Water wars are here | Dhaka Tribune

The Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon in Megok county, Nyingchi city, in China’s western Tibet Autonomous Region on March 28, 2021

In a warming world, fights over water usage have become ideological battles

The global water wars are almost upon us!

The demand for fresh water resources has risen considerably in recent years, owing to fast population expansion and increasing urbanization around the world. Furthermore, as the effects of climate change and resource constraint gain pace, communities are finding it increasingly difficult to develop effective and long-term solutions to their water problems. Water scarcity has become a particularly pressing and divisive issue in international politics. 

For ages, disputes over how to distribute the water of the world’s great rivers — the Nile, the Tigris-Euphrates, and the Mekong, to name a few — have raged, but they have never escalated to full-fledged war. Climate change, sea level rise, and extreme weather fluctuations may be bringing the first outright water battle since ancient Mesopotamia’s days closer.

A general view of the Pangong Lake in Leh district of Union territory of Ladakh bordering India and China on September 14, 2018 | AFP

According to British journalist Roger Boyes, Conflict over water resources in the contemporary world could shape in two forms. The first would be a mismanaged and panicked reaction to rising sea levels. Around 150 million people who are currently living at or below one metre above sea level will gradually be subjected to forced migration due to the rising sea level. This massive climate-induced displacement will cause widespread unrest.

The former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, told polluting nations at a conference a few years back: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, so the seas don’t rise so much. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick. That’s one kind of water war, one that pits the wealthy north against a despairing south. Let’s hope it never gets beyond dystopian storytelling.” 

The second type of battle, as Boyes warned about, could be on the horizon: A full-fledged military conflict over the control of water sources. He pointed out the recent diplomatic battle between Ethiopia and Egypt over “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”  on the Nile, which according to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will cause Egyptians to lose water farther down the Nile. The president has also warned Ethiopians of using military force if necessary. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, wants to fill a reservoir to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric plant and thereby become a significant energy exporter. 

This handout satellite image obtained courtesy of   Maxar Technologies shows a view of of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the Blue Nile River on July 11, 2020 | AFP

In the past few decades, water sources have become one of the crucial flashpoints of conflict around the globe. Many states are nearing collapse as they have lost command over this fundamental resource. Water scarcity has been a major source of civilian unrest in many countries.

In Iran, severe water shortages in recent weeks have prompted electricity outages and even sparked deadly protests. These protests have already turned political and spread to the capital and other regions. This issue could further push Iran in a limbo as the country is now in the middle of a power transition process.  

Shirin Hakim, a doctoral researcher at Imperial College London’s Centre for Environmental Policy warned that this severe water shortage issue might have cross-border implications. 

“This has the potential to impact water and energy access issues for Iran’s neighbours like Iraq, which relies heavily on Iranian energy supply and shares transboundary water resources,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Iran has already built dams to retain water from its Little Zab and Sirwan rivers instead of letting them flow into the Tigris in Iraq. 

The United Nations warned that more than four million people in Lebanon, including one million refugees, risked losing access to safe water as shortages of funding, fuel and supplies affect water pumping, reports Reuters.

A view of the damaged Fifth Bridge across the Tigris river connecting the eastern and western halves of Iraq’s northern city of Mosul on June 10, 2021 | AFP

“Unicef estimates that most water pumping will gradually cease across the country in the next four to six weeks,” a statement by the UN body said in a statement.

“Unless urgent action is taken, hospitals, schools and essential public facilities will be unable to function,” Unicef Representative in Lebanon, Yukie Mokuo, was quoted as saying in the statement. 

Water supplies are also running low in Syria’s northeast, the country’s breadbasket, due to a lack of water flowing down the Euphrates from Turkey. Water pumping is curtailed, there is less drinking water, and there is less water to water wheat and barley. Water scarcity is a major contributor to the rising food prices and in the Middle East, food prices have nearly approached the level seen in February 2011, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. 

According to Boyes, these developments should raise red flags across the region as increasing food prices was one of the contributing reasons in the Arab Spring uprisings in early 2011.

South Asia, one of the world’s most dynamic regions with a population of about 1.9 billion people, has seen water scarcity emerge as a highly critical and contentious issue. Transboundary water resources, in particular, have become a highly politicized aspect of South Asia, with governments perceiving this finite shared resource as a zero-sum sovereignty problem and pursuing water governance.

People Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers and tanks during military disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at the India-China border in Ladakh on February  16, 2021| AFP

South Asia is considered a region of both abundance and scarcity of water. It is fed by the Hindu Kush and Himalayan Mountain ranges, which contain one of the world’s greatest freshwater reservoirs. According to a World Bank research, this mountain system is the source of 20 rivers. These rivers extend over six South-Asian countries viz. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and China. Since major economic activity in the region is agriculture and water being the most important determinant of agriculture, this fundamental resource has fuelled numerous discussions stymied by regional distrust. 

In Bangladesh, Indian actions around several water resources are widely blamed. More powerful downstream countries, according to interviewees in upstream Afghanistan and Nepal, are obstructing the installation of water storage infrastructure. Many Afghans believed their country was already experiencing “water warfare,” citing incidents in which dam building employees were attacked and killed, The Third Pole reported.

Border tensions are also fizzling between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, between India and China in the Himalayas. These incidents too are prompted by spats over water resources.

China, considered as a master of hydropolitic, constructed 11 dams on the Mekong River, which runs from China to the South China Sea via Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. These dams provide China leverage over transit countries, as well as a war insurance policy in the event of a South China Sea flare-up. Therefore, it is proven that water has turned into both a source and deterrence of conflict. 

Over 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. However, the scarcity of freshwater resources and rising sea level has made this fundamental element of all existence a flashpoint for both conflict and unrest in national as well as in international level. 

The way it’s looking right now around the world one can aptly describe the scenario by saying: “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” 

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