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Water, Not Oil Could Soon Become the World’s Greatest catalyst for Conflict

Writing about the 1967 Six Day War in his 2001 memoirs, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that "While the border disputes between Syria and ourselves were of great significance, the matter of water diversion was a stark issue of life and death."

"People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the Six Day War began," Sharon later told the BBC in 2003. "That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two-and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan [River]."

Throughout history, access to water has spawned and escalated both domestic and international conflicts. In recent decades, population growth and global warming have both played a major role in raising the demand for and availability of potable water. The US government has predicted that by 2015 almost half of the world's population will be "stressed" for water. Water -- rather than oil -- could become the world's next biggest catalyst for conflict.

The Water Crunch

In its 2000 "Global Patterns" report, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) predicted that, by the year 2015, "nearly half the world's population -- more than 3 billion people -- will live in countries which are 'water stressed.'" According to the report, that means their populations will have less than 1,700 cubic meters each of water per year, generally considered the minimal threshold for acceptable living standards.

The water crunch will make itself felt most on food supplies. Agriculture is the world's biggest user of water -- it takes at least 2,000 liters to produce enough food for one person for one day. That translates into 730,000 liters annually per person.

A water crisis would likely impact hardest on the world's most heavily populated regions such as China and India. Those countries are also some of the world's fastest-growing economies and are also caught in a squeeze for energy resources. India, according to the CIA report, will become severely starved for water by 2015. And the competition with Pakistan for water in Kashmir has contributed to an ongoing conflict in the region.

In northern China, close to the Russian border, the water table beneath some of the major grain-producing regions is falling by 1.52 meters every year. Northern China, according to the Worldwatch Institute website, "is home to roughly 43 percent of China's population but has only 14 percent of China's water resources. China's annual per capita water resources of 2,292 cubic meters are one of the lowest levels in the world, only slightly above that of India. North China's per capita water resources, at 750 cubic meters per year, are a fraction of China's already low figure."

Source Of Tension

Experts worry that dwindling water supplies could likely result in regional conflicts in the future. For example, in oil-and-gas rich Central Asia, the upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan hold 90 percent of the region's water resources, while Uzbekistan, the largest consumer of water in the region, is located downstream.

Water has also become a major source of tension between Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Turkey, located upstream of the Tigris and Euphrates river systems, began the Southeast Anatolia (GAP) Project in 1990, which will give it extensive control over the flow of Euphrates water and is expected to double Turkey's irrigated farmland. The project is expected to be completed by 2010. In an article, "The New Water Politics Of The Middle East" ("Strategic Review," Summer 1999), the authors explain that: "Despite the signing of a protocol ensuring Syrian access to Euphrates water in 1987, Turkish development efforts have increasingly threatened to marginalize and even eliminate Syrian access to water."

"In the future," the article continues, "Turkish-Syrian disputes over water could escalate into regional conflict.... Once fully operational, the GAP Project may reduce Euphrates water to Syria by 40 percent and Iraq by up to 80 percent. Such activity, critical for Syria, will also be significant enough to substantially affect Iraq."

Local water conflicts also have the potential to escalate, especially in states with weak central government. According to a September report from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, the head of the Chardara District, in northern Afghanistan, has allowed water from an irrigation canal, which serves some 25,000 hectors of land, to be used to irrigate rice fields upstream of the canal. The amount of water needed for rice paddies is far greater than for normal irrigation and the farmers downstream were subsequently faced with a water shortage. The district chief ignored the needs of the downstream farmers and the government failed to intervene.

Looking For A Solution

Such scenarios are not uncommon. How such potential conflicts can be resolved is a problem facing international organizations and security experts, especially when states often tend to interpret international law differently. According to a 1999 article in the "UNESCO Courier," "Custom-Built Solutions For International Disputes," by Joseph W. Dellapenna, a professor of international law, there is international agreement that "only riparian nations -- nations across which, or along which, a river flows -- have any legal right, apart from an agreement, to use the water of a river."

Dellapenna continues: "Beyond that, however, there are two types of international claim. The upper-riparian nations initially base their claims on absolute territorial sovereignty, typically claiming the right to do whatever they choose with the water regardless of its effect on other riparian nations. Downstream nations, on the other hand, generally make a claim to the absolute integrity of the river, insisting that upper-riparian nations can do nothing that affects the quantity or quality of water flowing."

Dellapenna points out that "the usual solution" to disputed claims over water is known as "equitable utilization," where each nation recognizes the rights of others to use water from the same source. "Under this principle, countries usually decide on how much water is allocated to one state or another by looking for some more or less objective standard such as historic patterns of use or the amount of land that could be irrigated in each nation. They also take into account 'objective' factors, like the need for more water for growing populations."


In theory, "equitable utilization" is a rational solution -- in practice however, problems arise, especially where water disputes are exacerbated by political animosity. In the case of the Middle East, specialists believe that water agreements will be hard to achieve without solutions to political conflicts.

By. Roman Kupchinsky

Originally published by EurasiaNet.org

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