How Water Woes May Lead to World-Wide Clashes


A quote that is attributable to the author Mark Twain appears to be foretelling the future of geopolitics regarding water. Mark Twain is quoted as saying that “whiskey is for drinking but water is worth fighting over.”

An individual can quench his thrust with both, but only one of those beverages can sustain his life for the long term. Africa is well known for its water woes, which has resulted in famine and death to those who live along and within its borders. We can only hope that those lives can be saved now and in the future by States engaging in constructive dialog that lead to the sharing and efficient management of transboundary waters for upstream and downstream users. Based upon what is being demonstrated now I do not hold out much hope of that happening.

For example, Egypt and Ethiopia has had serious disagreements over the water that flows from the Nile River and at times Egypt has threaten to take military action against Ethiopia if it took any action which may reduce the water that it is currently receiving from that river. Specifically, Egypt is concerned about a hydroelectric dam that is being constructed on the Nile River by Ethiopia,, because Egypt gets 94 per cent of its total water resources from the Nile River.

Ethiopia has underscored its right to dam the Nile River and contends that that right is based upon the Harmon Doctrine, which the United Nations states is a State’s unlimited use of the waters from a transboundary watercourse that is located within its national borders.  Without consensus disagreements about the consumption of transboundary water coupled with Ethiopia’s reliance on that Doctrine, States such as Egypt face serious consequences because it is geographically located downstream from its major source of water, which can potentially impact that State’s agricultural industry and possibly reduce the amount of drinking water available for its citizen.

African States such as Nigeria and Cameroon are not immune from such calamity either. Each of those States rely heavily on the water from Lake Chad, which has shrunk by 90 per cent. Natural reductions of transboundary water resources can lead to no good outcomes as other African States like Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe are noted to be potential warring parties over the water from the Zambia River. Malawi and Tanzania are currently disputing the right to water from Lake Malawi and the list of States warring over transboundary may grow in the next decade or so.

Additionally, according to the Asian Development Bank “close to 75 percent of Asia-Pacific countries lack water security . . . [and] compared to other regions South Asia is  a hot spot where inequity of access to water is the highest.” The Asian Development Bank also remarked that this “region supports more than 21 percent of the world’s population, but has access to just over 8 percent of global water resources.”

The United Nations reports that “40 per cent of the world’s population live in river and lake basins that comprise of two or more countries,”, and with the world’s population relying increasingly more on transboundary water resources the future looks bleak for those States that are situated downstream.  All that it will take for a War to break out between States that rely heavily on transboundary water is for the State that is located upstream to experience a prolonged drought which forces it to make decisions that have the potential to drastically impact the water that the downstream State depends on to sustain itself. One only needs to look at the decisions made regarding the Nile River in Africa and the Jhelum River in Kashmir for examples of such responses.

Access to fresh water is an important resource for any State and the potential loss of such a resource has led to international agreements between States that share or depend on transboundary water. Unfortunately, with global warming causing prolonged droughts in certain parts of the world those agreements are being strained and in some cases outright disregarded as self-preservation and necessity trumps diplomacy.

For example, As of September 2014 Mexico owed the U.S. approximate “380,000 acre-feet of water, more than all the water consumed in a year by the 1.5 million residents of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas.” Although Mexico and the U.S. signed a Treaty in 1944 which prescribes how much water each State would be allocated from the Colorado and Rio Grande Rivers, Mexico contends that drought conditions in its State precludes it from holding up its end of the bargain.

In response to Mexico’s contention Texas state Representative Eddie Lucio III remarked that the “issue is life or death for some of our farmers, their ability to support their families and make a living,” because Mexico’s decision to withhold the transboundary water that is due to the U.S. was having a devastating effect on the agriculture industry in that part of the state of Texas.

The American’s patience with Mexico may run short very soon because U.S. Western states like California, Arizona and Nevada are clamoring for more water from the Colorado River which is partially being allocated to the State of Mexico. California , in an effort to make up for the shortage of water resulting from a prolonged drought and increased growth in population it began to draw water from it underground aquifer and at an alarming rate.  Since December 2004, the basin of the Colorado River, which includes California lost nearly 53 million acre feet (65 cubic kilometers) of freshwater, almost double the volume of the region’s largest reservoir, Nevada’s Lake Mead. CBS News also reported that “about 75 percent of [that] total . . .  came from groundwater.” Stephanie Castle, a water resource specialist from the University of California, Irvine, was quoted by CBS News observing that “we don’t know exactly how much groundwater we have left, so we don’t know when we’re going to run out . . . this is a lot of water to lose.”

India and Pakistan are another example of States disputing over transboundary water resources. Each State have seen its population grow over the decades and as a result of the increased growth rate both States demand for fresh water has begun to cause more than the usual tension between the two States. Specifically, the International Business Times reported that “the lack of access to clean, safe drinking water not only poses a threat to hundreds of millions of people’s lives on the subcontinent, but [it] could conceivably lead to another war.” That statement is unsettling when you consider that Pakistan’s water storage capacity is 30 days compared to India’s 120 days. Both States are nowhere near the internationally recommended capacity of 1000 days, which adds another dimension to the War prediction.

The International Business Times also noted that Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Water and Power, “believes Pakistan could be facing an Ethiopian-type drought catastrophe within just 10 to 15 years . . . [and that they were] on the verge of facing a life and death situation . . . . [because India was] not giving us our rightful share of water,” which was the same sentiment voiced by Texas State Representative Lucio about Mexico.

A senior intelligence official was quoted by the Washington Post remarking that “as water problems become more acute, the likelihood . . . is that States will use them as leverage . . . [and] there is an increasing likelihood that water will be potentially used as a weapon, where one state denies access to another.”  The article also quoted the official saying “that many regions are pulling water out of aquifers faster than it is being renewed, or out of fossil aquifers we don’t estimate will ever be renewed.” When intelligence agencies began to publicly comment about State water disputes and the potential for conflict as a result of those issues then it’s time to consider relocating to places where there are no transboundary waters, which may seem kind of extreme but so is turning on the water faucet and realizing that there is no more water to drink or grow your crops.

Major cities in America that are located in states like Texas and California have begun to ration water as a way to preserve its water resources and I predict that more cities and States around the world will begin to do the same as the effect of global warming reduces the amount of available freshwater as a result of prolonged droughts that are affecting States all around the world.,

What can be done to avoid or prevent a War over transboundary water, absolutely nothing because States will always rely on the law of self-preservation especially when its very survival or the stability of its State is at stake? When U.S. Congressmen with access to empirical data and intelligence reports that corroborates the existence of global warming disregards that information why should other States look towards the U.S. for leadership and support to resolve their water conflicts.

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Allen Thomas