The war over water will not take place

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“The wars of the 21st century will break out over water”: this sinister prediction, which has received a lot of media coverage, is not justified, figures American geographer Aaron Wolf*who uses the history regarding conflicts over water as a reference.

When journalists evoke the topic of water, it is almost always to raise the spectre of war. You made a list of all international agreements “incidents” related to water . When was the last time two states fought over water?

The only real war over water known to date goes back 4,500 years. It brought a conflict between two Mesopotamian city over the Tigris and the Euphrates in the region currently known as southern Iraq. Since then, water sometimes aggravated international relations. However, some hostile states—such as India and Pakistan or the Israelis and Palestinians—often resolve their water conflicts even though they fight over other issues. We have analyzed all known disputes between two nations in the past 50 years, anywhere in the world’s 261 existing river basins. Out of the 1,800 disputes registered, two-thirds broke out in a cooperation framework, for instance, when conducting joint scientific investigations or when signing treaties (there are 150 existing treaties related to water).

In regards to more serous incidents, 80% were restricted to verbal threats by state leaders, probably intended to their constituency, first and foremost. In 1979, president Sadat thus declared referring to the Nile that: “water would be the only motive that could take Egypt to war again”. King Hussein of Jordan allegedly said the same thing in 1990 regarding the Jordan river. Yet in the last 50 years, there have only been 37 fights over water, 27 of which were between Israel and Syria over the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers.

There are wars over oil, why not over water?

Strategically speaking, fighting for water is absurd. One cannot increase its water resources by going to war with a neighbor unless you capture the entire watershed, depopulate it, and run the risk of tremendous retaliation.

So where does this water-war talk come from?

In part, from the post-Cold War period, when the Western military asked, “what do we do now?”

That is when the whole concern with environmental security started to arise. Around 1992, a lot of political scientists wrote that resource scarcity in general was going to lead to warfare. It’s very tempting to see water as a source of conflict once you begin to understand what it means to society and ecosystems in general. But these analysts overlooked the subtleties involved in the issue.

You argue that water by its very nature induces co-operation between states.

The Oslo agreements between Israelis and Palestinians actually came out of backroom talks among water experts from the region who met in Zurich in 1990—I believe. It is these experts that introduced their political counterparts to one another and actually initiated the process. This kind of chain reactions happens regularly. Several states along the Nile began by talking about water and are now drafting an agreement that includes, among other things, road and electricity networks.

You maintain that the danger is not a water shortage but one country’s attempt to dominate an international water way. Conflicts usually revolve around dams construction. But these projects generally require assistance from organizations like the World Bank, which evaluate proposals according to environmental and ethical criteria. By pulling the purse strings, can these organizations not prevent water conflicts from arising?

It has occurred. But as more private capital takes over investment in these projects, the development banks can no longer impose their conditions. Turkey, for example, is diverting private and public capital to fund a very controversial project, which provides for the construction of 22 dams and 19 power plants on the Tigris-Euphrates. The same is true for the Narmada dam in India and China’s Three Gorges project.

Water experts maintain that a river basin must be managed as a whole. But multilateral water treaties are a nightmare to negotiate….

The more, the less merry, when a country’s sovereignty is at stakes. Take the Jordan River for example: Syria and Jordan have an agreement, Jordan and Israel have an agreement, and Israel and Palestinians have an agreement—a whole series of bilateral agreements but no multilateral agreement. And yet this works, even though the Palestinians will eventually claim and probably end up getting more extended water rights.

In order to resolve conflicts, some economists advocate the establishment of an international water market. Can water conflicts be prevented by treating water as a merchandise?

Economists can quantify the benefits flowing from water. For example, the U.S. and Canada signed an agreement in which the U.S. has flood control dams within Canadian territory. The U.S. pays Canada for the profits generated. It is generally easier and more fair to allocate the profits than the water itself. Economists also deserve credit when reminding us of the need to make pay for distribution costs, treatment, water storage, etc. We look forward to think of water in terms of a marketing good even though this does not apply at international level yet. However, as a person committed to water emotionally, esthetically, and religiously, I am reluctant to think of water as a plain merchandise.

La guerre de l’eau n’aura pas lieu

Interview with Aaron Wolf, by Amy Otchet, journalist at UNESCO Courier

UNESCO Courier, October 2001

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