Women fetching water at the Pabbo IDP camp in Gulu, Uganda. Photo: John and Melanie (Illingworth) Kotsopoulos on flickr.2013 is the International Year of Water Cooperation. So, what are we celebrating? 783 million people around the world do not have access to clean water, and almost 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation. In addition, over 80% of wastewater worldwide is not collected or treated. To these humanitarian and environmental disasters can be added problems of geopolitical disagreement and potential water wars. These facts make one doubt an actual cause for celebration.   

A fear of water wars is nothing new. In 1995 former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin claimed that “the wars of the next century will be about water”. Since then the reasons for global distress have increased. Pollution, lifestyle changes, a growing population and climate change leading to desertification of already water-stressed areas make water an increasingly scarce resource.

Carl Ganter, director and co-founder of Circle of Blue, sees a strong connection between water shortages and rising food prices, which in turn lead to conflict. He is not alone. Brahma Chellaney, professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, has thoroughly researched the relationship between the status of the Tibetan plateau and the riparian states of India and China. He has come to the conclusion that the water stress threatening the countries’ economic development makes water Asia’s new battleground. Ganter and Chellaney are only a few of those expressing concern over potential water wars.

UNESCO, which holds main responsibility within the United Nations (UN) during the International Year of Water Cooperation, is now challenging the idea of water wars. The humanitarian and environmental impact of water mismanagement and water scarcity is being neither neglected nor played down. The authors of UNESCO’s journal A World of Science agree that it seems intuitive: “The less water there is, the more likely it is that people will fight over it.” So far there are no examples of disagreements over water leading to war. However, one might draw parallels to conflicts sparked by greed for other natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals, known to serve as a curse rather than a blessing to the civilians of their host country.

Jan Eliasson. Photo: United Nations – Geneva’s photostream on flickr.

Interestingly, water does not seem to fit into this category of natural resources. The UNESCO authors cannot find any connection between water stress and potential conflict. Instead they argue that water is yet another means to fight ongoing wars. Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary-General of the UN and former Chair of WaterAid Sweden, served as a diplomat in the Darfur conflict, where climate change has led to desertification of already dry land. In one of his reports he wrote: “because of that creeping desertification, scarcity of water was becoming a key factor in an extremely inflammable conflict.”

Those hit hardest by water scarcity are civilians, particularly poor rural populations. However, Eliasson is optimistic on the potential role of water in solving conflicts and peace-keeping: “In my work with the United Nations, I was frequently involved in matters of strife between and within nations. I was often struck by the central role of water in serving as a catalyst for cooperation or conflict”. He sees water as a starting point for cooperation between parties in a conflict. “Water is a growingly scarce resource. Will we fight over this resource? Or will water be a factor of cooperation between nations?”  Eliasson asks.

According to A World of Science and UNESCO, Eliasson is right. War and violence over water are simply never strategically rational. Even though there have been a number of water-related disagreements between nations, they are greatly outnumbered by instances of cooperation.


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