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A war over water, a not so distant dystopian future

About the blog

Laura F. Zarza
Degree in Environmental Science. Content Manager in iAgua. Smart Water Magazine newsroom. Fantasy and fiction writer.

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  • war over water, not distant dystopian future

If there is something that differentiates the current pope from his predecessors is his modesty, humbleness, and empathy concerning issues that used to be considered a taboo (or lacking any interest) by the church. During the Seminar on the Human Right to Water, held on the 23rd and 24th of February of 2017 in The Vatican City, Pope Francis made this shocking statement: 'I wonder if we are not on the path towards a Great World War over Water'. But, how close are we really to such a war?

In the past few years we considered oil to be the resource over which a third world war could be fought. However, as a result of climate change devastation, the lack of political priority, governmental failure, inequality and armed conflict, now the spotlight is on water. This, together with the eternal debate on whether water should be a luxury good or universal access to it should be guaranteed could make water the focus of major geopolitical conflicts in the 21st century. Even though 'more than 3600 treaties related to international water resources have been signed since the year 805' (International Year of Freshwater Report, FAO), to understand the problem and reflect upon future conflict around water we should take a look at the data and the facts.

There are some 300 areas across the world where a conflict over water is foreseen by 2025

The data

According to the United Nations, water consumption has doubled in the past 50 years, 2600 million people do not have access to basic sanitation — 40% of the world's population — and 497 million people living in cities depend on shared sanitation, a number that has doubled since 1990. Taking that into account, almost one tenth of the global disease burden could be halted  by improving the water supply, sanitation, hygiene, and water resource management in general (UNESCO).

But that is not all. The WHO states that there should be a water source no further than 1000 metres from each household, and millions of people across the world must walk daily up to 6 hours just to collect water for domestic uses. Furthermore, according to the UNDP, the cost of water should not be higher than 3% of the household income, but the truth is that people in poor countries pay up to 50 times more for a litre of water than their neighbours in wealthier countries (UN), since they have to buy water from private sellers.

Source: WaterAid

Considering that in many large cities such as Tokyo, New York or Barcelona, 250 to 500 million m3 are lost per year, preventing those losses could supply drinking water to 10 to 20 more million people in each large city (UN).

Looking at the future, and taking into account that the total cost of the lack of water security for the world's economy is estimated to be 500 billion dollars per year including the environmental impact (WWC), we cannot forget the UN warning: in 2050 water consumption to meet industrial and domestic water demands will increase by 44%. There are more data indicating we are on the path towards a Great World War over Water; the issue is whether we are on time to change things.

The facts

Given the current water availability situation and future projections, the UN has confirmed that there are some 300 areas across the world where a conflict over water is foreseen by 2025. Whether because the fight revolves around controlling water resources, or because water is used as an instrument to win, water is having more and more a key role.

Conflicts take place in different regions of the world: worth noting are the conflict between Israel and Palestine; the civil war in Syria; the dispute between Bolivia and Chile over the waters of the Silala; the Tigris and Euphrates conflict involving Turkey, Syria and Iraq; the Zambezi river basin between Mozambique and Zimbabwe; the Nile conflict; and the Cochabamba Water War.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine

Gaza Strip (Pixabay)

Water is not the main factor affecting this conflict, but it is one of the outstanding issues. The right to control water led to the Water War between 1964 and 1967. Once it ended, and after occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israel claimed ownership over all water resources. Now Palestine has to obtain a licence from the Israeli army before carrying out any activity or developing any infrastructure related to water resources.

Although water did not trigger the general conflict between these countries, Israel used the opportunity to take hold of key objectives for the control of water resources for its own benefit. Israel has started to use water as a means to harm its rival; for instance, it destroyed a pipeline that transported drinking water to Palestinian families in the Jordan river valley.

The civil war in Syria

Damascus. source Wikipedia

The armed conflict that started in early 2011 has devastated the country, with a death toll of more than 300,000 people. Israel needs to control the water sources that feed into the Jordan river and the groundwater aquifers in Gaza and the West Bank because precipitation is very low in the region. Since 2015, the parties involved in the conflict are using drinking water access as a means to realise their military and political goals. The bombardment of the Al Khafseh treatment plant, the damages caused to the bab al-Nayrab pumping station, both of them in Alepo, and the bombardment of the Barada river source by the Syrian army in early 2017, one of the main water sources for Damascus, as well as the supply cut-offs in the Wadi Barada area since December 2016, left millions of people in Syria without water, and contaminated about 80% of the water resources.

Even though both parties reached an agreement to repair the water supply to Damascus in 2017, the government and rebels both throw accusations of acts of sabotage against water supply systems, something that the United Nations considers a war crime. Things have arrived to a point where the UN accused the Syrian regime of bombarding on purpose the water sources in the area of Wasi Barada in December 2016.

A ceasefire still seems to be far away, so water in Syria will continue to be an issue, and although the water supply to Alepo was resumed two months after it was suspended, water resources will continue to be at the core of the conflict in Syria.

The dispute between Bolivia and Chile over the waters of the Silala

Source Wikipedia

The confrontation between Bolivia and Chile on the management of the waters of the Silala started as early as 1908, when Bolivia accused Chile of diverting water using artificial channels. This water resources system is located in the Andean Plateau, between both countries, and has been the object of a dispute between both governments concerning its name, nature, course, and use (Wikipedia) for more than 100 years.

Bolivia recognised the Silala as an international watercourse in 1997 and both countries almost reached an agreement in 2009, but it was not ratified. Bolivia changed its mind, going back to their previous claims, and reported Chile to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague for their illegal use of the water. The government of Evo Morales wants to demonstrate that the Silala is a water spring flowing into Chile through the artificial channels built in 1908, and Chile uses the water without paying for it. Therefore, since they do not consider the water to be part of a river, it would not be subject to the provisions of international law for transboundary rivers. On the other hand, Chile affirms it is an international river that originates in Bolivia and crosses the border towards Chile, flowing into the San Pedro de Inacaliri river, in the Pacific drainage basin.

After both countries filed proceedings before the ICJ, the court fixed July 3rd 2017 and July 3rd 2018 as the respective time-limits for the filing of a memorial by Chile and a counter-memorial by Bolivia. The latest development on this dispute occurred in November 2018, when the court fixed February 15th 2019 and May 15th 2019 as the time-limits for the filing of written pleadings by Chile and Bolivia, respectively.

We should note that this is not the only confrontation between Bolivia and Chile. Since 2013 both countries have been involved in a dispute over an application filed by Bolivia before the ICJ instituting proceedings against Chile to force them to negotiate a sovereign access to the Pacific Ocean for Bolivia, something they lost in the War of the Pacific in the 19th century. In 2018 the ICJ delivered its judgement, finding that Chile did not have such an obligation.

The Tigris and Euphrates conflict involving Turkey, Syria and Iraq

Source Wikipedia

The conflict over these two rivers involves Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Both rivers have their source in Turkey, flow through Syria and then Iraq into the Persian Gulf. Each country can control the amount of water that flows downstream into the next country, and that has led to a conflict over how the water resources of both rivers ought to be used.

The first disputes go back to the 1960s, when large hydraulic development projects took place in the Mesopotamian region. In 1975, Iraq and Syria mobilised their respective armies next to their common border when Syria finished the construction of a dam on the Eufrates, and both countries were close to an open confrontation. However, both countries joined forces against Turkey when the Turkish government held back the flow of the Euphrates into Syria entirely to fill up the reservoir behind the Atatürk dam.

For Turkey, neither the Eufrates nor the Tigris are international rivers, since their entire course is not navigable. Therefore, they defend that the two rivers constitute a single basin, they are not transboundary rivers, and are not international rivers. Whereas under international law Turkey must check with the other two countries before building any large dams that could affect the water flow, although this has not always happened, the Government of Iraq continues to postpone the allocation of water flows from these rivers in its international agenda.

The absence of a political agreement among all parties, the effects of climate change and population growth projections could lead to a future where the Middle East is the focus of attention due to water related conflicts, more so than to oil related conflicts.

The Zambezi river basin between Mozambique and Zimbabwe

Zambezi river basin (source Wikipedia)

The source of the Zambezi river is in Zambia, at the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, and after flowing through seven countries, it flows into the Indian Ocean forming a large delta (Wikipedia).

Due to desertification, population growth and water course pollution, water is increasingly scarce in Africa. The Zambezi river basin, located in the south of Africa, is among the most severely overexploited water resource systems in the world. The countries that comprise the basin: Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique constantly compete for water resources in the basin, giving rise to major conflicts.

In March of 2000, Mozambique and Zimbabwe were on the brink of war, when the latter opened the gates of the Kariba dam. Nowadays, although they are not as significant, conflicts around water resource use continue in the area.

The Nile conflict

The river Nile and its two branches White Nile and Blue Nile (Source Wikipedia)

The Nile river basin comprises 3,254,555 km2, approximately 10% of the surface area of Africa (Wikipedia), being the longest water course in the continent. The basin has two main tributaries: The White Nile, in the east of Africa, and the Blue Nile, in Ethiopia. This basin is key to the survival of the population of 11 riparian countries: Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Burundi, Democratic republic of the Congo and Eritrea.

Water can ensure the prosperity of some communities and bring desolation to others

The conflict over the Nile stems from the fact that for Egypt, the river is crucial for their prosperity, so they have always held back from reaching any sort of agreement. In 1922 Egypt declared they had historical rights over most of the Nile's waters. Between 1929 and 1959 Egypt threatened using military force against riparian countries, in particular Ethiopia and Sudan, as they wanted to build dams in the upper stretches of the river. From 1970 to the present time, those threats have become more aggressive. The former president of Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat, went as far as to say that the only reason for Egypt to ever go to war would be water; something that the Minister of Foreign Affairs Boutros Boutros-Ghali corroborated in the 80s, stating that 'the next war in our region will not be due to political causes, but to water” (United Explanations).

For many decades, the use of the Nile's water resources has been associated with African politics. The remaining countries have complained about the Egyptian control over the Nile's waters, and although there have been efforts to promote equal use of the water and peaceful cooperation among the states in the Nile basin, they have always failed.

But Egypt is not the only one to blame. Ethiopia and Sudan have also refused to reach an agreement and have refused any rights to the remaining countries, since both of them control about 85% of the waters of the blue Nile and the White Nile respectively, which gives them power as regulators of the sources of the Nile.

Thus, the complex structure around the management of the Nile is reduced to these three countries: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The plans of the latter to build the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, currently under construction, have strained relations even further. This huge project would limit the water flow that Egypt and Sudan receive from the Nile, which could lead these two countries to undertake military action to control the river's waters.

The Cochabamba Water War

Source: Fotolog

The Cochabamba Water War that took place in Bolivia from January to April of 2000 was one of the most significant highlights of the fight for water rights in Latin America. The trigger was the privatisation of the drinking water supply.

As a result of privatisation, water tariffs increased more than 50%, and many people had to give up schooling for their children or medical services as a consequence of the rate hike (Wikipedia). The people of Cochabamba took the streets to protest: there were road blocks, strikes and bonfires to protest against the water prices Bolivians did not want to pay for. The Bolivian government, at the time under president Hugo Banzer, decreed a state of siege.

After the national economy collapsed and riots increased (at least one person died and 170 people were injured during one of the demonstrations), in April the decision was overturned and water supply returned to public management.

The historical Cochabamba Water War appears in the film directed by Icíar Bollaín, 'Even the Rain’

Water, the gold of the 21st century

Did the countdown start for this great conflict?

The world's leaders have committed, through the Sustainable Development Goals, to ensure safe water access and sanitation for all, from here to 2030.

Water can ensure the prosperity of some communities and bring desolation to others. Currently there are 200 shared rivers and 300 shared lakes that cross international borders. In fact, three fourths of the Sates in the UN share river or lake basins with neighbouring countries. This entails a potential risk of significant conflicts between countries, not forgetting that the displacement of millions of people due to lack of water can also lead to wars. Nuclear warheads, fuel or weapons arsenals will no longer be important; instead, the design of water conveyance systems will be the key to power.

Notwithstanding the conflicts earlier mentioned, according to the UNESCO 'no states have gone to war specifically over water resources since the city-states of Lagash and Umma fought each other in the Tigris−Euphrates Basin in 2500 before the current era'. Maybe they are just conflicts where water is present directly or indirectly, but, if some people die, I call them wars.

As John F. Kennedy said: 'Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two Nobel prizes – one for peace and one for science'. There is still hope. We still have time. In the words of the current pope: 'We can still reverse this situation. It is not too late, but it is urgent to realise the need and essential value of water for the good of mankind”.

Did the countdown start for this great conflict?

Other sources not cited in the text: Alainet, Cuarto Milenio.


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