Dispelling the water-war myth.

Media criticism.
April 2 2009 3:24 PM

The Water-War Myth

Spike those stories about water disputes leading to armed combat.

Attention foreign-desk editors and those in charge of the environmental beat: Before assigning any pieces about impending wars between countries battling over this essential, scarce resource, read Wendy Barnaby's essay in Nature, "Do Nations Go to War Over Water?" (paid). She writes:

Countries do not go to war over water, they solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements.

Barnaby discovered this enduring truth after being approached by a publisher to write a book about water wars. It seemed logical enough. If countries were prepared to fight over oil, which makes modern life possible, why not water, without which there would be no life? And it's not a fringe idea, she notes. NGO leaders, academics, and journalists have all predicted that water struggles will inevitably turn into shooting wars when countries can no longer cover the demands of agriculture, industry, and citizens for the resource.

Dam. Click image to expand.
Are wars really fought over water?

In this scenario, Canada is the Saudi Arabia of the water world, drawing immense power from its surplus—and in the process becoming the target of a military strike by less-liquid nations.

Barnaby, the editor of the British Science Association magazine People & Science, started lining up sources for the book, but her thinking shifted after being introduced to the concept of "embedded" or "virtual" water. It takes an average of about 1,000 cubic meters of water to grow enough food to feed one person for one year. Arid nations that can't muster that amount for each person can navigate around water scarcity by importing food, which contains "virtual" water from the land where it was grown. Barnaby writes:

Ten million people now live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. If they were to be self-sufficient in food, they would need ten billion cubic metres of water per year. As it is, they have only about one-third of that: enough to grow 15-20% of their food. They import the rest in the form of food.

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Water scarcity in the region results in "conflict and tension," Barnaby adds, but the Israeli and the Palestinian officials have successfully used a committee (controlled by the Israelis) to peacefully resolve problems. In other places where competition for water should theoretically escalate into violence, Barnaby finds similar resolution. Egypt has become more fluid in its relations with its water neighbors because it wants to improve the climate for trade. Similarly, India and Pakistan, which war with each other with the same frequency that other nations exchange sister cities, have so far used a World Bank-arbitrated treaty to make water peace.

Barnaby wanted to revise the thesis for her water book, but her publisher pointed out that "predicting an absence of war over water would not sell" many copies. So she bagged the idea.

Despite Barnaby's findings, other writers sense water wars in the making. The March 31 issue of The Nationincludes a feature titled "Blue Gold: Have the Next Resource Wars Begun?" that cites a report (PDF) by the British nonprofit International Alert that names 46 countries "where water and climate stress could ignite violent conflict by 2025" and quotes U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as saying, "The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict." Last month, a new U.N. water study about water scarcity warning of "a global water crisis … leading to political insecurity at various levels" prompted ominous coverage around the world (the Independent, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bangkok Post, Bloomberg News, AFP, and elsewhere).

None of my skepticism should imply that I think everybody everywhere has all the clean, cheap water they need. Water, like all resources, is scarce, and I accept that scarcity can cause conflict. But before anyone starts frightening themselves about impending water wars, they might want to consider Barnaby's observation that in the last five decades there have been no "formal declarations of war over water."

Although Israel has fought wars with Egypt and Jordan, Barnaby notes, it has never fought one over water, and "more 'virtual' water flows into the Middle East each year embedded in grain than flows down the Nile to Egyptian farmers."

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