Saturday, September 21, 2002.
Posted: 16:12:17 (AEDT)
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
'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
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
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,"
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
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,
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."