Friday, June 15, 2012

How to Share a River

A report on global water security released by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on World Water Day made startling revelations on the risk of water wars in the coming decades. According to the report, which was based on the assessment of federal intelligence agencies, lack of fresh water to meet the needs of a surging population would create tensions within and between states, causing global instability and conflict. The use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become a reality in the near future.
The possibility of water wars occurring in this century has been forecast before, by Ismail Serageldin, vice president of the World Bank in the 1990s, Kofi Annan, UN secretary-general in 2002, and Ban Ki-moon, the current UN secretary-general.

A recent study by David Zhang in the journal of the US National Academy of Sciences, which analyses more than 8,000 wars in the past, establishes that the main triggers for those wars was resource shortage. Experts predict that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population is likely to live in countries facing severe shortage of water — which could lead to large-scale conflict.

Many war analysts do not subscribe to this view on looming trouble over water, since, according to them, such wars are not cost-effective. This argument does not stand to reason since no war is cost-effective. The last century witnessed wars for the control of rivers — between Egypt and Sudan over the Nile (1958); between Israel and the Arabs over the Jordan river (1967), etc.

Some experts are optimistic since many states that share rivers have signed treaties for their utilization, and such agreements are considered resilient enough to survive conflicts. For example, India with Pakistan on the Indus; the US with Mexico and Canada for their common rivers; Brazil with Paraguay on the Parana river; Egypt with sub-Saharan countries on the Nile, etc. They point out that the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan (1960) has survived two wars and many war-like situations due to its inbuilt resilience.

This contention also has certain limitations, as revealed by the working of these treaties in the last few decades. India is unhappy with the Pakistan-biased treaty provisions and is insisting on a review. Likewise, Paraguay feels that the Itaipu treaty (1973) favours Brazil and needs to be renegotiated. Sub-Saharan countries in Africa are insisting that Egypt review the Nile water treaty (1929). However, the beneficiaries — in these cases Pakistan, Brazil and Egypt — are not willing to review the agreements. Tensions are building.

There are also cases where unilateral actions, ignoring treaty provisions, are simmering discontent. For example, the action of the US in lining the All-American Canal in the Colorado basin, ignoring the Colorado river treaty (1944), thereby affecting the riparian rights of Mexican farmers, has caused tension in the region. The US has also taken up a project to divert the waters of North Dakota’s Devil Lake without consulting Canada, ignoring their Boundary Water Treaty (1909) and causing strained relations between the two.

In many countries, these disputes are waiting to erupt into major conflicts. For instance, the disputes around the waters of the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya among the Central Asian republics, and China’s proposals to divert major rivers like the Brahmaputra and Mekong, ignoring strong protests from downstream countries.

Unfortunately, international laws on water in their present form may not be able to arrest such a situation. The UN is also helpless because the Convention on International Water Courses adopted by it in 1997 is yet to be ratified. All concerned would agree that the root cause of the conflicts is the shortage of the resource. Hence the solution lies in improving its availability to meet the optimal needs.

Global institutions like the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) and the World Water Council could step in to initiate dialogues based on water needs rather than water rights. Already the ICID is propagating the concept: “share benefits instead of claiming water rights from a common river”. The ICID is also encouraging global trade in “virtual water” (the water consumed to make food products) to help arid countries get their food products and reduce demands on irrigation water, since a kilo of rice grain production consumes about 1,500 litres of water while producing a kilo of meat requires 30,000 litres.

Meanwhile, supply and demand management issues have to be studied by water professionals to come up with an effective strategy for improving water availability and preventing pollution.

Water wars in this century could become a reality: the warning signals are already visible. The disaster has to be averted with suitable measures. 

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