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World: Analysis From Washington -- Water And National Security

Washington, 28 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago, a United Nations-sponsored World Water Forum in Stockholm suggested that a shortage of drinking water could affect one-third of the world's population by 2025 and spark violent conflicts between those with water and those without.

But events since that time suggest that the impact of water on international politics is likely to be sooner and potentially more destabilizing than even the experts at the UN conference predicted. And that possibility is leading ever more countries to take water into consideration as they elaborate their national security policies.

At present, the UN conference said, some 450 million people in 29 countries from sub-Saharan Africa through Asia are suffering from severe water problems. Brought on by an unusual drought over the past several years, the problems of these countries in many cases have been exacerbated by crop failures and burgeoning population pressures beyond the capacity of their governments to cope.

Most of the governments involved are still looking primarily to the possibility of finding new sources of water or improving conservation programs. Thus, Jordan is seeking to get additional funding for desalinization plants to provide its population with water, and China has cut back some water-intensive crops in order to make up a potable water shortage estimated to affect 10 percent of the residents of the world's most populous state by 2010.

But differential availability of water among countries is forcing ever more states to look beyond their borders for a reliable supply of water, and that in turn is pointing toward cooperation among traditional opponents and creating tensions among some traditional partners.

Last week, Syrian officials urged Turkey to join in talks with Iraq about sharing the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris, both of which rise in Turkey, even though Ankara and Baghdad have long been at odds politically and even though Turkey has routinely viewed its control of the headwaters of these rivers as one of the most important elements of its national security policy.

At the same time, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov called for a Central Asian summit early next year to deal with the water issues arising from the drying up of the Aral Sea. His comments came even as Kazakhstan struggled to pay its debts to Kyrgyzstan and international aid agencies identified Tajikistan as one of the countries suffering the most from drought.

But perhaps the most interesting development was an article that appeared in Moscow's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" last Wednesday (22 August). It called for the creation of a single agency to regulate Russia's use of its own water supplies, not so much because of its domestic problems with water, although these are serious, but rather because of foreign policy considerations.

Russian officials already have noted that their country has the largest supply of fresh water in the world. And last week they expressed the hope that the Paris Club of creditor nations might be prepared to reduce Moscow's foreign debt if the Russian government takes step to protect this increasingly valuable resource. These officials note that international lending organizations have already made similar concessions to other countries.

At the same time, however, some Russian officials have pointed out that other countries may seek access to Russia's supplies of fresh water, something that could give Moscow leverage in its dealings with some of them but might put Russia at risk with regard to others.

For almost a century, Russians regularly talked about Siberian river diversion, a program that would have brought water to the increasing populations of Central Asia but only at what ultimately proved to be unacceptable ecological and cultural costs to Russians living in the north. But once again, Central Asians are looking for new sources of water, and some Russian officials are already considering making political demands in exchange for supplying water.

But the most serious challenge and the one that lies behind the "Nezavisimaya gazeta" article comes from China, whose leaders historically have looked north to the vacant lands of Siberia and the Russian Far East as possible places for expansion and whose newly significant water shortages may prompt ever more in Beijing to seek an expanded presence one way or another in those regions.

The "Nezavisimaya gazeta" article suggests that ever more people in the Russian capital recognize these potential threats and will be including discussions about water in their elaboration of national security policies. But if Russia is going to be among the first to do that, the reports this month suggest, it is unlikely to be the only country to do so. And that trend sets the stage for a kind of fateful negotiation that few governments have had much experience with so far.