Water: Source Of International Conflict And Weapon Of War – Analysis


Over the next 10 years the world population will be nearly 8 billion from less than 7 billion now and by 2050 it will be more than 9 billion. The size of the global economy will grow four times larger than it is today. The share of low and middle income country in the world income will be double by 2050. Average per capita income in developing countries would be US$ 6,300 and more than 70 percent of the population by that time will live in urban areas.

With rising income and population growth, the world will demand 50 percent more food by 2030 and more than double by 2050. More population, larger economy and more demand for food need more energy and that according to an estimate will reach around some 50 percent. As the most common source of global energy is coal and that consumes more water than other sources of energy in transformation process. The International Energy Agency has forecasted that the world economy will demand at least 40 percent more energy by 2030.

The first inevitable pressure of this ever increasing population growth will fall upon food, water and energy. The amount of water needed to produce more food and more energy for this growing population will become the most complicated problem of human society in years to come. Unfortunately the world has yet to make sustainable efforts to cope with this impending challenge.

Agriculture today obviously consumes more than 70 percent of global water use and the bigger size of middle income family in emerging economies in future will make greater demand for meat, fruits and vegetable production. According to an estimate made by World Economic Forum — 20,000 liters of water is needed to produce one kilogram of industrial meat and 1200 liters to produce one kilogram grain. Similarly vegetables and fruits consume more water in production process than grains.

How grave the situation has turned is illustrated by the two instances: one is a BBC on line story (September 18, 2012) it is about a clash between the Pokomo people – mostly farmers – and the Orma- semi nomadic cattle herders in Kenya. More than 100 people lost their lives when the Pokmo and Orma fought over for the control of land and water in Kenya’s coastal Tana region.

The next is about the sustainability of our farming practices. According to Federico Mayor and Jerôme Bindé one third of the land used for cultivation and animal grazing was almost deserted by the end of last century. During that time only 25 percent of the surface was suitable for rainwater – reliant agriculture and 35 percent of the productive land in Asia had become desert. In Latin America 73 percent of dry lands in agricultural use suffer from a kind of desertification.

1. U.S. Intelligence Agencies on Global Water Risks and Security

In an assessment on Global Water Security, U.S. Intelligence Community predicts that exploding populations in developing countries coupled with climate change would be naturally transformed into drought, floods and lack of fresh water. Followed by poor governance, this in the next 10 years would cause significant political instability that eventually would lead from social disruptions to state failures, the report released in February this year, says.

The report that was prepared for U.S. Department of State – to help it understand the impact of global water challenges on U.S. national security interests, states that although the risk of water wars among countries is not likely to take place in the immediate future, but in the next decade – water is likely to be used as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism particularly in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The water scarcity trailed by poor leadership and weak governments will contribute continued instability and state failures in regions where one state is likely to deny water access to another.

Lack of financial resources and technical ability to solve internal water problems fixed with heavy dependency on river water controlled by powerful upper riparian countries and neighbors will make the lower riparian or weaker countries suffer worst. Stronger countries will exert their leverage over their neighbors to preserve their water interests. Their political and economic weight will also be applied in international forums that also include “pressuring investors, nongovernmental organizations, and donor countries to support or halt water infrastructure projects” the report describes.

The U.S. intelligence report further predicts that stronger countries will also use their “inherent ability to construct and support major water projects to obtain regional influence or preserve their water interests” and in addition some rogue states and terrorist and extremist groups “almost certainly will target vulnerable water infrastructure to achieve their objectives”.

The report categorically admits that water as a weapon will be used more commonly against the lower riparian or weak neighbors by more powerful upstream nations. Correspondingly water will also be used as a weapon within states to pressure populations and separatist elements.

In its overview on some strategically important river basins – most vulnerable regions in Asia and Africa, only Indus and Jordan River basin countries in South Asia and the Middle East have developed some moderate management capacity in managing water use among them. But Brahmaputra basin countries like China, India and Bangladesh and Amu Darya basin countries in Central Asia that comprises five former Soviet union states, have exhibited alarmingly inadequate management capability, while the Nile basin countries in North Africa, Tigris- Euphrates basin countries in Middle East and Mekong basin countries in South East Asia have developed limited capability to manage the water use among them.

The report describes that the judgment offered by it are examples that are “sufficient to illustrate the intersections between water challenges and U.S. national security.

In its comprehension as “Water as a Driver for Peace” the report states that water challenges have also brought even hostile actors join each others to resolve common problems. It has cited some limited cooperative water agreements established through treaties that have become resilient over time and have survived even during wars.

The examples of such cooperative instruments among countries mentioned by the report are Mekong Committee between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam established in 1957. Similarly the Indus River Commission between India and Pakistan survived two major wars. Joint water sharing agreements between Israel-Jordan and Israel- Syria is also illustrated as an entry point for larger peace and sustainable cooperation even among most hostile countries.

2. Conflicting Water Issues and Global Scenario

A vivid picture of strategic significance of water and its decisively defining role in South Asian relations was sketched in a comprehensive article published in The Economist entitled as -Unquenchable Thirst (November 19,2011). The prominent strategic analyst of India Brahma Chellaney in his exciting and well researched book – Water: Asia’s New Battleground, has explained how water crisis is emerging as a defining pivot of Asian politics and security that is bringing tough geo-political tensions and series of instabilities in Asian continent extending from Japan to Middle East and from Central Asia to Indonesia.

Former secretary-general of the United Nations Boutros Boutros Ghali deeply worried under the huge pressure of demands on the water of Nile among the riparian countries said in February 2005 that the next war among countries will not be for oil or territories, but for the problem of water.

Earlier to Ghali another UN Secretary General Kofi Annan had expressed similar views. During his visit to New Delhi in March 2001, he tried to make a fine distinction and link between water need and water greed. Expressing his overbearing worries he had inferred that if the world is not serious “future wars are going to be about water and not about oil”.

And there are many events in history fought for water and the first recorded history of war over water dates back to some 4,500 years ago when two Mesopotamian city states – Lagash and Umma – a part of Southern Iraq now had fought the war when Urlama, the king of Lagash diverted water through a canal.

The world population that was 2.8 billion in 1950 will be around 9 billion in 2050. That as mentioned above requires another one billion tones of cereal production – 50 percent more than it is today and 100 percent increase of meat production. By that time the world income will grow faster than population – reaching US$ 135 trillion from close to US$ 40 trillion now.

And obviously water accounts to have more food for such a huge population and run such a large global economy. Hence, availability of water will remain and become the biggest challenge for the humanity that would entail biggest pressure upon nations.

Let’s look these figures to know how such pressure will build up : out of 1.4 billion global water resource only 2.5 % of that accounts the fresh water and only 0.3 % of that quantity is available for human use. Rest of the fresh water is locked in polar region, glaciers and aquifers.

By 2050, Two thirds of the top global economies by GDP will be the developing economies. Nearly 70 percent people will be living in urban areas from about 49 percent now; urbanization demands more water but they will only have 10 percent of the fresh water.

Similarly Growing Industrializations in developed as well as emerging economies will claim more than 25 percent of the world’s fresh water supplies and the demand will go on increasing. As mentioned above agriculture and industrial farming consume more than 70 percent of the fresh water reserve and countries like India and China with world’s largest population and both in quest to become the world’s largest economy need more and more water beyond the capacity of their water resources to cater.

The governments in developing countries have failed to supply water as a public good but have encouraged the private sector to enter into a chain of water supply making it a most profitable tradable commodity. Therefore in days to come as per the World Bank water trade will become a potential trillion dollar industry making it a blue gold of the 21st century.

3. India and China Dealing with the Greatest Challenge of their Time

In the next two decades, India’s need for consumptive use of water will exceed more than 1.5 trillion cubic meters against its current availability of nearly 740 billion cubic meters. By 2050 per capita water demand there will grow 30 percent compared to the present.

India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of cereals and pulses. As milk is its main food supplements -it also has to raise the world’s largest cattle and buffalo population. Water is also an integral necessity of many of the cultural and traditional practices of Indian people. And the world’s fastest growing economies need water in abundance to run its industries.

But according to Margherita Stancat in Wall Street Journal (April 14,2011) in the past six decades per capita availability of water in India has fallen by 70 percent with a ratio of 1,544 cubic meters per year.

In an agricultural country like India only Irrigation consumes about 85% of the country’s water resources and it will have limited options to secure more water for food production – which India inevitably needs for its huge population that will soon become larger than China’s.

India has designed an ambitious project named -National River Linking Project (NRLP) aimed to provide an effective solution to water related problems from water scarcity to recurrent floods. The project plans to transfer surplus waters from its big rivers to water shortage areas of Southern and western India, making it one of the biggest inter- river basin water transfer projects in the world. But this has raised both hopes and fear among people in India and abroad.

Similarly China needs more than 2 billion cubic meters of water for the same period. China’s grain house – its Northern Chinese plain is producing half of the country’s wheat in its bid to attain self sufficiency. As Chaoqing Yu mentions in ‘Nature’ China since the 1950s, has constructed 86,000 reservoirs, drilled more than four million wells. According to Brahma Chellaney, no country in history has built more dams than China, and that numbers exceeds those built by the rest of the world combined – “on average, at least one large dam per day since 1949”.

Unsustainable use of underground water has irreparably damaged the ground water table in Northern China. Over exploitation, wasteful irrigation infrastructure, poorly managed water use and rapid industrialization and urbanization, have led to serious depletion of groundwater aquifers followed by loss of natural habitats, water pollution, continued drought and crop failures.

To ease with the great national challenge, the Chinese government in the beginning of this year announced to invest more than US $ 600 billion over the next ten years to address the continued water crisis of the country.

While India is making move with NRLP China is also making similar effort with a great South – North Water Transfer Project followed by building a mega-dam on the Brahmaputra River, a major river in Asia. China has announced its plans to build an US$ 1.2 billion worth integrated project on Brahmaputra River that in future might be developed into a major water diversion project extending to China’s Northern and North Western parts including the construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric plant with a planned capacity of 40,000 Megawatts. The 2,900 kilometer long mighty Brahmaputra River runs a long course in Tibet before it enters into Arunachal Pradesh in India breaking through the great Himalaya.

4. Water Tower of Tibet, Nepal, India and Mongolia

Tibet as usually referred as third pole and cold desert, is also claimed as the ‘water tower of the world’ supplying fresh water for a quarter of humanity. The plateau joining two great land mass of South Asia and Central Asia is the sources of some of the largest Asian rivers giving China the control over South and South East Asian river system.

In the words of Uttam Kumar Sinha – China sits on the ‘hydrological throne in Tibet’ and is the ‘undisputed monarch of the unsurpassable water resources’ reserved in 2500 km long Himalayan ranges with varied width of 150 to 400 km from South to North amidst its massive glaciers, lakes and gushing waterfalls.

Whatever the case, if China plans to go ahead with the greatest water diversion project in human history, it could bring devastating effect upon India and Bangladesh. This indubitably will have grave national security implications for India that ultimately may force two most powerful Asian countries into a brink of war.

Two smaller South Asian countries between Tibetan Autonomous Region of China and India, according to Brahma Chellaney “sit on vast hydropower reserve, which if tapped with adequate environment safeguards, could make them the hub of a long-term regional energy strategy promoting development and stability across much of the Indian subcontinent”.

On May 11, 2005, Stanley A. Weiss in his strong article published in – The New York Times had asked a pertinent question : ‘what do have the common- among Nepal’s brutal Maoist rebellion, India’s violence-wracked northeastern states, China’s global energy race with India, warming ties between Pakistan and India and Bangladesh’s increasing Islamic extremism? And the single word answer Weiss gave was the “Water”. Further he said ‘thousands of glacier-fed rivers of Nepal and Bhutan could serve as the centerpiece of a long-term regional energy strategy promoting stability and prosperity across South Asia’.

But South Asia has yet to learn the lesson. Nepal for example, has failed with its vast riches in hydro power potential in South Asia – a typical example of resource curse. It can generate huge wealth and prosperity with its water resources, but is bound to live as one of the poorest countries of the world.

Nepal – a country that could export electricity to its neighbors and earn tremendous wealth is surviving with failing economy entrapped with longest hours of electricity black out. A country that experts say — has potential to generate thousands mega watt of electricity, is no more able to produce 500 mega watt of it in dry season even after one hundred years long history of hydro electricity. Ironically, the country that never tires in presenting India as a villain in development of bigger hydro power projects, is importing electricity from India.

Nepal has always shown political immaturity, lack of confidence and diplomatic skill on developing a proper modality for the sharing of the water of its big rivers with its big neighbor. India on the other hand seems more assertive, demanding and willing to exploit the political fallacies of its smaller neighbor. And the crisis of confidence between Nepal and India has compelled both survive with continued water crisis for years.

And this cannot be sustained any longer. How long can people tolerate the unending poverty trap that could be effectively combated – had both countries developed a common modality to share waters running in Nepali rivers? Inability in developing such a common mechanism could add peoples’ anger to a simmering point that any day would easily be transformed into a fire storm affecting both – Nepal and India.

But the two largest population centers of the world and two powerful global economies are engaged in a tuft competition in Nepal to control its strategic river system and this has created problems for Nepal to develop its water resources. It has forced Nepal fall in unending political confusion, turmoil and instability without any light at the end of the tunnel.

Mongolia has demonstrated a fine example in balancing the investment interests of its both powerful neighbors- China and Russia. Instead, it has successfully invited third party investors in developing its natural resources. Mongolia is also making a good progress in managing big power rivalry in investing in its country and suffer a resource trap – a fate that many countries have failed to escape from. The remarkable success that Mongolia has achieved with fair amount of economic growth with its natural resources can be a good modality for country like Nepal to develop its hydro power potentials.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

2 thoughts on “Water: Source Of International Conflict And Weapon Of War – Analysis

  • October 22, 2012 at 4:36 am

    Beautiful and well written. Clarifies the current situation and future Challenges.i believe we still gonna get there one day.good on you

  • October 22, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    One of the best articles I’ve ever read about the water scarcity issue the world is facing. Extremely well written and very thorough.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *