘If there is a political will for peace, water will not be a hindrance. If you want reasons to fight, water will give you ample opportunities’
There is little question that water scarcity will be a problem in some regions in the future. Global warming is likely to alter rainfall patterns and evapo-transpiration regimes in many regions, and long-term planning for water supply must take this into consideration. There is also little question that water will cost more, as it becomes increasingly scarce. This will necessitate improvements in water efficiency – and possibly the restructuring of economies away from water-intensive sectors.

The greatest improvements can be made in agriculture, since irrigation here accounts for almost 70 per cent of water use worldwide. As the price of water increases, different distribution systems are coming into operation: water moved by tanker, by long-distance pipeline and even by plastic bags. There may also be greater use of desalination technology, although to date it has been prohibitively expensive and operations are confined primarily to countries with surplus energy supplies. Importing water – as in Singapore – may become more normal.

Two other factors may play a role in water-related tension. First, food imports may be driven by water scarcity. Half the world population will soon depend on the world food market for their food security. How poor, water-scarce countries will finance these food imports may become a major issue. Second, increased competition is expected for water: between urban and rural populations; between the agriculture and domestic sectors; and between countries. This may be exacerbated by rapid urbanization. Nevertheless many of the problems with water supply in the future can be resolved through cooperative agreements and some degree of economic investment. Such agreements and preventative diplomacy over shared water supplies will continue to dominate.

Disputes over water
Historically, there is little evidence that water scarcity has caused violent conflict though, in many cases, water has been used as a strategic goal or target, as part of military activities. There have, however, been many disputes over water within nations: it may be that the probability of violent conflict over water varies inversely with the size (and type) of the political bodies involved.

Yet water scarcity will be at the forefront of the international agenda for decades to come. In some cases, water may even be a contributing factor in international conflict. A member of the Israeli negotiating team to the Middle East Peace Process, Hydrology Professor Uri Shamir once noted: ‘If there is a political will for peace, water will not be a hindrance. If you want reasons to fight, water will give you ample opportunities’ 

Steve Lonergan is the Director of the Division of Early Warning and Assessment at UNEP and co-author, with David Brooks, of Watershed: The Role of Freshwater in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (IDRC Books, 1994).


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Waking up | Planting security | Natural peace | People | No procrastinating on climate | Attracting private investment | Reshaping the energy and security debate | At a glance: Environmental security | Star profile: Salman Ahmad | How many Earths? | Green helmets | Books and products | Initiative for change | Security in turbulence | Water and war | Beating the ‘resource curse’ | Green peace | It’s poverty, stupid

Complementary issue:
Freshwater, 2003