SINCE men fight over land and oil and plenty of other things, it would be odd if they did not also fight over a commodity as precious and scarce as water. And they do. The Pacific Institute in California has drawn up a list of conflicts in which water has played a part. It starts with a legendary, Noah-and-the-flood-like episode about 3000BC in which the Sumerian god Ea punished the Earth with a storm, and ends, 202 incidents later, with clashes in Mumbai prompted by water rationing last year. Pundits delight in predicting the outbreak of water wars, and certainly water has sometimes been involved in military rows. But so far there have been no true water wars.
Could that change as populations grow, climates change and water becomes ever scarcer? Since 61 of the 203 incidents have taken place in the past ten years, a trend might seem to be in the making—especially as some recent water disputes fail to make the list even though their results look grave. One example is the competition for water in Bharatpur, a district of the Indian state of Rajasthan, which has led local farmers to cut off water supplies to the Keoladeo national park. This was, until a few years ago, a wonderful wetland, teeming with waders and wildfowl. Thousands of rare birds would winter there, endangered Siberian cranes among them. Now it is a cattle pasture.
China abounds with instances of water-induced disputation. The people of Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing, are far from happy that their water is now taken to supply the capital in a canal that will eventually form part of the South-North Water-Transfer Project. So are others affected by that grandiose scheme. Dai Qing, an investigative journalist who is an outspoken critic of the Three Gorges dam and other Chinese water projects, draws attention, for example, to the complaints of those living along the Han river, who will lose water to the huge reservoir formed by the Danjiangkou dam.
Similar disgruntlement can be seen in India, where over 40 tribunals and other panels have been set up to deal with disputes, mostly without success. The bone of contention is often a river, such as the Cauvery, whose waters must be shared by several states. Strikes and violent protests are common. Indians, however, have yet to reach the levels of outrage that led Arizona to call out its National Guard in 1935 and station militia units on its border with California in protest at diversions from the Colorado river. To this day, American states regard each other with suspicion where water is concerned. Indian states are equally mistrustful, often refusing to share such water information as they have lest it be used to their disadvantage.
Violent incidents over wells and springs take place periodically in Yemen, and the long-running civil war in Darfur is at least partly attributable to the chronic scarcity of water in western Sudan. That is probably the nearest thing to a real water war being fought today, and may perhaps be a portent of others to come. If so, they will be dangerous, because so many water disagreements are not internal but international affairs.
The world has already had a taste of some. The six-day war in the Middle East in 1967, for example, was partly prompted by Jordan’s proposal to divert the Jordan river, and water remains a divisive issue between Israel and its neighbours to this day. Israel extracts about 65% of the upper Jordan, leaving the occupied West Bank dependent on a brackish trickle and a mountain aquifer, access to which Israel also controls. In 2004 the average Israeli had a daily allowance of 290 litres of domestic water, the average Palestinian 70.
Turkey’s South-Eastern Anatolia Project, intended to double the country’s irrigated farmland, involves the building of a series of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; one of them, the Ataturk dam, finished in 1990, ranks among the biggest in the world. Iraq and Syria downstream are dismayed. Similarly, Uzbekistan views with alarm Tajikistan’s plan to go ahead with an old Soviet project to build a huge barrage across the River Vakhsh. This, the Rogun dam, will be the highest in the world, at least for a while, and was expected in 2008 to cost about $2.2 billion, or 43% of the country’s national income. The dam will, it is hoped, generate enough power for all Tajikistan’s needs and have plenty over to export as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan. But since it may take 18 years to fill the dam (compared with 18 days, in principle, for China’s Three Gorges), there may be no water left over, or at any rate not enough for Uzbekistan’s cotton-growers.
International river basins extend across the borders of 145 countries, and some rivers flow through several countries. The Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi are each shared among 9-11 countries, the Danube among 19. Adding to the complications is the fact that some countries, especially in Africa, rely on several rivers; 22, for instance, rise in Guinea. And about 280 aquifers also cross borders. Yet a multiplicity of countries, though it makes river management complicated, does not necessarily add to the intractability of a dispute.
One arrangement now under strain is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. This agreement was the basis for the division of rivers after India’s partition in 1947. Having withstood Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999, it is usually cited as a notable example of durability in adversity, but it is now threatened by three developments.
First, India proposes to build a water-diversion scheme in Indian Kashmir that would take water from the Kishanganga river to the Jhelum river before it could reach Pakistani Kashmir. Second, India, which already has more than 20 hydro projects on the three western rivers allocated to Pakistan in its part of Kashmir, is now building at least another ten and has more planned. Each of these conforms to the letter of the treaty, since it does not involve storage but merely run-of-the-river dams, in which water is returned downstream after it has been used to generate power. However, Pakistan is worried about the cumulative effects. When, in 2005, it complained about another Indian hydro project, the dispute went to arbitration. That resulted in a ruling broadly favourable to India which left Pakistan unhappy. It feels that the spirit of the agreement has been breached and the treaty needs revision, partly because advances in technology make it possible to build dams that were not foreseen when the deal was signed.
Third, Pakistan badly needs more reservoirs. Storage is essential to provide supplies in winter (two-fifths of the Indus’s flow comes from the summer melting of glaciers) but Pakistan’s two big dams are silting up. It would like to build a new one in Pakistani Kashmir, but India has objected, and the money is not forthcoming.
Another example, the Nile, looks more worrying but is perhaps more hopeful. The Blue Nile rises in Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands, the White Nile in Lake Victoria in Uganda (into which flow rivers from Rwanda and Tanzania). The two Niles meet in Sudan and flow through Egypt, which gets almost no water from anywhere else. For years most of the territories that now form the riparian countries were under the direct or indirect control of Britain, which was fixated on Egypt. Britain stopped any development upstream that would reduce the flow of water to Egypt and, in 1929, allotted 96% of the water flowing north from Sudan to the Egyptians and only 4% to the Sudanese.
Thirty years later Gamal Abdel Nasser had to make a new treaty with Sudan in order to build the Aswan high dam. It would have made more sense to build a dam in the Ethiopian mountains: not only would the flow have then been easier to control but it would also have been cheaper and environmentally less damaging—and with less evaporation. But demagogues like their own dams. The waters were split 75% to Egypt and 25% to Sudan.
The other riparian states have been unhappy ever since, Kenya and Ethiopia particularly so, and all efforts to draw up a new treaty, fairer to all, have failed. They have not, however, failed to achieve anything. On the contrary, for the past 11 years the ten riparians have been amicably meeting in an organisation called the Nile Basin Initiative, and since 2001 have had a secretariat that deals with technical matters and holds ministerial gatherings.
In this group, irrigation and other projects are agreed on, many with World Bank support. Ethiopia is building three dams, two of them large and one controversial, for environmental reasons; and Egypt will take some of the electricity generated, via Sudan. In this way will two old antagonists yoke themselves together with water, the very commodity that has so long driven them apart. No one would say that a new agreement among all the interested parties is imminent, but, after more than 100 trips to Egypt and Ethiopia to help promote harmony, Mr Grey, World Banker turned Oxford professor, is hopeful. He believes that, in time, Ethiopia could be an exporter of electricity to Europe.
A third neuralgic dispute concerns the Mekong, one of at least eight rivers that rise on the Tibetan plateau, fed partly by melting glaciers in Tibet. The Mekong then runs through China’s Yunnan province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Recently, though, it has been running thinly. Sandbanks have appeared, navigation has slowed, fishermen complain of derisory catches, and the 60m people whose livelihoods directly or indirectly depend on the river are worried. The worst drought in southern China for 50 years is partly, perhaps mainly, to blame, but the downstream users also blame the Chinese government, and in particular the three dams it has built and its blasting of rapids to ease navigation.
China has plans for more dams. It is hyperactive in the world of water, not only at home but abroad—building dams in Africa and Pakistan, looking for land in Mozambique and the Philippines, diverting rivers for its own purposes. Neighbouring states, notably India, are uneasy. Yet the row over the drop in the Mekong seems under control. At a meeting of the Mekong River Commission last month—all the riparian states except China and Myanmar are members—China sent a vice-minister of foreign affairs, who was fairly forthcoming about hydrological data. This was something of a breakthrough, even if he did not offer compensation to fishermen. The neighbours’ resentment has not disappeared, and China will not stop building dams. But a water war seems unlikely.
The most hopeful development is the success of other river-basin organisations like the Nile and the Mekong groups. Such outfits now exist for various rivers, including the Danube, the Niger, the Okavango, the Red, the Sava and so on. In the Senegal river group, Mali, Senegal, Guinea and Mauritania have agreed to disagree about who is entitled to how much water, and instead concentrate on sharing out various projects, so that a dam may go to one but the electricity generated, or a part of it, to another. This has worked so well that the president of the group has established considerable authority, enough to enable him to broker unrelated agreements among squabbling tribesmen.
The co-operative approach has also been successful elsewhere. Thailand, for instance, has helped pay for a hydro scheme in Laos in return for power; South Africa has done the same with Lesotho, in return for drinking water in its industrial province of Gauteng; and, in the Syr Darya grouping, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan compensate Kyrgyzstan in return for supplies of excess power.
The way such organisations work, when they work, is to look for the benefits that can be gained from organising water better, and then to share them. An arrangement can usually, though not always, be found that benefits each state. It may be hard to achieve in a group that includes a dominant member, such as Egypt. And it will also be more difficult in groups that bring together officials appointed politically rather than competitively, on their technical qualifications. In the case of the Indus the two sides’ representatives get along well. The reason the treaty is under strain is that it starts with the water and then tries to divide it equitably. The secret is to look for benefits and then try to share them. If that is done, water can bring competitors together.