Conflict over water is as old as civilisation itself. The developed world enjoys safe, plentiful supplies of potable water. Emerging economies often suffer from drought, water stress as well as unsafe, dirty water. Rising populations, the needs of agriculture and economic growth are putting ever higher demands on fresh water. This risks more people losing access to safe water.
Climate change is also impacting on water supplies. A drier world will melt glaciers, increase the chances of drought, but paradoxically result in more flooding. Climate change is connected to erratic weather patterns which could see more sudden, rapid rainfall – resulting in flash flooding.
Cross Border River Conflicts
The map above highlights some recent water conflicts. These vary from cross border battles over major rivers to internal battles. Typically in cross border battles the upstream country starts building dams which reduce the flow downstream to a country heavily dependent on the supply of water. This kind of conflict can be seen between India and Pakistan over the Indus and Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile.
This kind of conflict can be managed through treaties dividing up water supplies and special measures to help preserve the flow of water during critical periods for crops or drought.
Other conflicts are internal and involve the overuse of water supplies or a drought which can cause people to die of starvation and thirst as they run out of water and crops die. This kind conflict has been experienced in Somalia and Algeria and Sudan.
Often it will result in large scale migration as people move to less parched lands. This in turn can create new problems as migrant groups attempt to utilise water supplies traditionally used by established settlements.
Cities will also become major sources of water conflict as supplies run dry through overuse and droughts. Cape Town experienced this in 2018 and it is expected that many more will face similar supply issues in the future. Three years of poor rainfall meant that the city was 3 months away from running out of water completely. To combat the drought Cape Town used water meant for farms, water tariffs and conservation methods to ensure the taps did not run dry.
Unsafe Water – A Deadly Killer
Unsafe water in emerging economies is a major source of illness and death via water borne pathogens. Thousands die each day because of preventable diseases. These include cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
The lack of a basic service that most of the world takes for granted holds back human development and causes untold misery and suffering. Children in particular are vulnerable to water borne disease and around 297,000 deaths of under fives a year could be avoided through provision of clean water according to the World Health Organisation.