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'Water war' risk rises up international agenda

The world's growing thirst for water is becoming a major potential trigger for war, and global warming is set to accentuate that risk, experts say.

Ecologists have warned for years of a looming "water crunch" when in hot, dry regions, the demands of a surging population could exceed the supply from lakes, rivers and aquifers reeling from pollution or drained by decades of overuse.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan spelt out those fears only last March, saying fierce national rivalries over water resources could contain "the seeds of violent conflict".

Now, just a few months later, those words seem ominously prophetic.

The United States has rushed an intermediary to the Middle East to try to prevent a clash between Israel and Lebanon over water from the Wazzani River.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has declared that a Lebanese project to tap some of the water from this river, which provides up to a quarter of inflow to the Sea of Galilee, Israel's biggest source of freshwater, could be grounds for war.

"Just as war over fire sparked conflict among early prehistoric tribes, wars over water may result from current tensions over this resource in the next few years," the consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers said last year.

"The Near and Middle East are the zones where there is the greatest threat."

Other flarepoints in that region are Turkey's plan to dam the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, a scheme that is furiously opposed by Syria and Iraq, which both lie downstream, while Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have squabbled over the use of water from the Nile.

But these problems are not unique to the Middle East.

Specialists list some 300 potential conflicts over water-sharing around the world, ranging through Africa and southern and central Asia.

Peter Gleick, president of a Californian thinktank that specialises in water problems, the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, says wars that are triggered just over water are historically rare, but water is often a major contributing factor to exchanging blows.

Such disputes usually share a common cause - they occur in places where water is naturally scarce and where supplies can be swiftly affected by a year or two of drought, and where countries are struggling to meet the demands of a surging population or a fast-growing economy.

And they invariably arise when there is no agreement over water-sharing, he said.

In places where there is "a good agreement among the countries that share the resource", disputes do not turn violent," he said.

That was the big problem between Lebanon and Israel because "it is not possible to have a treaty between entities that do not recognise each other".

"[However], to give you an example, there is a treaty between Israel and Jordan that discusses how to share and allocate the Jordan River.

"It's been a very successful agreement, it's explicit about who gets how much water and allows discussions to go on."

Mr Gleick said he was "especially" worried about the risk of conflict in southern Asia, which has among the highest population growth rates in the world.

He expressed concern over Ganges-Bramaputra river systems, shared by Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and feared that a successful 1960 Indo-Pakistani treaty on sharing the water of the Indus could be undermined by the squabble over Kashmir, the location of most of that river's headwaters.

"Water could be a source of [Indo-Pakistani] dispute and conflict, although it could probably be a secondary cause."

Efforts to resolve water conflicts are doomed to be made even more difficult because of global warming, which will change patterns as to when and where rainfall occurs, he said.

By 2025, two thirds of the world's likely population of eight billion will live in countries that suffer severe or moderate water stress, making a potent source for bloodshed, according to UN figures.

"Climate change is going to complicate how much water is available, when it's available, who owns it, it's going to add uncertainty as to what is happening upstream," Mr Gleick said.

"We haven't even begun to think about this."

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