Conflict over water

Posted: 26 March 2008

Some commentators believe the imperative to share water across national borders could be a force for co-operation and peace. Others feat that conflicts over water - both political and violent - could erupt in coming decades as more countries, with ever larger populations, face water stress or scarcity. Dr. Peter Gleick, President of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, puts it bluntly: the potential for conflict "is symptomatic of our inability in general to managed limited supplies of freshwater on a sustainable basis."

Problems could erupt in a number of areas where freshwater use has already reached critical proportions. In these areas, principally in North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, countries not only face mounting internal competition for limited supplies as a result of rapid population growth and escalating demand, but also find themselves squabbling with their neighbours over water rights.

Consider the following flash points:

  • Water has been at the centre of a continuing controversy between Israel and Jordan. In May 1997 a ceremony to create a joint "peace park" on the site where seven Israeli school girls were killed by a Jordanian border guard was cancelled after Jordan accused Israel of deliberately delaying implementation of a water agreement in the Jordan-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1994. Under the treaty Jordan was to receive an additional 50 million cubic meters of water a year from the over-drawn Yarmuk River, one of the main tributaries of the Jordan River. Since the "peace park water crisis" the Israeli parliament has approved the transfer of more water to Jordan, but only when it appeared that inaction would result in markedly deteriorating diplomatic relations.
  • Egypt has threatened Ethiopia with war if it carries out plans to divert more water from the Blue Nile for agricultural use, without negotiating first with Egypt. The Egyptian government sees this issue as one of life or death. Without the Nile's nourishing waters, Egypt could not exist as a nation, since it depends on the Nile for 98 per cent of its freshwater needs.
  • The Southeast Anatolia Project in Turkey is one of the largest irrigation and power generation schemes in the Middle East. This vast complex of dams, canals and irrigation systems began operating in 1992. Within the next few years, Turkey is expected to divert at least half of the flow of the Euphrates River - some 4 trillion gallons of water a year - into Turkish dams and irrigation canals. This diversion will leave downstream countries, Syria and Iraq, with less than half of the stable flow they now have access to. Syria is also planning to take some 3.5 trillion gallons out of the Euphrates before it enters Iraq. The entire region is set for a potentially ruinous conflict over limited water resources.

    mapClick here for a map showing how water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is used in Iraq, and that neighbouring Syria and Turkey influence the flow of this water.

  • The Aral Sea Basin in Central Asia is beset by international conflicts over water. Turkmenistan, Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all depend for their survival on the waters of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers. The flow of both these rivers is almost wholly diverted to feed intensive irrigated crops, mostly cotton and rice. Disputes are growing between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks over water and land in the fertile Fergana Valley; between Kyrgyz and Tajiks over the allocation of irrigation water from the Syr Darya; and between Turkmens and Uzbeks over the distribution of irrigation water from the Amu Darya.

Links: Deep Trouble: The Hidden Threat to Groundwater Pollution, by Payal Sampat, Worldwatch Paper 154.Worldwatch minisite on WaterGEO-3: Transboundary water management