Career: Research Engineer | Phillips 66 Research Center | Bartlesville, Oklahoma, USA
The Global Water Crisis: An Excuse for War or a Weapon for Peace?
Water is unarguably one of the most important substances required to sustain life. Being the most widely occurring substance on planet Earth, most people consider it a resource with infinite supply. The result of this misperception is that since 1950 the population has doubled while water usage has tripled. Of all the water present on Earth, less than 1 percent is readily available for use by human beings. Pollution caused due to anthropogenic activities has led to poor quality of available water and has put an additional burden on an already limited resource. Around 2 million tons of waste is put into water sources daily, wastes which include industrial waste, chemicals, human waste and agricultural waste.
The distribution of available fresh water on planet Earth is not uniform nor is the population. Presently, one third of the world’s population live in water-stressed countries and lack access to improved water supply. This has been primarily responsible for more than 2.2 million deaths each year due to water-associated diseases, a number equal to the entire population of children under age 5 in New York City and London. Asia and Africa together account for 90 percent of this population, which clearly illustrates the continental disparities of water availability at regional levels. This has become a key concern and has led to a water crisis, which is a major challenge for many countries around the world. With more frequent extreme weather events, recent estimates suggest that climate change will account for a 20 percent increase in global water scarcity, the effect of which could be very severe at local/regional levels. The critical challenges thus lie ahead for addressing the water crisis.
Recognizing this pressure, many experts and leaders have widely acknowledged that water scarcity will play an important role in creating discontent and desperation, making conflicts unavoidable in the near future. Professor Uri Shamir, a member of the Israeli negotiating team to the Middle East peace process, once noted: “If there is a political will for peace, water will not be a hindrance. If you want reasons to fight, water will give you ample opportunities.” Recent history is full of violent conflicts associated with water resources — Israel’s water sanctions against Gaza, the Taliban’s threat over water supplies, conflicts in the Somali region, Sri Lankan rebels cutting water supplies to a village, the dispute between India and China over the Ganges and the tension between USA and Mexico over the Colorado river basin are just a few examples.
Thus the question remains to be asked: Is war the only possible fate of this crisis, or do we stand any chance of having this resolved via a peaceful process?
Albert Einstein rightly once said: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” which is the case with our current water crisis.
Surprisingly though, very few people think so despite the fact that water is one of the most commonly shared trans-boundary entities. Facing common needs and problems, we need a common solution for them and the water crisis can act as a perfect bridge to achieve this. Even today, examples exist that prove the tremendous potential that water can offer as a weapon for peace rather than an excuse for war. Several examples come to mind: the Nile Basin Initiative, through which Egypt, Ethiopia and other countries are exchanging the benefits of cooperation on the Nile; the cooperation in West Africa between Senegal, Mali and Mauritania to share the Senegal River; and innumerable treaties between European countries to share watersheds. They all suggest that a water crisis can indeed be used as a medium to enrich conversations towards peaceful resolutions.
So how can the world move toward a future of cooperation rather than conflict? I believe that the next steps that need to be taken to address water conflicts can be divided into four parts. First, it is imperative to raise the awareness of the proper use of water amongst the majority of people while maintaining sound economic policies. Second, technological development and know-how should be used as a bridge between the nations and continents to facilitate peace talks. Third, involvement of both political leaders and technical experts should be imposed to better ensure a pragmatic solution. And finally, a dedicated and independent legal organizational body is needed to adjudicate water matters on a global scale.
Although this might sound too demanding, the help of the European Union can play a crucial role due to its experience building institutions for managing the great European rivers such as the Danube and the Rhine. Being optimistic, I strongly believe that this is not impossible and that with the right spirit and with honest efforts, we can definitely make the water crisis a weapon for peace rather than an excuse for war.
Finally, I would like to end with a quote on war from Omar Bradley, ex-general of the U.S. army, which I think applies well to the context of this current water crisis: “Wars can be prevented just as surely as they can be provoked … and we who fail to prevent them must share the guilt for the dead.”