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Water as a Source of Life — and of Conflict - Energy And Water Development Corp

Water as a Source of Life — and of Conflict

Editor’s Note:

UNLV geoscience professor David Kreamer conducts research on water and international security, maintaining good water quality supply particularly in economically developing regions, and combating environmental contamination. He has been an invited speaker at many conferences and provided expert testimony to the United States Congress, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the United Nations General Assembly. Here he explains “hydrophilanthropy,” a coin he termed after observing how well-meaning engineering projects can go awry.


In Africa, where I do water-related research, the scene repeats itself. A woman with a pail on her head walks by an inoperative well on her way to a distant water source. She thought it would be a blessing to bring water to her family each day, every day. Young girls make this trek beside her, pails on their heads, without a chance for school and education because of their daily chores. Estimates are that a third of the pumps for wells in Africa are inoperative. 

When most people think of community outreach at UNLV, they usually focus on research and activities in our immediate community. Certainly, this university is a leader in research related to water policy, conservation and drinking water quality.

But UNLV’s water-related research stretches beyond Clark County, and even far beyond Nevada’s borders. Our students and faculty investigate the sustainability of springs in our Southwest deserts under the impact of climate change. They interpret the way successive layers are created on stalactites and stalagmites in caves as indicators of past climates. They look at the chemical signatures of groundwater to determine the abundance of this critical resource.  And they perform research and investigations, which can be described as supporting hydrophilanthropy around the globe.

Hydrophilanthropy embodies humanitarian actions that increase and sustain clean water in areas of need. There are literally tens of thousands of government and non-governmental organizations that fund and support hydrophilanthropic efforts around the world.

Hydrophilanthropic efforts support regional and international stability. The U.S. National Intelligence Council has stated that, “water challenges … will likely increase the risk of instability and state failure, exacerbate regional tensions, and distract countries from working with the United States on important policy objectives.” 

Water scarcity has become one of our greatest challenges, and the inability of some regions of the world to address this challenge portends difficulty, social unrest, and perhaps even armed conflict.

The statistics concerning water are staggering. The United Nations estimates that 4 billion people face water scarcity at least one month each year.  

There are limits to hydrophilanthropy and many potential pitfalls. Sometimes a well-intentioned group or person can make a situation worse. 

If not planned correctly, improper siting of a perfectly good well could extinguish or reduce flow in a nearby spring that may have supported wildlife habitat and supplied drinking water to a local population for millennia. 

Other hydrophilanthropic miscalculations stem from insufficient time spent with the local community. This lack of coordination can undermine a project by not permitting local people to explain regional context. A perfectly good well could be built with solid plans for upkeep and sustainability. But if the well is put on the property of someone the local people hate, the hydrophilanthropist might have created a water war that could last for generations.

Conflicts over water have been recorded for over 4,000 years and are still in the news today. Russia recently bombed a dam built by Ukraine to restrict flow on a North Crimea canal from the Dnieper River. Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, has been suffering intense water supply problems exacerbated by the restriction of flow from Ukraine, and some analysts have reported this as one of the root causes of the Russian invasion. 

And many examples of political tensions being raised by water concerns are occurring in other parts of the world: Ethiopia is completing a large dam that could intercept water on the Nile River historically used by Egypt; Turkey and Syria have controlling dams in the Tigris and Euphrates upstream of Iraq; and the waters from the Himalaya Mountains are being contested by China, Pakistan, and India. 

In the landlocked, arid country of Niger in western Africa, the majority of the country is covered by the Sahara and Tenere deserts. Only 56 percent of the population has direct access to a source of drinking water, half of the population is below 15 years old. Almost half of children have to work and have no chance for education. The population is expected to triple in the next 30 years. 

The native language for the majority of Nigeriens is Hausa, and the word for water is “ruwa.” But ruwa has a second meaning, it can mean “blade” like the blade of a knife or sword. 

How we use this “blade” of conflict or abundance is up to us. The language of water reminds us that there are perspectives beyond our own. Although our languages are different, the language of water brings together these, sometimes disparate, sometimes common, voices together. 

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