Water wars have long been predicted by analysts. Conflict over water and other resources is as old as civilisation itself. Now the world’s freshwater supplies are under huge strain as rising populations and economic growth drink up ever more water.
Climate change will compound this problem. Rising temperatures will melt glaciers reducing the flow of water from many mountains, drying lakes and allowing sea water salinate rivers. Control over water by itself may not cause conflict but may act as a catalyst.
Disappearing glaciers in the Himalayas will soon reduce the flow of mighty rivers like the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra making the Indian sub-continent one of the most exposed to drought.
Control over the remaining water in the Indus will make the battle around Kashmir where the river emerges more acute. Pakistan and India have been gone to war over the divided province three times and tensions remain high between the two nations.
Pakistan is highly dependent on the flow of the Indus for its agriculture and freshwater supplies – any attempt by India to exert control over the water will face major resistance from its nuclear armed neighbour.
India recently completed the Kishanganga dam. This has led to an on-going dispute with Pakistan around the Indus River Treaty which has been handed to the World Bank to settle.
The Cradle of Civilisation
The Tigris-Euphrates river is called the cradle of civilisation as it is where the Sumerians and Akkians built some of the earliest cities. Since then the river has been the lifeblood of many countries, cities and empires.
In more recent years the Turkish have built dams which control the flow of water to Iraq and Syria.
If Turkey continues to take more water or drought reduces the river’s flow even further then the two water stressed countries downstream could become extremely unhappy with Turkey. This in turn could spark violent conflict.
Egypt and Nile
The Nile is the world’s longest river and it is no surprise that there is conflict brewing over its water. For millennia Egypt has been synonymous with the Nile. Since ancient times Egypt has been dependent on the Nile for water, transport and food. Look at a map of the country and see how nearly the entire population hugs the river.
The rest of the country is largely desert. But ever since the Ethiopia built the first Renaissance dam – Egypt has been pressuring its southern neighbour to ensure it does not take more than its fair share of water.
The danger is that the more water Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan use for themselves the less will reach upstream for the Egyptians to use. The countries are in talks to resolve water usage peacefully. If these discussions fail, then a water war is a possibility.
Internal conflict is another source for potential water wars. As the climate changes and regions used to plentiful rainfall find themselves dry and arid. Farmers and pastoralists are forced off the land it can lead to famine and social breakdown.
People forced to move into new areas often sparks new conflicts. Climate change is at least partly behind conflict in Syria where many fleeing drought moved to cities and new regions which helped to spark protests against the government.
In Somalia a long lasting drought in many regions has hampered the recovery the country and pushed many into food insecurity. Economic uncertainty is a fertile breeding ground for the terrorists, pirates and militants that have plagued the country.
Even developed regions will not be immune to water conflict, last year Cape Town came close to running out of water after years of low rainfall and rising demand for water for agriculture and domestic use.
Where are the solutions?
As fresh water faces multiple threats, pollution, climate change and overuse, are there any solutions to a growing crisis? Firstly humans can be pushed to use less water through efficiency measures and improved infrastructure such as fixing leaky pipes.
Desalination is currently an expensive option and only for the energy rich in the Middle East. But there is hope that new techniques can make it a viable option in the future.
Thirdly its hoped that scarcity will force humans into being more careful with water and treating as the valuable commodity it is. But given that billions already experience water scarcity it is likely that the rich and powerful will continue to ensure good access to water, while those on the margins miss out.