Water Wars: More Dangerous Than Nuclear War!

  August 12, 2021   Read time 2 min
Water Wars: More Dangerous Than Nuclear War!
In 2007, the Egyptian- born World Bank vice president for the environment Ismail Serageldin warned, “Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water.” Former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros- Ghali warned bluntly that the next Middle East war might well be over water.

A decade later his successor, Ban Ki- moon, was pressing home the same message at the World Economic Forum with an even greater sense of urgency: “Our experiences tell us that environmental stress, due to lack of water, may lead to conflict, and would be greater in poor nations. Ten years ago, even five years ago, few people paid much attention to the arid regions of western Sudan. Not many noticed when fighting broke out between farmers and herders, after the rains failed and water became scarce. Today, everyone knows Darfur. More than 200,000 people have died. Several million have fled their homes,” he said.

That disputes over water can lead to war should hardly be news. The former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon once told interviewers that water was one of the drivers of the 1967 Six- Day War. Attempts by each side to lay claim to water that the other regarded as theirs triggered armed border clashes feeding directly into events that led to the war. Studies by water policy analysts at the Pacific Institute indicate that the regions of the world most affected by conflict over water in recent years were the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia.

However, Latin America, China, India, and many other Asian countries have also experienced outbursts of violence over water supplies. Many countries have seen disputes, sometimes violent, between farmers and industry or urban water users. More nations affected by water disputes are now nuclear- armed: India and Pakistan face one another across the contentious waters and food bowl of the Indus. And cyber- terrorists seem to have developed a predilection for computer attacks on water agencies.

In East Asia, Alan Dupont thinks that as economic and po liti cal interdependence grows between states, the water problems of one will spill over to become the problems of the others— and foresees intensifying disputes over common resources such as the Mekong River or simply over access to freshwater for the region’s swelling megacities. The number of actual wars for which water was a key precipitating factor is hazy. A study by a graduate student at Oregon State University concludes that of 1,831 water- related “events” involving 124 countries, almost one- third, 507, were “conflicts”— ranging on a scale from harsh words to flying bullets— and the other two- thirds revealed a gratifying degree of cooperation in solving the problem.

Although recently no war has been fought for water alone, the thirty- seven worst fights involving water tended to be sparked either by an acute regional shortage or by someone building a very large dam without seeking the downstream neighbors’ approval. On the whole, the study suggests, countries still prefer to negotiate and collaborate rather than fight over water, and this fact deserves wider recognition. As global water scarcity increases and the climate becomes more unpredictable, however, so too does the scope for trouble.

A long- running study compiled by Peter Gleick at the Pacific Institute lists thirty- five significant conflicts over water, mostly involving violence or terrorism, in the 1990s and forty- nine incidents in the period 2000– 2007, which suggests a ratcheting- up in global water tensions.