The coming era of water wars

Upstream hydro-hegemony threatens to trigger downstream upheaval

By Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

3_132014_b4-chell-gun-faucet8201_s640x785There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America — attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California water wars — that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California currently is suffering under its worst drought of the modern era.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water, the sustainer of life and livelihoods, is already the world’s most exploited natural resource.

With nature’s freshwater renewable capacity lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Securing a larger portion of the shared water has fostered increasing competition between countries and provinces.

Efforts by some countries to turn transnational water resources into an instrument of power has encouraged a dam-building race and prompted growing calls for the United Nations to make water a key security concern.

More ominously, the struggle for water is exacerbating impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Humanity is altering freshwater and other ecosystems more rapidly than its own scientific understanding of the implications of such change.

Degradation of water resources has resulted in aquatic ecosystems losing half of their biodiversity since just the mid-1970s. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural streamflows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development. If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow.

Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Internal resource conflicts are often camouflaged as civil wars. Sudan’s Darfur conflict, for example, arose from water and grassland scarcity.

Interstate water wars in a political and economic sense are being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction.

Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands, and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

Upstream Turkey, inspired by China’s strengthening hydro-hegemony, is accelerating its diversion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This will exacerbate water stress in the two violence-torn, downriver states of Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Israel, with its control of the water-rich Golan Heights and the West Bank aquifers, has leveraged its role as water supplier to Palestinians and Jordanians.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260 billion.

Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. This strategy has created a grass-roots backlash against South Korean firms in Madagascar and India’s Odisha state.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies has warned that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade.

Water is a renewable but finite resource. Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. The human population has doubled since 1970 alone, though, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Consumption growth, however, is the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive.

In China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, traditional diets have been transformed in the past generation alone, becoming much meatier.

If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger, but also feed a population larger by four billion, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body-mass index of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s.

Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 percent in the United States and 26.9 percent in Britain to 5.7 percent in China and 1.9 percent in India.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. They also cause much greater greenhouse-gas emissions through their bigger food and transport needs.

A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average body-mass index as the United States, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The issue thus isn’t just about how many mouths there are to feed, but also about how much excess body fat there is on the planet.

The point to note is that a net population increase usually translates into greater human capital to create innovations, power economic growth and support the elderly, but a net increase in body weight only contributes to state liability and greater water stress.

Preventing water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water-sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

However, most of the world’s transnational basins lack any cooperative arrangement, and there is still no international water law in force. Worse, unilateralist appropriation of shared water resources is endemic where autocrats rule.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Washington Times, 2014