Water wars not real

Recently two friends have repeated the idea that nations go to war over water. It is not true.

Over-consumption of natural resources is the topic du jour. The current popularity of environmental sustainability has birthed the notion that countries go to war for water. This is simply not true. While we do fight wars over resources, we do not fight over water – principally because water is not a resource.

In nearly all cases, water has led to peaceful agreements, even amongst warring nations. Nations fight over resources; including, but certainly not limited to, natural resources (oil, metals, coal), human resources (slaves, religious disciples) and land. Water is fundamentally not a resource, it is a requirement. The dictionary defines resource as:

resource |ˈrēˌsôrs; ˈrēˈzôrs; riˈsôrs; riˈzôrs|
1 (usu. resources) a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets that can be drawn on by a person or organization in order to function effectively

However, water is not something that can be drawn upon, water must be drawn upon to survive – this is a fundamental difference that too many people overlook. We do not require oil, metal, religion or (much) land, yet we must have water.

The Trojans fought for Helen, the Romans for salt, the Europeans for gold, spices, and cotton, and the Americans for oil. However, no one fights for water. In large part, this is because humans around the world commonly recognize water as an essential ingredient for life; cruel as we might be, we seem to have the fundamental dignity to not desiccate our fellow man.

There is no need to take my non-expert word for this, Wendy Barnaby, a science journalist set out to prove that we fight over water and came back with just the opposite conclusion. She was tasked with writing a book about water conflict, but when she could not find the evidence, the book was cancelled (who wants to read about peace?) and she turned her work into an article for Nature. Here a few examples of existing conflicts and the role water might play in them.

Sudan is often cited as an example of conflict over water. It is claimed that the northern Arab Sudanese attacked Darfur for the fertile land and water supply. In some respects this is true, but the conflict over the fertile land is primarily due to the West. During the colonial period, the Brits redistributed the land according to tribal roots – trying to emulate our property system by creating definite borders and ownership systems. The nomadic tribes were excluded from the land allocation and these new borders constricted their mouvement between regions.

The droughts of the 1970s pushed the Sahara desert 40km into the fertile land, displacing people who now had fewer places to go. Neighbouring conflicts in Chad and elsewhere – often proxy wars of our cold war – placed further barriers to mouvement on the inhabitants of Darfur. Before these barriers were erected, the people of southern Sudan had a perfectly adequate system for dealing with droughts and lack of water – mouvement.  Now, the once nomadic tribes who moved with the water were trapped in a sandpit. This understandably led to violent conflict.

The Kashmir region of India and Pakistan has been at war since partition in 1947, but they have nevertheless managed to sign the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 which has allowed for the distribution of water between the two countries. Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars, outlines a scenario where India and Pakistan launch nuclear missiles over water rights. Remarkably, the Indo-Pakistani conflict has remained relatively dormant for 60 years despite the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, religious terrorism and longstanding historical conflicts. In light of this, water seems like an unlikely candidate for military escalation. Though Kashmir is still at war, it is not due to water.

Israel and Jordan are separated by the Jordan River and have a mutual interest in its waters. Each Palestinian is allowed to consume 1/5 the water of an Israeli. Israel withdraws far more water than its Arab cousins. Despite this apparent conflict, Jordan and Israel they have maintained the peace since 1992 and water issues are not seen as a major hurdle to a two-state solution. Syria might still be at war with Israel, but it is not fundamentally over water – though the Golan heights do allow for the control of much of the region’s water supply.

The list of agreements over water rights is long, the list of conflicts is very short. The cynics among us believe man fights for power without much consideration for life. If this were true, water would be the ultimate leverage over a population. Yet, over and over again, conflict over water leads to diplomatic agreements – not armed conflict. If anything, I see this as demonstration that despite our differences, we recognize each other’s right to live and have access to water.

An article in Foreign Policy claiming there will be more conflict

Good summary of Wendy Barnaby’s article

Interview with a geologist about water wars

Wendy Burnaby in Nature (paid – 32 $)

Another take on water conflict

Published on September 13, 2009