The world’s population is getting bigger and bigger. Today 7.5 billion people are living on our planet. Population growth and related economic development mean increasing water demand. Moreover, water sources start to diminish in many parts of the world nowadays. These shortages appear not only in underdeveloped regions of the world, but they also concern modern metropolises: London, Barcelona or Miami.
Water deficits, occurring in various parts of our globe, cause social unrest, lead to international tensions and conflicts. In 1995, Ismail Serageldin, then the World Bank Vice President, said that “If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” Since 1948, the United Nations recorded 37 sharp conflicts over water. During the same period, around 295 international agreements regulating inter-state relations within various bodies of water were negotiated and signed. However, smaller, local conflicts, one of the reasons for which is water, are widespread today. From 2010 to 2017, the Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, California, reported 137 local and international conflicts over water. Their victims were mostly civilians.
Meanwhile, the demand for water increases every year. Over the past 100 years, it has increased six times. It continues to grow at a rate of 1 per cent each year. Conflicts related to access to water will, therefore, be an increasing challenge for the world.
The fight for water can take various forms – sometimes it happens in politicians’ offices, parliaments’ plenary chambers and local governments. Sometimes, in extreme cases, it takes the form of street performances, riots, tribal fights and even an all-out war.
The problem is that there will be less and less water in the Indus River. Due to the shrinking surface of the glaciers, less water flows into the river every year. It can exacerbate the conflict in Kashmir. Especially that India also needs more and more water. The demographic explosion that we have been observing in this country for over 50 years has brought rapid and not always controlled the development of the industry. The rapidly growing population – 361 million people lived in India in 1951, and 1.3 billion people lived there in 2017 – as well as the growing number of industrial plants has required and still requires an increasing water supply.
An example of sharp conflict over water is the one that has lasted for many years between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although in this case the fight for water also means fighting against water. Israel strictly controls Palestinians’ access to water sources. As part of the control, the army destroys wells that Palestinians illegally build inside Palestinian National Authority. Such actions have been a permanent element of the Middle East conflict that has been going on for many years and often leads to riots and clashes between civilians and the Israeli army.
Israel is also competing for water with its neighbours. The Jordan River is a source of water for three countries. According to international arrangements, Israel has 400 million m3 of water, Jordan – 720 million m3, and Syria – 130 million m3. Officially, these arrangements are respected by Israel, but no matter which country decides to make a water investment in the Jordan basin, it creates a tension in the region.
A conflict between neighbours continues in the valley of the two biggest rivers of Mesopotamia.
The sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates are located in Turkey. Therefore, Turkey has a particular attitude towards these rivers – it considers them as its own, although both flow through Syria and Iraq. Since 1990, the system of dams, including the Atatürk Dam, have allowed managing water resources from both rivers. Turkey is also on the verge of finishing constructing the Ilisu dam on the Tigris river, which will allow creating a water reservoir with a capacity of 10 billion m3. It is located only 45 kilometres from the border with Syria. Thanks to all these investments, the Turks will be able to preserve over half of the Euphrates and Tigris water resources. It is especially worrying for Iraq, whose oil industry needs 1.8 billion m3 of water annually, and it is mainly taken from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. A significant restriction of flow on both rivers may be deadly for this branch of the Iraqi economy
The management of water flows can also be used as a weapon. The Turks reduced the inflow of water flowing from their territories to the territories occupied by ISIS and hampered the development of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
The ancient river also became the source of international conflict.
For centuries, the periodic floodings of the Nile River have decided about the life rhythm of the Egyptians. The river fed, watered, provided wealth and economic security. The ancients called Egypt the “gift of the Nile”. Today, the river is still the most critical water source for this country. The Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970, forms the Lake Nasser, which is a reservoir of water for the whole country. – According to official information, the water gathered there would be enough for the Egyptians for the next 10 years. The dam is also a hydroelectric plant, covering about 10 to 15 per cent of Egypt’s demand for electricity. The ability to control the water flow makes it possible to regulate the water level, which prevents floods and reduces the effect of drought.
However, the construction of the dam adversely affected the quality of arable lands in the lower river’s course, which forced farmers to use fertilisers more intensively. As a result, the soil was contaminated. The construction of the dam also forced the resettlement of 100,000 people from areas that were later flooded. It was necessary to transfer some monuments above the inundation areas, including the Abu Simbel temple complex, built in the 13th century BC, which today stands 65 m higher than its original location.
Despite such efforts, the Egyptians still have troubles. – It’s all about Ethiopia. The authorities of this country have decided to build a massive dam on the Blue Nile River, which is the most water-supplying tributary of the the Nile. That is how the Ethiopians want to secure the access to clean water and energy, because the completed structure, called The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, is to be the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa. The Egyptians are afraid that the Ethiopian investment will reduce the level of water in the lower Nile’s course which will have a negative impact on the economy of Egypt and Sudan.
After a dangerous declaration of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi from November 2017, that “the matter of water is a life and death for Egypt”, the countries in the region have softened their rhetoric and are trying to reach an agreement. “Bearing in mind the context of the Ethiopian dame, we will not let the differences ruin our relations with Addis Ababa,” said the President of Egypt in January 2018.
Further to the south of Egypt, there is another conflict over water going on. South Sudan is the youngest country in the world. It was established in 2011 after the separation of southern parts of its territories from Sudan. From the very beginning, the new country struggled with economic problems, including famines and difficulties with access to water. According to Global WASH Cluster (GWC) data from November 2017, about 50 per cent Sudanese from the south did not have access to drinking water.
– During the rainy season in South Sudan, the rainfall is gigantic. However, the water is not retained at all for later use – says Mikołaj Radlicki, who coordinated activities of a French organisation ACTED in South Sudan. – Through intense rainfall, the land becomes clay, and roads turn into streams, which makes it impossible to move efficiently. Rivers flood. However, in the dry season everything dries out, one cannot get drinking water or water to irrigate fields. There are wells in larger villages, built by the international community, but there is nothing more.
– That is why the fight for water intensifies during the dry season. The tribes that graze cattle move in search for water, and sometimes they enter the territory of another, unfriendly tribe. It is constantly happening – says Radlicki. – The conflict begins, when it comes to assassinations. It is like a virus, difficult to prevent. Because of the tradition of so-called revenge killing – murders committed in retaliation for another murder, a simple clash may be the beginning of an endless conflict.
Lack of water is also a huge problem in Somalia, where the long-time war and unstable political situation led to the actual decomposition of the state. The government in Mogadishu has no real power outside the capital. The land is divided between local landlords, extreme Islamists groups and separatists whose aim is to create their states.
In Somalia, access to water is related to the fight for health and life.
– The massive problem of Somalia is the so-called open defecation that poses a serious health threat and is a source of disease. There are no latrines in many places because there is no access to water. Taking care of access to it, building wells and water kiosks, as well as building restrooms and sanitary buildings, are our ways to look after the health of residents – explains Jakub Belina-Brzozowski who works for the Polish Humanitarian Action (PAH). He was observing the process of implementing the organisation’s projects in Somalia.
– New camps are built all the time. We try to get to them and supply them with water. It looks like this: when we want to build a well or a water kiosk, we talk about it with the local authorities, the community, and sometimes with the owners of the land on which the camp stands. We ask for permission. When we reach the agreement, it is time to start working. We consult the decisions with the local community, analyse the needs, our engineer prepares a technical plan and does an estimate. We work with companies specialising in the construction of water installations. Depending on the conditions: location, type of the area, type of water intake – the process of construction can last from several weeks to several months. Our employees monitor the progress of work on an ongoing basis and ensure that the activity responds to the needs of the community – explains Jakub Belina-Brzozowski from PAH.
The developing Chinese economy increases its demand for water and energy generated from water. Thanks to the Three Gorges Dam, the largest of its kind in the world, the Chinese produce clean energy and… dirty water.
The dam replaced about 31 coal power plants, which is associated with a decrease in pollution caused by the coal burning. At the same time, it slowed down the Yangtze River course, which led to the river turning into an effluent. It weakened its current. Moreover, a rare species of Baiji – a freshwater dolphin, has disappeared.
The environmental impact of the Chinese investment is unquestionable. A well as human activity and its effect on the climate change. The UN estimates that due to the ongoing climate change and the growing demand for water (directly connected with the increasing population), the restrictions on water access in 2050 will affect over 5 billion people around the world. It also concerns places where there is no lack of water at present. We can observe the symptoms of the upcoming wave of problems today. They appear in London, Barcelona, Beijing, Sao Paulo or Miami, where they have not been expected so far.
California, the wealthiest and the most populous state in the US, the centre of the entertainment and technology industry, has been struggling with water shortage for years. The last water crisis, connected with the drought lasting in 2011-2017, was the most significant in the history of the state. The drought lasted seven years in almost entire territory of California. At critical moments, its highest level (D4) occurred at 58.4 per cent of the area of the state, and at the remaining 41.6 per cent there was a third level drought (D2).
California has to search for new ways of acquiring water because an excessive use of groundwater in recent years has led to uncontrollable changes in the environment – the subsidence of land in San Joaquin Valley. Disproportionate changes in the region’s geology could threaten, among others, the infrastructure that would supply water to big cities, which would deepen the problem of access to water in California.
The US National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) monitors the hydrological situation in the United States and keeps informing about the regions affected by drought. According to NIDIS information, in the last week of April 2018, the drought did not occur only on 34.1 per cent of California’s territory. However, the highest (fifth) degree of dryness was not recorded in the same period anywhere in the state.