And the waters divided

Most of the earth's 250 main river systems are the subject of political dispute. With some 80 countries-home to 40 per cent of the world's population-already suffering from water shortages, those disputes are likely to intensify. Faith Brooke reports on how to manage the conflicts ahead
January 20, 1996

The wars of the past were fought over race, religion, territory or access to minerals. The conflicts of the future could arise from a more fundamental problem-how to divide water, the planet's most basic resource, among its rapidly growing population. In the words of World Bank vice-president Ismael Sarageldin, "many of the wars of this century were about oil, but wars of the next century will be over water."

Sarageldin's fears, voiced this summer, reflect the anxieties of a decade in which the abstract bloc-on-bloc hostilities of the cold war evaporated to expose the more local and practical reasons for which regional neighbours fall out. But the problem is an ancient one. Water wars have been fought since time began. "Water conflicts go back 5,000 years," says Peter Gleick, of California's Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security. "They fought over water in ancient Mesopotamia."

Gleick points out that in much of the world, the political boundaries of states do not correspond well to the water boundaries. Historically, rivers have been viewed as natural borders between states, rather than as natural resource centres. Out of some 250 important river systems in the world, home to nearly half the world's population, most are shared between two or more nations. Ten nations share the Nile's watershed. A dozen share the Danube. Seven south-east Asian countries share the Mekong river.

River neighbours-traditional competitors for a shared water supply-are often old or potential enemies. Defence experts quoted in World Link, the magazine of the World Economic Forum, illustrate the growing fear of water conflict by pointing out that Egypt, at odds both politically and over water with its upstream Nile neighbour Sudan, has created a new jungle warfare unit. It has no jungles-but Sudan does.

A dangerous modern dimension has been added to this ancient source of conflict by the world population explosion. Numbers are expected to rise from 5.6 billion now to 8 billion by the year 2025. Demand for water is doubling every 21 years, but the amount of renewable fresh water is fixed. Future generations will have to compete for a smaller share of the water that was available to their parents. A dry summer gave even the UK, a temperate country where water is usually plentiful and cheap, a hint of the intense political resentments which temporary shortages can cause.

Shrinking supply

The problems of water shortage are much more acute in the many arid and semi-arid regions of the developing world. In his book Ultimate Security, Dr Norman Myers, a fellow of Green College, Oxford, estimates that Egypt's water supply per person will shrink by 30 per cent, Nigeria's by 40 per cent and Kenya's by 50 per cent in less than a decade. In the middle east and north Africa, Ismael Sarageldin predicts that the amount of water available to each person will have shrunk by 80 per cent in the course of a single lifetime.

World Bank figures show that about 80 countries with 40 per cent of the world's population are experiencing water shortages that threaten their agriculture, industry and health. In 30 years' time, unless radical water management programmes are undertaken, the Bank forecasts that dozens more countries will be unable to provide the 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year which hydrologists reckon is needed to cover basic personal, agricultural and industrial needs.

Already, to feed a growing number of mouths, seven of 16 countries in the middle east and north Africa are depleting their non-renewable water supplies. To make up for inadequate supplies of surface river water and rainwater, they are drawing on their underground supplies-a policy condemned by the World Bank as self-defeating and likely to accelerate the process of desertification. "The number of people who are actually short of water at this moment is about 500 million. But by the year 2020, if we carry on as we are, that number will jump six times over to 3 billion. That will be almost half of all the people [now] on earth," says Myers.

Being unable to ensure a safe, adequate water supply is ruinous, not only to human health, but to national economies. A recent outbreak of cholera in Peru, caused by contaminated water, cost about $1 billion in its first ten weeks-three times what Peru had invested in its water supply throughout the 1980s. The British charity Wateraid estimates that 25,000 children-the labour force of tomorrow-die every day in the developing world from water-related illnesses. More than half the world's hospital beds are filled by people made ill by unsafe water.

Countries with rapidly growing populations need more municipal water for their citizens' personal use-for washing, drinking and sanitation. But these countries also need more food for their expanding populations, and more water to grow that extra food on the same amount of land. Many turn to irrigated agriculture, which provides 35 per cent of the world's food on only 16 per cent of the world's land, but uses a high proportion of the national water budget. In dry regions such as the middle east, agriculture takes up 90 per cent or more of the available water but contributes only 15-20 per cent of the GDP.

Because economic growth in developing nations tends to be fast, industry also claims an ever bigger share of the country's water. And countries which try to generate extra income from tourism, or which invest in environment preservation programmes, find they use up still more water. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says the amount of water needed to irrigate one hectare of high-yielding rice can support 100 urban families for two years-or 100 luxury hotel guests for 55 days.

Involuntary river neighbours

Intensifying domestic competition for water pushes hard-pressed governments to look for new sources of water. The easiest way is to take more water than before from the nearest river system. This penalises states further downstream and is the root cause of much water conflict.

River neighbours are subject to a unique set of problems and uncertainties, according to David Kinnersley of the National Rivers Authority Advisory Committee. Unlike land -which can be fenced in, divided, measured and valued-rivers have been a communal asset in legal systems throughout history because their volume of flow and quality are apt to change. But because a river basin is seldom a political unit, river neighbours are less likely than land neighbours to be aware that they share a natural arena.

In his book Troubled Water, Kinnersley points out that a fire at the riverside chemical factory at Sandoz in Switzerland in November 1986 not only killed off most fish life in the Rhine, but also led to the closing of water intakes for some towns in the Netherlands. Since the Swiss have promoted their country's image of sparkling lakes to attract tourists, they were surprised and embarrassed to find that they had to apologise for the long distance damage which they caused to the water shared by people in Germany, France and The Netherlands, all neighbours in the same river basin.

A more consciously recognised problem between river neighbours has set Turkey at odds with Syria and Iraq. Turkey's lavish use of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates, in the ambitious southeastern Anatolia project which aims to irrigate 1.7 million hectares of arid land at a total cost of $32 billion, has outraged Ankara's downstream neighbours, Syria and Iraq. Iraq's share of the flow has shrunk to just half the volume of water leaving Turkey. But Turkey has already spent $11 billion on dams, irrigation canals and hydroelectric plant since the scheme began in the 1950s. It hopes that the project, when completed in 2005, will provide 3.3 million jobs, generate 27 billion kilowatts/hour of electricity and allow double and triple cropping. Thus, President Suleyman Demirel has made it clear to both Turkey's neighbours that Ankara has no intention of stopping the project to suit them.

Bad feeling over water has become a hostage to politics. Turkey, Syria and Iraq share a Kurdish minority whose Marxist Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK) seeks independence from Turkey. The Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK enjoy Syrian tolerance and their main base is still in the Syrian-dominated Bekaa valley of Lebanon. For socialist Syria, the PKK presence is not only politically sympathetic; according to Jane's Defence Weekly in September, it is also a useful extra lever against Turkey on the water question. While Syria objects to the massive Atat?rk dam, at the heart of the southeastern Anatolia project, which lets Turkey control the flow of the Euphrates, the Turks themselves see the success of the project as a vital bulwark against Kurdish separatism.

Abuse of water also proved politically explosive in Soviet central Asia, where turning the region around the Aral Sea over to water-intensive cotton monoculture reduced the flow of water in the feeder rivers, the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, and caused the sea to shrink by two-thirds. Discontent over the ecological catastrophe which followed-desertification of the surrounding area and a sharp rise in cancers-was one of the many environmental factors which fostered hostility to central control by Moscow in the 1980s, and ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Middle East disputes

But experts agree that the middle east has the most potential for conflict over water. Norman Myers says the region has already seen one modern war motivated by water needs as much as political imperatives-the Six-Day war of 1967. "According to General Moshe Dayan, Israel mobilised because Syria and Jordan were starting activities to divert some of the [river Jordan's] water so that Israel would get less," he claims. Since winning the Six-Day war, Israel has in effect controlled the Jordan river basin.

Jordan water has remained a political weapon ever since. Israel remains secretive about its water use. Jonathan Kuttab and Jad Ishaq, of the Jerusalem Applied Research Institute, wrote in 1992: "Information pertaining to water is considered as sensitive as the movement of troops. Even the relatively robust Hebrew press has strict standing orders to submit any water-related articles to the censor before publication."

Palestinians argue that Israel's water policy discriminates against them. A third of Israel's water comes from the mountain aquifer of the Jordan's West Bank, a natural underground reservoir which provides about 600 million cubic metres of water a year. Palestinian writer Malu Halasa says that 95 per cent of the water Israel pumps from this aquifer every year goes to Israeli settlers, and only the remaining 5 per cent to the local Palestinians. Israel's national water company, Mekorot, has irrigated 69 per cent of the nearly 100,000 acres of land cultivated by Jewish settlers since 1967, Halasa says. But only 6 per cent of about 25,000 acres of Palestinian land is irrigated, the same proportion as in 1967.

Water talks are among the most bitterly contested elements of the peace process. Palestinians, outraged by what they believe is Israeli sharp practice, have departed from the normal etiquette of water talks-agreeing the allocations each side can use-and are insisting instead on explicit ownership rights of the water they claim. "The Israelis are very reluctant to discuss it in those terms," says Gleick.

Elsewhere in the region, Lebanon has complained to the UN about what it sees as the theft by Israel of water from its southern Litani and Wazzani rivers. Egypt is worried that political tensions with its increasingly fundamentalist upstream Nile neighbour, Sudan, will scuttle a 1959 agreement on sharing the river which is Cairo's only large-scale supply of water.

Despite the apparently insurmountable problems facing the region, Professor Tony Allan, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, draws attention to how little conflict has actually broken out in the middle east. This, he argues, shows it is "rather ugly and silly" to assume that the only water available to a national economy is the water found in its hydrological system.

A more sophisticated analysis would add in what Allan has dubbed "virtual water." This is the water contained in the heavily subsidised imported food grown in the temperate US or Europe where water is abundant and cheap, and which has flooded the middle east for the past three decades.

"You need a thousand cubic metres of water to feed someone, but you only need one cubic metre a year to give them enough to drink. It's the water for food production that is important. If you don't have it, you're going to look elsewhere for it. It's a perfectly normal economic act," Allan says.

"Virtual water" has added liquidity to the the middle east and kept conflict at bay, as competition between European and American farmers keeps the price of food low worldwide. Now, however, Allan worries that population rises in Asia, particularly China, could bring new consumers on to world grain markets and raise the price of staple foods. This could cut the "virtual water" out of the middle eastern equation, throwing the region back on its own scanty resources.

International organisations also stress that catastrophe is avoidable. Population growth may be rapid, but there is still enough fresh water to go round if governments learn to use it more efficiently. The World Bank is leading the latest attempts to switch from supply management (i.e. moving on to new sources of water when the old ones are exhausted), to demand management.

A developed world problem too

Expensive spending on new sources, such as desalinisation plants to make seawater drinkable, is out of fashion. Rigour and conservation are the new watchwords. "The water problem in most countries stems not from a shortage of water, but from inefficient use of water resources," Sarageldin says. The World Bank's guiding principle is that water should be recognised as an economic good, with an economic value in all its competing uses. Eliminating subsidies and encouraging privatisation will do much to eliminate waste.

This does not apply just to poor countries. Subsidising water, and the extravagance it encourages, is also a dominant political issue for US federal and western state governments. For example, big and expensive dams and artificial water systems to help California eke out its 355mm of annual rainfall encourage farmers to depend on an asset they could not afford at real prices, without thinking about how to moderate their use of water. Kinnersley says planning projects in California are now so expensive that the real cost of the water they provided would be $400-$500 per acre foot. This is between 20 and 80 times the amount the farmers of California's central valleys are used to paying, under a 1902 federal law which guaranteed small farmers cheap water. The federal government has already moved to transfer some of the cost of its current projects to individual states, giving a new impetus towards pricing water realistically by letting city dwellers fight against paying for the costly subsidies their country cousins want.

However, many people disagree that water should be bought at its true economic price. They claim it is a basic human right to have safe and affordable water, and say governments have a duty to provide subsidies to safeguard this supply. The charity Wateraid worries that raising water prices to market levels could penalise the very poorest subsistence farmers. Putting a market price on water could also have damaging environmental results.

Trickle down

Less controversial are the World Bank's plans to improve both the "hardware" and "software" (basically, pipes and people) of water management. World Bank vice-president Caio Koch-Weser told an economic summit in Amman in late October that using agricultural water more efficiently would let farming prosper with a fraction of present consumption. Among the irrigation methods he recommended was the Israeli trickle drip system, in which plastic pipes are inserted in fields under the soil. Holes in the pipes are aligned next to the roots of individual crop plants. This allows 90 per cent of water to be used and only a tiny amount to evaporate, compared to only about 10 per cent of water used in most crop irrigation. Widespread use of this technique would free water for more profitable industrial schemes.

The World Bank also wants municipal water use to be improved. Half of piped supplies are now lost in the middle east and north Africa. About 40 per cent of water is unaccounted for in most Latin American countries. These water losses in Latin America cost between $1 billion and $1.5 billion every year in lost revenue.

Koch-Weser says the World Bank could double its lending for water projects over the next decade if governments pursued a twin policy of redirecting their water supplies and stopping urban waste. The World Bank wants to raise $600 billion for water projects in 10 years. It says the bulk of this money must come from water-scarce countries themselves, but it has pledged $30-40 billion out of a $60 billion target from abroad.

Improving the efficiency of water "hardware"-eliminating leaky water pipes, separating sewage from fresh water supplies and recycling water-is twinned by a new awareness, both at the World Bank and among governments, of the need for well-planned water "software," or institutions representative of all water users who can manage the supply to best effect.

The World Bank wants river basin neighbours to form regional "water parliaments" to monitor the quality of their water assets. To manage water quantity under conditions of scarcity, it calls for private "water markets" to offset the politicised and inefficient bureaucracies which have often had control of water allocation until now.

Gleick believes that co-operation of this kind is starting to catch on, even in regions torn by ancient rivalries over water: "Israel and Jordan have now agreed to set up a joint river basin management group that I believe will eventually include the Palestinians and Syrians who are also party to the Jordan river. The US has one effective joint management group with Canada and another with Mexico. Water was an explicit point of discussion in the middle east peace talks, precisely because it has been such an important issue there for thousands of years. They have included it in their talks, and they are coming to an agreement over it. I think ultimately that's going to be true of everyone."