Thursday, October 10, 2013

The writer of this article is  Brahma Chellaney who is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research and the author of the forthcoming book 'Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Oxford University Press)'.
In an increasingly water-stressed world, shared water resources are becoming an instrument of power, fostering competition within and between nations. The struggle for water is escalating political tensions and exacerbating impacts on ecosystems. 

This week’s Budapest World Water Summit is the latest initiative in the search for ways to mitigate the pressing challenges.

Consider some sobering facts: 
  • Bottled water at the grocery store is already more expensive than crude oil on the international spot market. 
  • More people in the world today own or use a mobile phone than have access to water sanitation services. 
  • Unclean water is the greatest killer on the globe, yet a fifth of humankind still lacks easy access to potable water. 
  • More than half of the global population currently lives under water stress—a figure projected to increase to two-thirds during the next decade.
Adequate access to natural resources, historically, has been a key factor in peace and war. 
  • Water, however, is very different from other natural resources. 
  • There are substitutes for a number of resources, including oil, but none for water. 
  • Countries can import, even from distant lands, fossil fuels, mineral ores, and resources originating in the biosphere. 
  • But they cannot import the most vital of all resources, water—certainly not in a major or sustainable manner. Water is essentially local and thus very expensive to ship across seas.
Rapid economic and demographic expansion, however, has already turned potable water into a major issue across large parts of the world. Lifestyle changes, for example, have spurred increasing per capita water consumption in the form of industrial and agricultural products.

  • Consumption growth has become the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive. 
  • It is about 10 times more water-intensive to produce meat than plant-based calories and proteins.

It is against this background that water wars in a political and economic sense are already being waged between competing states in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers or, if the country is located downstream, by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. 

US intelligence has warned that such water conflicts could turn into real wars. According to a report reflecting the joint judgement of US intelligence agencies, the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism will be more likely in the next decade in some regions.

Commercial or state decisions in many countries on where to set up new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly being constrained by inadequate local water availability. 

The World Bank has estimated the economic cost of China’s water problems at 2.3% of its gross domestic product. China, however, is not as yet under water stress—a term internationally defined as the availability of less than 1,700 cubic metres of water per head per year. The already water-stressed economies, stretching from South Korea and India to Egypt and Morocco, are paying a higher price for their water problems.

  • In fact, water is becoming the world’s next major security and economic challenge. 
  • Although no modern war has been fought just over water, this resource has been an underlying factor in several armed conflicts. 
  • With the era of cheap, bountiful water having been replaced by increasing supply and quality constraints, the risks of overt water wars are now increasing.

Averting water wars needs rules-based cooperation, water sharing and dispute settlement mechanisms. However, there is still no international water law in force, and most of the regional water agreements are toothless, lack monitoring and enforcement rules and provisions to formally divide water among users.

Worse still, unilateralist appropriation of shared resources is endemic where autocrats rule. 
  • For example, China rejects the very concept of water sharing and is working to have its hand on Asia’s water tap by building an extensive upstream hydro-infrastructure. 
  • India, by contrast, has a water-sharing treaty with each of the two countries located downstream to it—Pakistan and Bangladesh. 
  • Indeed, the only Asian treaties that incorporate a specific sharing formula on cross-border river flows are those covering the Indus and the Ganges. 
  • Both these treaties set new principles in international water law: the 1996 Ganges pact guarantees Bangladesh an equal share of the downstream flows in the most difficult dry season, while the earlier 1960 Indus treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, under which India agreed to set aside 80.52% of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan indefinitely in the naïve belief that it could trade water for peace.

A central issue facing Asia is not the readiness to accommodate China’s rise but the need to persuade China’s leaders to institutionalize cooperation with its neighbours on shared resources. China already boasts more dams than any other country in the world. And its rush to build yet more dams, especially giant ones, promises to roil relations across Asia. If China continues on its current course, prospects for a rules-based Asian order could perish forever.

Moral of the Story !!

Water poses a more intractable problem for the world than peak oil, economic slowdown and other oft-cited challenges. Addressing this core problem indeed holds the key to dealing with other challenges because of water’s nexus with global warming, energy shortages, stresses on food supply, population pressures, pollution, environmental degradation, global epidemics and natural disasters.

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