Going to war over water

Source: Daily Star

The world rejoiced as the United Nations’ general assembly adopted a resolution in July 2010 declaring water and sanitation to be a basic human right. Yet two years on, governments around the world have yet to come up with concrete long-term policies that could help reverse decades- old neglect to water. More importantly, where river systems cross national boundaries the lack of regional cooperation on the sharing of precious water remains on the political backburner. While nations have gone to war over territory, water too soon could become the bone of contention leading to major conflicts in some of the most densely populated regions of the world. Such sentiments have already been voiced. In March, 2012, British Energy Secretary Ed Davey shared his concerns with global policymakers that “water wars could be a real prospect in coming years as states struggle with the effects of climate change, growing demand for water and declining state of energy.”

Water remains a finite resource. Over usage due primarily to consumption by an ever exploding global population and dependence on H20 for agriculture, industry, mining has helped dwindle supply of our reserves for freshwater. Our overindulgence in wasting water for recreation purposes takes a whole new meaning when one considers the alternative uses of the precious resource. For instance, growing a ton of wheat requires 1,000 tons of water; conversely, watering the world’s golf courses requires nearly 79 million tons of water a day. Such extravagance seems irrational especially when faced with the stark realities of climate change. Glaciers are melting and lakes, rivers and natural aquifers continue to dwindle. Alarm bells are being sounded everywhere. According to data published by the OECD, nearly half the world’s population (47%) will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030.

Little wonder then that conflicts seem imminent in a number of regions in the world. And as we enter into the uncertainty of freshwater supplies, nations have resorted to dam building giving rise to cross-border tension. China undoubtedly leads the pack of dam builders. It has completed some 10 dams on the nearly 3,000 km long Brahmaputra River and is in the process of building another 18. Potential repercussion of such building could prove disastrous for both North-East India and Bangladesh. With plans to damming nearly 10 of the mightiest rivers that flow from the world’s largest water tank, the Tibetan plateau, China hopes to replenish some 6,000 lakes that have gone dry. The damming activity in the Upper Mekong for purposes of hydroelectricity is another worrying sign for lower riparian countries of South East Asia including Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

Indeed China is not alone in diverting precious water away to meet its growing needs. India and Pakistan have long been locked in dispute over water. The Indus Water Treaty (1960), overseen by the World Bank, divided six major river systems between the two nations. Pakistan received the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, while India got the Sutlej, the Beas and Ravi. With nearly 50% of the population of Pakistan involved in agriculture and more than 90% of the country dependent on water of the Indus, tensions are constantly on the high with allegations that India is diverting away precious water by building an upstream dam. With India suffering from massive electricity crunch, it is little wonder that hydroelectricity looms large on its agenda. Yet, the construction and planned construction of such projects on the Chenam and Jhelum rivers has Pakistan on edge.

Given such high stakes, it is little wonder that “there is definitely potential for conflict based on water, particularly if we are looking to the year 2050, when there could be considerable water scarcity in India and Pakistan,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia Associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “Populations will continue to grow. There will be more pressure on supply. Factor in climate change and faster glacial melt … That means much more will be at stake. So you could have a perfect storm which conceivably could be some sort of trigger.”

While all indications point to a bleak future, there are ways the threat of a “waterless” world may be mitigated. Communities across the world are already taking action. Bellavista is a remote hillside village located outside Lima, Peru. In winter it is eclipsed by dense fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Locals with the help of German conservationists have found a unique way to catching all that moisture. Using multilayered nets to capture fog and condense its fine droplets into water. Prior to this programme residents had to spend up to 15% of their earnings to truck their water up from Lima. Now the fog generates tens of thousands of gallons of water a year which helps residents to sustain 700 young trees and ten farm gardens year round. Such practical solutions exist that allow us to meet our freshwater needs today while preserving nature’s ability to meet those growing needs. Diplomacy must play a greater role in averting conflicts between nations and communities, while emerging technology such as desalinisation need to be supported by governments that must make access to water a national security priority.

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