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Blue Gold: Have the Next Resource Wars Begun?

by Tara Lohan

It has often been said that water is "blue gold" and the next resource wars will be fought, not over oil, but over water. Maude Barlow, senior advisor to the United Nations on water issues, wrote that the way in which we view water "will in large part determine whether our future is peaceful or perilous."

The British nonprofit International Alert released a report identifying forty-six countries where water and climate stresses could ignite violent conflict by 2025, prompting the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to affirm, "The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict."

There is no doubt that the world's supply of drinkable fresh water is threatened. An astounding one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water today and that number is likely to reach 2.8 billion in only two decades. Will these challenges result in an all-out "water war"? Likely not, experts say. But conflict is stirring and the battle for control over the world's dwindling freshwater resources has already begun with international giants like the US, Israel and China flexing their muscles.

China's Hands on Asia's Tap

Fifty years since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet and sixty years since the Chinese invaded, thousands have lent their support to the "Free Tibet" movement, but many would be surprised to know that much more than religious and political freedom hang in the balance. The Tibetan plateau is the faucet for much of Asia's drinking water. Major rivers drain from the icy mountains to help quench the farms, homes and factories of China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Incredibly, the countries affected contain 85 percent of the people in Asia and nearly half the population of the entire globe.

Not only does China hold incredible power with its hand on the tap for so many people, but increasingly the rivers originating in the plateau are threatened by record levels of water pollution from industrial activities including deforestation, mining and manufacturing. And that's not even the worst of the problem: as the Keith Schneider and C.T. Pope wrote for Circle of Blue, a warming climate is causing glaciers in the region to recede faster than anywhere else in the world.

"Water has emerged as a key issue that could determine whether Asia is headed toward mutually beneficial cooperation or deleterious interstate competition," wrote Brahma Chellaney for the Japan Times.

So whatever China does in Tibet ultimately affects everyone downstream. "There is very little public discussion about the international nature of those water resources," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute. "I don't know how to get the Chinese to play with everybody else, but there has got to be more international negotiation and diplomacy if we are going to avoid frictions and tensions and ultimately conflict over those water resources."

Future predictions about climate change are worrisome, and they're compounded by the fact that things are already bad in China. Industrialization has left water either too polluted to drink or hard to come by in many areas. To make matters worse, the country has been gripped by drought. In February, the Guardian reported that 3.7 million people and 1.85 million livestock were without water.

Many fear that Tibet's water will be the answer to China's woes as the country has plans for multiple dams and canal systems to siphon melt from Himalayan glaciers. "Having extensively contaminated its own major rivers through unbridled industrialization, China now threatens the ecological viability of river systems tied to South and Southeast Asia in its bid to meet its thirst for water and energy," wrote Chellaney. "If anything, China seems intent on aggressively pursuing projects and employing water as a weapon."

Scarcity Is a Relative Term in the Jordan Valley

China is not the only country threatened by drought. In the Middle East, one of the hottest and driest places on earth, water has been a source of contention as well as a point of negotiation. "The Arab-Israeli dispute is a conflict about land--and maybe just as crucially the water which flows through that land," wrote Martin Asser for BBC News.

Along the Jordan River, which is now 90 percent diverted by Israel, Syria and Jordan, the countries are indeed facing scarcity. But just what that means for different groups of people, especially the Israelis and Palestinians, is not always clear. "I think scarcity is a political framework in which people work," said Samer Alatout, an expert on Israeli/Palestinian water issues and a professor in the department of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin. "If you have a general assumption about what scarcity is, for instance less than 500 cubic meters per year per person, that does not really mean anything because you are not asking the question of who gets how much water and when."

While consumption varies among Israelis, they have continuous access to water, much like the luxury we enjoy in the United States. Palestinians, on the other hand, are at the will of Israel. In the West Bank, Palestinians have access to only about 20 percent of the water in the aquifer beneath them because sinking wells is prohibited. Their per capita water use is around sixty liters per day, below even the 100-liters-per-day standard of the World Health Organization. For Israelis the number is closer to 300 liters.

In Gaza, the aquifer is so overpumped and polluted that it is virtually undrinkable. Of the 4,000 wells in Gaza, Alatout says, only about ten of them would meet the standards of the World Health Organization. About 40 percent of homes in Gaza do not have running water. And for those that do, Alatout says, water service is intermittent. "During the summer they might only have access one day per week for a few hours," he said. "They fill bathtubs and containers. And they buy water from freelancing tankers who cut into the water supply. So much of their effort and their hours in the day [are] spent thinking about trying to get water in their houses."

And as in China, things are likely to deteriorate even more in coming decades. "For the Palestinians, climate change will just make their conflict with Israel even worse," wrote investigative journalist Andy Rowell. "Access to water is already a major source of contention. As water becomes scarcer it will add to the conflict. Who controls access to the water resources will control the power."

Right now, that power rests firmly with Israel. For this reason, Alatout does not see a war over water in the future there. "The Israelis will not wage war because they are already dominant. The Palestinians cannot wage war really, or the Jordanians; it is not even feasible."

That does not mean, he says, that conflicts won't increase or get more heated. Water, after all, is a necessity of life. But water resolutions will also need to be part of a larger framework that addresses the political, cultural and sociological roots of conflict, Alatout says. For the Palestinians, this is an issue tied to their very sovereignty. "If Israel continues to deny Palestinians access to the basic human right of access to clean water, they will deny Palestine its right to be a nation," wrote Rowell. "It will mean there will be no peace."

The US Muscles Mexico

Most people in the United States have the luxury of not worrying about the right to water--it simply comes out of their tap, and it is clean and plentiful. The idea of a "water war" would likely conjure places like the Middle East or Africa. But in the last few years there has been some real tension between the United States and Mexico.

The source of strife is the long-arbitrated Colorado River, which flows 1,450 miles, and whose watershed spreads across seven US states before dipping into Mexico and exiting at the Gulf of California. Just about every drop of it is allocated (and overallocated). Its water serves over 30 million people and 2 million acres of farmland, and via canals and aqueducts, it helps to quench thirsty cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Under the Mexican Water Treaty of 1944 the United States agreed to ensure its southern neighbor 1.5 million acre-feet of water a year. However, for many decades those south of the border often got more than the treaty allotment if the flow on the river exceeded the water farmers could use. Mexico and the river ecosystem came to greatly appreciate that water, as well as groundwater that was replenished from water seepage draining from the All-American Canal--an eighty-two-mile ditch that runs just north of the border and diverts water from the Colorado River across the desert of Southern California to feed farms in the Imperial Valley.

But nearly a decade of drought in the Southwest has prompted Colorado River states to find ways to squeeze more water out of the river. They devised a plan to line twenty-three miles of the All-American Canal with concrete to prevent water seepage and also to build a reservoir just north of the border to catch those "excess" flows.

The lining of the All-American Canal is likely to yield an extra 67,000 acre-feet a year and the reservoir another 60,000 acre-feet a year. Water managers will proudly declare they've prevented "wasted water" and improved efficiency. But in the desert, water is never wasted. Instead that water seeped underground and flowed beneath the Mexicali Valley south of the border, feeding the fields of local farmers. The area has also provided crucial habitat for millions of migrating birds that use the Pacific Flyway each year.

The United States' action strained relations with Mexico. Talks originally initiated to smooth things over fell apart when Mexico sued to prevent the canal lining. Victor Hermosillo, former mayor of Mexicali, wrote:

Encasing a new canal in concrete would divert more water for San Diego's emerging suburbs and golf courses, but it would do so with devastating impacts. By drying up the groundwater, the concrete canal would deprive many thousands of Mexicans of their livelihood, forcing them to migrate north. One expert predicts more than 30,000 Mexican jobs could be lost if the canal is built.

Environmental groups also answered with litigation over concern for sensitive habitat. But a rider was put in a 2006 omnibus bill in Congress that waived state environmental reviews concerning the project, and it cleared the courts.

"The lining of the canal was a major problem," said Michael Cohen, senior researcher with the Pacific Institute. "The Mexican embassy filed a diplomatic note, which apparently in diplomatic circles is a pretty serious affair, expressing their concern with the US's unilateral action. The US State Department maintained that it was US water and they could do whatever they wanted even though the treaty specifically said that the countries should consult if they take action that would affect the other's water. But the US refused to do that. That really chilled relations between the two countries."

The United States' strong-arming of Mexico echoes China's position in Asia as well as Israel's relationship to Palestine, where the country with the resources clearly has the political might and there is little chance of recourse for those who are water-shorted. Recently Interior officials and Mexican diplomats posed for a photo-op in DC and vowed to cooperate on the Colorado, but more hurdles lie ahead when it comes to water in the region.

One can only hope, says Cohen, that the United States and Mexico can resolve things more equitably in the future, but across the world things may turn out differently as water becomes more scarce. "What's more than likely is the water crisis will continue to get worse," said Aaron Wolf, a professor of geography at Oregon State University and a specialist in transnational water disputes. "The major drivers are population and poverty--nothing new here. Exacerbating that are new demands as countries develop, new awareness of the importance of water for ecosystems and, lastly, climate change. The result will be more people suffering and dying and greater and greater ecosystem loss." Those in rich countries will be able to adapt, he says; those in poorer countries won't be so lucky.

But are we necessarily doomed? Not really. Wolf developed and coordinated the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database at OSU and has also seen the more hopeful side of things, which is that there are a far greater number of instances where water shortages result in cooperation instead of conflict. But there is no guarantee that the future will look like the past. We live in changing times. In a post-9/11 world even what we consider "war" looks vastly different. And global economic pressures may collide with widespread environmental collapse. The jockeying for position regarding freshwater resources has begun and will continue unless the international community demands equitable resolutions.

"The real problem is the crisis, not the danger of conflict," though, says Wolf; "2.5 to 5 million people die every year now because of a lack of access to basic sanitation and a safe, stable water supply. Possible wars in light of this current crisis is a dangerous diversion." The real threat, he warns, is not taking action now to address the water crisis already in our lap.

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