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Water must not become new conflict commodity, says international forum
By Elaine Lies
Reuters
03/21/03

OTSU, Japan On the day that war broke out in Iraq, delegates at an international forum warned on Thursday that water must not be allowed to become another cause for conflict as shortages grow in the coming decades.
Participants at the World Water Forum in the western Japanese city of Kyoto said that water is a far more important commodity than the oil some say is behind the U.S. war in Iraq, and has an equally deadly potential as a source of conflict.

"Water is an inalienable human right. Water is life," said Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union and now head of Green Cross, a nongovernmental organization.

"People are sometimes willing to do anything to get water," he told a seminar. "There could be grave consequences of this."

Others at the forum in the ancient Japanese capital were even blunter.

"Water cannot be looked on as the next gold or oil," said Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. "Greed is not possible. There are alternatives to oil, but there are no substitutes for water."

By 2050, water shortages brought on by booming populations, pollution, and global warming, will affect between 2 billion and 7 billion people around the world out of a projected population then of about 9.3 billion.

The conference was aimed at putting in place a framework to deal with the worsening water crisis, although pledges of funds from governments have yet to materialise.

The outbreak of war in Iraq may make it even harder for the meeting to bridge political differences blocking an agreement over water programmes.

Although organizers have said the week-long conference will not be cut short, some delegates, including the Iraqis, have already decided to go home early.

"Peace is absolutely essential," said Mohamed El Yazghi, Moroccan minister for Infrastructure, Water, and Environment. "We in the Arab world need peace so we can manage our water resources for the good of our people."

CENTURIES OF CONFLICT

Conflict over water has shadowed the world for centuries. The bone-dry Middle East is notorious in this regard, as is Africa, but water friction has also hurt relations between Singapore and Malaysia, the main water source for the city state.

Particularly tricky are cases where one river, or river system, provides water to many nations, some of whom may be steadfast political or ideological opponents.

"Certain states use their dominant situation in the river basin to create situations of conflict," Gorbachev said.

There is special concern surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which rise in Turkey and flow through Syria before providing much of the water available to Iraq, along with the perennial flashpoint of Israel and its neighbours.

Water has sometimes been a rare point of cooperation in otherwise unfriendly relations. India and Pakistan concluded an accord on the water of the Indus river in 1960 that remains a global benchmark for how things can be done.

"Water-related conflicts can be prevented if humanity recognises that water can be a learning ground for conflict resolution," said Andras Szollosi-Nagy, Deputy Assistant Director General at UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural arm.


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