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World: Analysis From Washington -- The Growing Power Of Water

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 17 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The importance of potable water in human life is so great that it is bridging gaps between longtime adversaries internationally and setting friends against one another both within countries and abroad.

The power of water to bring adversaries together was on public view this past weekend as Israeli and Palestinian officials met to confirm the 1993 water cooperation accord. Israeli's chief military liaison with the Palestinians on infrastructure issues, Oded Hermann, noted that questions of access to aquifers were "taken out of the cycle of shooting, and the reason is simple: water has no borders."

But even as an accord about water was serving as a bridge between Israel and the Palestinians, the absence of an agreement about water between Israel and Turkey is increasingly getting in the way of the rapprochement between those two countries.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said last week that Ankara and Jerusalem had yet to agree on a price for some 50 million cubic meters of water Israel needs for irrigation. Peres was in the Turkish capital to try to get such an accord, and he reported progress on all issues save for price. Because Israel needs the water so badly and because Turkey needs the cash, the Turkish government appears to be holding out for a much higher price than Israel is willing to pay.

Indeed, Peres said after meeting senior Turkish officials, including President Ahmen Necdet Sezer, "clearly the costs of the water shouldn't be more expensive than [the costs of] desalinated water," Israel's other major source of water. Moreover, Turkey has other concerns as well: the demands of downstream countries Syria and Iraq that no additional water be diverted from the Tigris-Euphrates flow.

And in two other countries this month, water problems have been roiling domestic politics. In Spain, government plans to build a series of 120 reservoirs to ensure that the country's increasingly urban population will have enough to drink have run into conflict with rural residents, many of whom could see their way of life or even their residences disappear under the rising water behind several new high dams.

Madrid argues that everyone will be better off, including the impoverished rural residents, with the new dams. But many Spaniards do not believe that is true. Only 40 percent of the population supports the new reservoir system, and four of the country's largest regional governments have now come out against it, as have hundreds of thousands of demonstrators during the last six months.

And in Canada, a government plan to export the country's abundant water reserves not only was cancelled in the face of public and political opposition but has become an important symbol of the nationalist cause as politicians and editorial writers have denounced it as yet another instance in which Ottawa has sold the country out to the United States which seeks to get the water for itself.

These examples in the Middle East, in Western Europe, and in North America could be multiplied many times by the impact of water shortages elsewhere. In Central Asia, conflicts over water are simmering and seem likely to increase with rising population pressure. In China, plans to dam several of the country's largest rivers have sparked protests. And in sub-Saharan Africa, politics is often centered on gaining access to water.

Rising population pressure seems certain to make these conflicts ever more intense, possibly making water rather than ethnicity the primary source of conflict domestically and internationally over the next several generations. If that should prove to be the case, it is not likely to be any easier than addressing the ethnic conflicts around the world now is.

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