Special Reports




For people, animals and plants water is the essence of life and none of them would exist without it. At first sight, it might appear there is plenty of water to go around. After all, water covers about 75% of the earth’s surface. The total amount remains about the same as it circulates between the ocean, land and atmosphere in a cycle of evaporation and precipitation, driven by the power of the sun. This recycling of water modifies and regulates the earth’s climate. The trouble is that 97.5% is in the oceans and is too salty. Fresh water makes up less than 3% of water on earth and two thirds of it is in glaciers and polar icecaps. 20% of the rest is in remote areas and the fresh water that is left will often arrive at the wrong time and place, as monsoons and floods. Of all the water in the world, only 0.009% is in fresh water lakes and rivers and ground water makes up 0.28%. Thus Coleridge’s famous line in ‘The Ancient Mariner’: “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” is not too wide of the mark.

No human being can survive without access to safe, clean drinking water. Water is needed for irrigation and to generate the energy upon which economies depend. However, millions of children around the world die from polluted water or diseases spread by dirty water. Drought and climate change may be partly responsible but most problems of water shortage and contamination are the result of human agency. Population growth, rural to urban migration, rising wealth and consumption of resources all endanger the quantity and quality of surface and ground water supplies. 

The water that is available is often used inefficiently, especially in irrigation. Indeed, agriculture consumes about 70% of available water. The U.N. calculates that about half the world’s population live in states where there are water shortages – 460 million people, according to the UN. Consequently many communities are forced to tap rivers, lakes and aquifers beyond the limit where they can replenish themselves. With population growth during the first half of this century estimated by the UN to rise from 6 billion to 9.3 billion, the problem can only get worse. 

Meanwhile in rich countries water use is profligate. Power showers, swimming pools and wastage of food which needs water to produce it, suggest efficient use is not a priority.

As the amount of water available to the human race is finite, it is not surprising that tension and conflict arise where water is scarce and access is limited. Yet the seriousness of the problem is not widely understood, especially in the West, where availability of supply has hitherto been one of life’s constants. The U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon was anxious to highlight the world’s growing water crisis in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. "A shortage of water resources could spell increased conflicts in the future", he said. “Population growth will make the problem worse. So will climate change. As the global economy grows, so will its thirst. Many more conflicts lie just over the horizon," he warned.

Political clashes are already occurring over this issue in various parts of the world. The most ‘water-stressed region in the world is the Middle East. It is not generally understood that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is over water as well as land. Israel's inequitable distribution of water, has caused a serious humanitarian crisis in most of the Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Over the past decade, a severe drought has exacerbated the problem. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians rely on the Jordan River Basin, which includes Lake Galilee, and two aquifers. These sources are almost completely under the control of Israel and they are not shared according to need, as required by international law. Israel regulates the supply of piped water to the West Bank but the amount per capita is significantly lower than the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended minimum that is required to meet domestic needs and maintain good health. Israel’s recent incursion in Gaza has made matters worse. The U.N.’s recent appeal for $613 million is intended to provide medical care and clean water. Gaza's Coastal Municipal Water Utility says $6m will be needed for reconstruction after war damage to the already stricken water and sewerage network, including the destruction of three wells serving around 50,000 residents in northern Gaza.


Most states in the Middle East suffer from a chronic shortage of water. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers are another cause of conflict between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the countries through which the rivers flow. Turkey, located at the head of the rivers, is planning a massive development project in South Eastern Anatolia. It plans to build 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric power plants on the rivers and to divert the waters of the basin for electricity and land irrigation. Turkey’s project has alienated Syria and Iraq, the other two riparian states and the resulting tension between them has wider implications for the already delicate political stability in the Middle East. However, as we will see below, there is hope for the future.

The giant Himalayan mountain range has the largest concentrations of glaciers outside the polar region. These huge ‘water towers’ supply water to hundreds of millions of people in Nepal, India, China and Bangladesh by feeding seven of Asia’s great rivers: the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Huang He. 

Nepal and India share a huge amount of Himalayan fresh water. The rivers originating in the Himalaya pass through Nepal and Bhutan first and then through India on their way to the sea. The development and management of these trans-boundary rivers and waters have been the subject of a number of water treaties between Nepal and India. There have been claims that the treaties are unequal and that the benefits of irrigation, flood control and power generation have not been shared equitably between the countries. India has provided Nepal with assistance in harnessing the rivers for hydropower and irrigation. Both countries continue to develop projects for hydropower and irrigation, and to improve co-operation on flood management, forecasting and control. In the mountain kingdom of Bhutan there are several rivers, containing precipitation from the Himalayas, which flow into India. The joint Chukha hydropower project that has provided much needed electricity to eastern India has also increased electricity consumption and some industrial growth in Bhutan. Export of hydroelectricity is Bhutan’s single biggest source of revenue.

The Tibetan plateau, the highest and biggest on earth, has an average altitude of 11,000 feet (3,350 metres) and extends 1500 miles (2,400 kilometres) from west to east and 900 miles (1448 kilometres) from north to south. With its massive quantity of fresh water, it serves as the headwaters of some of the largest rivers in Asia –such as Yangtze, Mekong and Brahmaputra. However, the quality of these vast reserves is threatened by industrial activity, deforestation, manufacturing and mining, all of which are causing high levels of water and air pollution in Tibet. 

The warming climate of the region is causing glaciers to retreat which could lead to water scarcity in future. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the International Panel on Climate Change has stated that this puts 250 million people at risk in China and 500 million elsewhere in Asia! This can only add to political instability in the region. China’s desire to control and manage this vital resource must surely be an important factor in China’s wider political conflict with Tibet. 


In Central Asia, the need for hydropower and irrigation has led to complex political squabbles between nations over the region’s rivers. Tajikistan's greatest natural resource is the water stored in its glaciers, lakes and rivers. It is planning to build power stations on two rivers whose confluence is the source of Central Asia’s longest river, the Amu Darya. The river marks part of the borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan before emptying into the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan. The Tajik project, which it sees as essential to its economic health, would use the river water to generate additional electricity and increase aluminium smelting. Downstream Uzbekistan, the world’s second biggest cotton exporter, needs the water to irrigate its valuable cotton crop. Such a conflict of economic interest between the two countries inevitably causes tensions. However, there is ground for optimism about future co-operation. For the first time in seven years, an Uzbek-Tajik Intergovernmental Commission for Economic Cooperation met in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on February 18 to explore solutions to the issues dividing the two countries. The fact that the meeting took place at all is taken as a sign of greater awareness and the need to decrease tension.


Water is also a scarce resource in Africa and potential conflict is likely to occur, as elsewhere, when rivers and lakes are shared by two or more countries. For example, Egypt is the most downstream riparian country in the Nile Basin and dominates consumption of the river’s water resources, much to the resentment of the other countries: Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. US military aid, together with assorted treaties, some dating from colonial times have reinforced Egypt’s dominance and disproportionate usage of the Nile. These effectively blocked large-scale development projects on the Nile river by countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Ethiopia has been particularly badly affected. Unable to use the Nile, its agricultural production was almost wholly dependent on seasonal rains. Consequently, famines caused by drought killed hundreds of thousands of people in 1973 and 1984. The UN declared last year that another drought in Ethiopia, required emergency food aid for over 10 million Ethiopians.

Global warming and desertification have generated conflict in West Africa. There has been a 30% decline in rainfall in the past forty years and the Sahara is advancing more than a mile every year. This has meant that for almost twenty years Senegal and Mauritania have been involved in military skirmishes across the Senegal River which divides them, over changing access to arable land.

There is also another potential water war in Southern Africa, an arid region with a growing water scarcity and water pollution. The River Cuito begins in Angola, flows through Namibia and ends in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Reconciling who should use the water and for what purpose, with protecting delicate aquatic ecosystems poses extremely difficult problems to resolve. Peter Ashton in his book, International Waters in Southern Africa, (2003) argues that the three states must agree on three issues:

· The specific water requirements needed to sustain the sensitive aquatic ecosystems

· The quantities of water that each country can justifiably claim for their own consumptive use and

· The manner in which the water resources can be managed in future

One of the most contentious issues in the politics of water is privatization and in particular the ownership of a country’s water resources by foreign-owned companies. There is a strong belief that scarce water resources should not be privatized, commodified or exported for profit. According to the UN, 31 countries are now facing water scarcity and 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. With water consumption doubling every 20 years it is argued that governments should accept their responsibility for managing such a resource. Instead, water sources are being polluted, depleted, diverted and exploited by corporate interests in industrial agriculture, mining, manufacturing, smelting and electricity production, all anxious to make a profit notwithstanding water shortages. 

The so-called Cochabamba water wars of Bolivia are an example of a successful popular protest against privatization. The Bolivian government, as part of a widespread programme of privatization had made an exclusive contract with a foreign-owned company for water distribution. A massive price hike enraged the public and in April 2000 people took to the streets in Cochabamba. The city was brought to a standstill, the protesters demanding the return of water to the people. The government subsequently terminated their agreement with the company and the water war was at an end. Decision-making on water resource management was put into the hands of the citizens of Cochabamba - representatives from local neighborhood committees, urban and rural organizations, and unions. 


Mankind’s earliest engineering projects were about bringing water from where it was to where it was needed. Ancient Rome constructed magnificent stone aqueducts. Ancient China built a system of canals, Iran and parts of Arabia have astonishing systems of underground channels beneath the desert. In our own time, Libya completed the enormous project of a long distance underground river from natural reservoirs deep in its arid desert interior, to bring water to its coastal lands, making possible settled communities and agriculture. Throughout history, societies have tackled the problem of supply - but can we now do so with population growth, rising consumption and climate change? Are water wars inevitable?

There are some grounds for optimism. Thus far, admittedly in easier times for both supply and demand, history has shown that although violent disputes over water occur at regional and local level, a dispute over scarce water resources is not the main reason that countries have gone to war. “Those who have studied water conflicts find almost no conflicts where water triggered the conflict,” says Daniel Zimmer, director of the World Water Council. www.worldwatercouncil.org “Water is ultimately a source of collaboration rather than war. It is so vital you cannot afford to have a war over it.” He points to a recent agreement between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq to jointly establish a water institute to study and monitor trans-border water resources. Instead taking up arms, the three countries decided to take the first steps towards a permanent, peaceful solution over their longstanding water disputes. “Contrary to what some people claim, a war over water resources in this region won't emerge,” said Turkey’s Environment and Forestry Minister Veysel Eroğlu. “We prefer developing joint projects.” 

Facing the alarming shrinkage of supply and the immense growth in demand, let us hope that other countries will follow their example in facing the enormous challenges of the twenty first century. 

Peter Crisell

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