Water politics and common sense

Undala Alam

Countries dependent on shared water resources have little reason to go to war over them; the real conflicts of interest take place between different kinds of water consumers and the only answer to such clashes is to have better management and political leadership in the long-term interests of all

The likelihood of wars being waged over water seems to make intuitive sense. Increasing demand for freshwater is stretching already tense lines of supply and climate change is set to exacerbate these difficulties. For some who seem to speak with authority, it is only a matter of time before war could erupt, especially in countries and regions where relations are already fragile. In 1978, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat said he was ready to go to war with any country interfering upstream on the Nile. In 1995, Ismail Serageldin, as World Bank Vice-President, declared that in the 21st century wars would be over water. And in 2006, John Reid, then British Secretary of State for Defence, echoed the same view. The expectation of such a conflict is widespread.

However, despite its intuitive nature and high-profile adherents, there is no evidence to support the ‘water wars’ rationale. On the contrary, Aaron Wolf of Oregon State University has collated considerable evidence showing international cooperation to be the norm, even between enemies. The Jordan, often cited as the water war basin, has been subject to informal Arab-Israeli cooperation since the 1950s. India and Pakistan have negotiated, implemented and maintained the Indus Waters Treaty over 50 years, through two wars, several military skirmishes and a nuclear arms race. All ten of the Nile’s riparian states (those through which the river runs) have participated in the long-established Nile Basin Initiative, which has generated large intra-basin investments. Although all these different cooperative processes have their ongoing difficulties and intra-basin tensions, such problems do not equate to a war driven solely by water.

One of the problems with the water war idea is that it relies heavily on politicians’ public rhetoric. In 1957, on American television, Pakistani Prime Minister Hussain Suhrawardy stated that his country would fight India over the Indus. The public rhetoric of war masked the two countries’ ongoing bilateral cooperation and Suhrawardy’s comments can be ascribed to his need to rally domestic support for his short-lived premiership. Also, the idea presumes that water is being managed optimally and that the only way to access more water is through war. The reality is that there is inefficiency and loss. In fact, agriculture consumes 60-90 percent of water worldwide each year. In a country with limited water supplies like Jamaica, agriculture consumes 75 percent of the total.

The real problem is that water is poorly managed. The principal issues are the mundane ones of leaky pipes, pollution and expanding sanitation – all of which are a far cry from the adrenalin-fuelled spectre of war. However, mundane does not mean simple. Such things are immensely complex because of two characteristics unique to water – it flows, and nearly everything, living or produced, needs it at some point in its life or production cycle.

Most resources like oil, minerals and land are static. Consequently, ownership can be demarcated with a boundary, permitting independent use of the resources. However, because it flows, water creates a hydrological interdependency within a river basin. For example, a dam placed upstream will impact the amount and quality of water reaching ecosystems and other users further down the river.

Changing water availability can be problematic because of water’s second characteristic – its indispensability. Water is used in industrial processes such as extracting iron ore, in agriculture to irrigate flowers grown in Kenya for the European market, in safeguarding human life and in sustaining ecosystems. Coining the term ‘virtual water’, Tony Allan at Kings College London has detailed the water footprint of different products (see table). Unlike fossil fuels there is no substitute – it is water or nothing.

Only 3 percent of the world’s water is the freshwater found in lakes, rivers, glaciers and groundwater. The remaining 97 percent is saltwater, palatable only after desalination. Every decision taken in meeting the demand for water creates winners and losers. Consequently, answering water management’s central question – who gets what? – is a political minefield and vulnerable to influence. Pakistan’s landowners, industrialists and politicians were able to safeguard their assets from the 2010 floods by appropriating government relief efforts. As David Grey, formerly the World Bank Water Adviser, acknowledges, water allocation is first and foremost a political decision, even if it is one informed by economics, technology and social concerns.

Although there are many competing demands on water resources, governments have traditionally prioritised those of agriculture. This makes sense for agrarian economies; however, agriculture’s dominance in mature economies impinges on other sectors of greater economic significance. Spanish agriculture annually consumes 72 percent of the country’s water supply but only represents 3.5 percent of GDP in comparison to tourism’s 11 percent. And Australia has grown rice, a water-intensive crop, under desert conditions since the 1920s. Clearly, agriculture is a vital sector, but historical decisions have to be re-evaluated today to maximise social, economic and environmental opportunities relating to water.

Inadequate access to water may not just be a matter of a physical shortage as during a drought. According to Lyla Mehta of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, it is also due to a socially constructed scarcity which disproportionately burdens the poor. In contrast to the UK, Americans who cannot pay their domestic water and sewage charges can be legally cut off by their water companies. A Pakistani farmer at the end of a tertiary canal usually has insufficient water for irrigation due to illegal extraction upstream by more influential farmers. In Burkina Faso, Margreet Zwarteveen’s work for the International Water Management Institute noted the positive impact on productivity and social standing in giving women access to irrigation water.

Many societies have developed strategies to secure water in their climatic context. However, the legacy of colonial expectations born in different climates, and modern aspirations of economic productivity, have often disturbed the equilibrium – as a result a heavy reliance is placed on engineering solutions. To face India’s growing supply-demand gap, the government is proposing to link the country’s river basins, creating a national water grid. However, as Sunita Narain at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi describes, modern tube wells and diesel pumps can rapidly drain aquifers, decimating water availability and agriculture, and lead to a rural exodus. In Rajasthan, the villagers’ restoration of traditional earth dams (johads) began to counter the degradation by capturing the monsoon rains. Consequently, the water table has risen six metres, forest cover has increased by 33 percent, and five rivers are now perennial, proving that the hi-tech solution is not the only – or indeed the right – solution available.

Political sensitivities are heightened when a river and its hydro-interdependency cross an international border because it implicates national sovereignty. Over 60 percent of the world’s freshwater comes from 263 international rivers. Most countries have sought to develop ‘their’ water unilaterally, with international agreements used to allocate water to each riparian state. However, an interesting example from Africa is redefining approaches to international cooperation over water. The Senegal basin countries’ intra-governmental agreement on water is unprecedented in that the member countries seek to share out both the costs and the benefits of all developments in the basin. According to Ousmane Dione of the World Bank, the joint ownership of Diama and Manantali dams under the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du fleuve Sénégal pulled Mauritania and Senegal back from war in 1989.

The challenge for politicians and technocrats is to safeguard their societies’ water in the long term despite the inherent risk to their personal interests. The corollary of who benefits is a question of who carries the risk. A country’s socio-economic and climatic imperative may necessitate reducing agriculture’s water use, but political candidates are rarely elected to office by promising to cut supply. Similarly, technocrats can safeguard their careers by ignoring illegal pumping by well-connected people. Historically, large-scale engineering solutions have also provided opportunities to extend management influence, as the Canadian engineering firm, Acres International, attempted in 2002 with the Lesotho Highlands Water Project.

If countries want to have not only sustainable development but also sustained development, despite the vagaries of precipitation resulting from climate change, then their political and technical leaderships need to demonstrate political courage and vision. Just as India and Pakistan’s premiers showed when they started their dialogue over the Indus basin, or the leaders in the Senegal basin when they made a commitment to joint development, it is about individuals choosing to play the long game and to safeguard their societies’ water into the future.

About the author:

Dr Undala Alam lectures at Queen’s University Belfast on public policy and environmental sustainability


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