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World: Analysis From Washington -- Water Wars

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Competition for scarce fresh water supplies is likely to become a source of conflict both within countries and between them in the 21st century.

But whether this competition leads to armed conflict is likely to depend on whether the international community can set up procedures for ensuring that potable water supplies are equitably shared.

Speaking to an international conference convened by Stockholm's International Water Institute this week, Lester Brown, the chairman of the U.S.-based World Watch Institute, said on 14 August that water riots like those which took place in China's Shandong province in July are certain to become more common as population growth puts additional pressure on the declining supplies of fresh water.

He pointed out that the clash of thousands of Chinese farmers with police was an indication of things to come, "an example," he said, "of how desperate people become when they are deprived of water." And Brown also pointed to the way in which countries might come into conflict over both access to water and the ways in which they choose to use it.

While he appealed to the conference to remember that water is something which belongs in common "to our children," Brown painted a picture in which these competitions could lead to revolutions at home and armed conflicts among nations.

Other speakers at the week-long session were less pessimistic. South African Education Minister Kader Asmal said that within 25 years, one in every third resident of the planet "will struggle just to find water to drink and bathe in, much less grow food."

But in contrast to Brown, Asmal argued that water was unlikely to become the cause of conflicts. He said that he had seen "sovereign states and ethnic groups within nations go to war over every resource -- oil, land, humans, diamonds, gas, livestock, or gold, but never... over water development and dams."

Nonetheless, he too stressed the need to create mechanisms to guarantee that competition for water does not become a cause of conflict either within or between countries -- especially as populations continue to grow and thus create growing demands on finite and possibly diminishing water supplies.

Over the last century, both countries and regions have developed a variety of mechanisms for sharing access to water. Some of them, especially within countries, have proved remarkably effective, but none has operated without conflict. Arrangements among sovereign states have often broken down, and when they have, this has sometimes sparked diplomatic and sometimes even military action.

The United States offers several examples of government efforts to ensure the equitable sharing of water. Among its other contributions, the Tennessee Valley Authority created in the 1930s ensured that water was shared among localities and between industrial and population use.

And the accords between various Western states over the use of the flow of the Colorado River have generally ensured the fair sharing of water, but as population and industrial shifts have occurred, these U.S. subdivisions have often found themselves in federal courts to try to modify previous agreements.

Internationally, the record of water sharing accords has been far more mixed. Water sharing arrangements established in Soviet times for the republics of Central Asia have simultaneously forced those now-independent countries to cooperate more than they might otherwise be willing to do, but these structures have also become the occasion for conflict among these states.

And control of the flow of river water in the Middle East be it from Turkey through Syria and Iraq or in Israel has been a major bone of contention among these countries, with various sides trading barbed comments and in a few cases taking military action to ensure that one country has access to water even if that is at the expense of access by another.

All of this suggests that countries are likely to find it increasingly difficult to manage the sharing of water and that containing conflicts over it will be an increasing challenge. Although it provided no simple answers, the Stockholm meeting this week was a reminder of just how important water is in political affairs and how dangerous any breakdown in sharing it could become in the future.