Water wars: fact or fiction?
By Ashok Swain – Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Box 514, SE-751 20 Uppsala, Sweden
It is often said that future wars will be fought over water, not oil. These water wars are predicted to take place over the sharing of international rivers. Recently, the world has witnessed several inter-state river-sharing disputes, but almost all of them have not crossed the critical threshold of becoming violent. Rather, most of these river disputes are being addressed through bilateral riparian cooperative arrangements. These agreements are primarily coming up on the rivers, which have potential for further water exploitation. However, to find a lasting solution and to strengthen the river sharing arrangements, this article argues for the water issue to be addressed comprehensively in the basin, by taking into account both the demand as well as the supply side of the scarce resource.
1. Water scarcity and international rivers
Rivers are one of the most important sources of fresh water available for human consumption. Many countries in arid and semi-arid regions of the world are already facing serious problems in meeting the rapidly increasing water demands. In this scarcity situation, river water has increasingly become a source of tension as users are worried about the present or future availability of the water resource. Even though such tensions are omnipresent they tend to become more complex and difficult when they concern international rivers.
According to a recently published World Bank technical paper  more than 245 river basins are shared by two or more countries. To find an agreement over sharing of these fresh water systems is a tricky one. The growing demand for fresh water has recently induced a number of disputes among the riparian countries ,, , , ,  and . In some of the river basins, there are existing agreements, which regulate water sharing among the riparian states. However, some of these established arrangements have come under serious pressure due to increasing demand for fresh water. The dependence of many countries on external supply of water has forced them to orient their national security concern in order to protect or preserve the availability.
Egypt is surviving on water sources, of which 97% originate from its own border. This problem is also similarly acute for Hungary, Mauritania, Botswana, Uzbekistan, Syria, Sudan and Gambia. The acute scarcity of water combined with regional instability may lead to the use of force by the conflicting riparian states over the sharing of river water resources. Potential ‘water wars’ in the Middle East are now regularly mentioned in the media: Israel vs Jordan and Palestinians, Turkey vs Syria and Iraq, or Egypt vs Sudan and Ethiopia . World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin, emphasising the water crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, stated at a conference at Stockholm in 1995 that in the next century wars would be fought over water and not oil.
This conflict scenario has brought the issue of water to the ‘high politics’. Politicians as well as media are of the opinion that the scarcity of water is replacing oil as the source of conflict. Many have started seeing the greatest threats to the world’s security in the coming century coming from ‘water wars.’ . Fortunately these ‘water wars’ are yet to be translated into reality. As Toset and Gleditsch accept the possibility of armed conflict over water scarcity they nonetheless deny its inevitability . In several cases, the competing riparian countries are moving towards sharing agreements rather than armed conflicts.
In the face of mutual dependence on the same fresh water resource, the withdrawal or pollution of one riparian state can potentially not only lead to conflict but also bring cooperation in the basin. In this century, water scarcity has caused a few skirmishes, but no war has yet been fought. As Yoffe and Wolf point out, 145 water-related treaties have been signed in this period . Water continues to help integrate social and political groups. Treaties among the European countries over the Rhine and Danube Rivers laid the foundation of the present European Union. Water in general, and rivers in particular, have been seen as the source for nation and state building in the past. Scarcity of water, need to control water, is an important input in joint human construction. Dynamic cultures and great civilisations have grown across river resources, many of which are now the potential hot spots. Thus, water also brings people together , , and .
In this century, many agreements have been drawn up in the industrialised world to share the international river basins, but it has not been the same with the developing countries. At present, there are more than three hundred treaties that exclusively address the sharing and management issue of international rivers. Peter Rogers finds two-thirds of the total treaties that are signed between countries on water issues are in Europe and North America . Europe, for instance, has four river basins shared by four or more countries, but these are regulated by 175 treaties, while in Africa 12 river basins are shared by four or more nations with only 34 treaties. In Asia (includes Middle East), five river basins are shared by four or more countries but they are regulated by only 31 treaties. Europe leads among other continents in establishing joint institutional mechanisms to facilitate sharing of international rivers. The 1978 UN Study Register of International Rivers lists 48 joint river commissions in Europe, 23 in the Americas, 10 in Africa and 9 in Asia. Lack of international agreement or institutional arrangement over shared fresh water systems increases the potential for dispute.
Water availability is highly erratic in different regions of the world. Nearly 80% of the total global runoff is concentrated in the North, which has a relatively small population. In the tropical and arid areas, where most of the world population lives, the water situation is complicated by massive population growth and rapid urbanisation. Socio-economic development is linked to industrialisation and urbanisation, which increases the water requirements and affects its quality. Uneven distribution, seasonal availability and greater evaporation exacerbate the water scarcity further in these regions. In countries like India, the rainfall takes place only for four months (June to September) in the monsoon period. About 80% of rivers’ annual run-off passes through these four monsoon months. This rainfall also varies greatly from the desert areas of Rajasthan to the hills of the North-East. Jaisalmer of Rajasthan gets a paltry 0.2 meter annual rainfall while Cherapunji in Meghalaya gets not less than 11 meters . In the arid and semi-arid regions, unlike temperate regions of the North, the rainfall evaporation is too high. In Southern Africa, an average of 85% of annual rainfall is evaporated. The situation in the Middle East and North Africa is much worse.
Moreover, the developing countries are primarily agricultural economies. To provide food to the growing population and also to achieve food security, these countries use proportionately more water in the agricultural sector than in the industrial sector. The need of water differs considerably from agricultural production to industrial production. Much of the water withdrawn for industrial purposes returns to the natural water systems for the use of other consumers. But this is not the same for water withdrawal to support the agricultural sector. If we take purely consumptive use of water into account, then agriculture consumes 86.9%, while the share of the industry is only 3.8% of the world’s water withdrawal. In the case of industry, the withdrawn waters come back to their source after cooling the plant, so the cause of the concern is not about the increasing volume of water withdrawn, but the discharge of heated and polluted water back into the system. In the industrialised world, where the per capita water availability is relatively abundant, the water supply is polluted by various human activities. Thus in the developed countries, unlike their poorer counterparts, the water quality not the quantity is the major issue .
Disputes over international river water sharing usually come up among the riparian states on three grounds: quantity, quality and control. The incompatibility on the last two issues (quality and control) are relatively easier to address with some financial and technical support. The quality issue, which had been the cause of disagreement among the riparian states in Europe’s Rhine and North America’s Colorado River in the past, has resulted in peaceful and cooperative arrangement. The disagreement over controlling Columbia River and Parana River in the water abundant Americas has been settled for some time. The dispute between Hungary and Slovakia over the control of the Danube has been settled recently by the International Court of Justice.
Water is not easily replaced, so the problem of its reduced quantity is more difficult to address. The quantity factor in many cases threatens to destroy existing cooperative arrangements and forces the parties to take conflicting positions. The quantity issue of river water has brought many riparian states into disputes in the arid regions of Asia and Africa. The riparian disputes over international rivers—Zambezi, Mekong, Nile, Jordan, Euphrates–Tigris, and Ganges—in these two continents are primarily on quantity issue. However, these disputes have not yet led to water wars as envisaged by the experts. The riparian countries of many of these international rivers, at least for the time being, have opted for water sharing arrangements. In the 1990s, there have been riparian agreements on the Zambezi, Mekong, Jordan and Ganges rivers. The existing agreements on the sharing of the Nile and Euphrates–Tigris river water have been going through severe stress, but they are still holding up. Usually, the riparian countries have agreed to settle their dispute over the quantity issue when there is a hope for further exploitation of the river resource.
2. Agreements in the pursuit of more water
An agreement can be possible among the contending riparian states over the quantity allocation of a river resource, when there is enough unused water left in the river. Agreement on the Indus River system became a possibility in 1960 between two traditional rivals, India and Pakistan, because nearly 80% of the river water was running into Arabian Sea without being used by either of the basin countries. When the then World Bank President Eugene Black, being backed by his financial muscles, got into the negotiator role, India and Pakistan agreed on an important issue for the first time. Of course it took nine long years for the World Bank to bring both the riparian countries into agreement, but it became possible when there was a scope of exploiting water resource further with the help of new projects.
The approach of the 1960 Agreement was to increase the amount of water available to the two parties. This future prospect persuaded the two countries to share the quantity of the flow and agree to this settlement: the partition of Indus Basin waters by allocating the three Eastern Rivers—the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej—to India, and the three Western Rivers—the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab—to Pakistan. Partition of the rivers was more acceptable to the countries than joint management, and both countries got into the business of water exploitation of their respective shares with the help of ‘Indus Basin Development Fund’ administered by the World Bank.
In recent years, the water scarcity has increased very much in the Indus basin. Both India and Pakistan have almost developed the capacity to get the maximum use of water resources. The water demand is increasing rapidly within their own territory. The on-going projects in the upstream sections of the rivers on the Indian side may affect the water flow to Pakistan and that could cause difficulties for the Indus River Agreement.
One year before the Indus Agreement, another agreement on the sharing of the Nile River was reached between Egypt and Sudan. The 1959 agreement could become a possibility due to the large amount of run-off which had remained unallocated by the 1929 Agreement. From the newly calculated runoff of 84 billion m3of water at Aswan, Egypt got the right to use 55.5 billion m3 and 18.5 billion m3 was allotted to Sudan. The remaining 10 billion m3 were reserved for mean annual evaporation and seepage losses from Lake Nasser behind the High Aswan Dam. The agreement also included some provisions in regulating the filling of the storage created by the Aswan Dam.
Lake Nasser created by the High Aswan Dam is one of the largest manmade lakes in the world with the carrying capacity of 164 billion m3 of water. More than 55 million people are directly dependent upon the High Aswan Dam for their water supply. Without the Aswan, Egypt would undoubtedly have been in dire economic straits. The water reservoir has brought a significant increase in the welfare of the country due to the supply of reliable and adequate water for irrigation, municipal and industrial use. However, with the increasing water demand in the upstream area and less availability of unused water, the river has already become a source of serious tension among the major riparian countries. Ethiopia, the upstream nation which supplies 86% of water to the Nile, now demands its share. This has brought a serious challenge to the working of the 1959 arrangement .
The increasing riparian demand has also raised doubts about the continuation of the existing water sharing agreements on the Euphrates–Tigris river system. The Euphrates and the Tigris are the two largest rivers in the Middle East. Both rivers originate from the Anatolian highland regions in Turkey and flow through the Mesopotamian desert plain in Syria and Iraq. Both the rivers unite in Iraq at Qurna to form the Shatt al-Arab, which runs into the Gulf. Turkey contributes 98% of the water flow for the Euphrates and 45% for the Tigris.
Turkey and Syria signed a bilateral agreement in 1987 to share the Euphrates River. According to the 1987 agreement with Turkey, Syria gets 15.75 km3 (500 m3/s) of water per year from the Euphrates. In spite of bilateral tension, the possibility of future river water exploitation at the national level brought both the riparian countries to opt for this arrangement. Since the 1960s, Turkey and Syria have plans for several large-scale water projects over the Tigris–Euphrates. However, Turkey’s massive Southeastern Anatolia (GAP) Project on the Euphrates–Tigris River has brought serious doubts to the future of river water developments on the Syrian side.
The relationship between Syria and Turkey took a downward turn after the completion of the Ataturk Dam in 1990, which is a part of the ‘GAP’ project and the ninth largest dam on the globe. The filling up of the lake behind this massive dam caused a 75% drop in the downstream water supply for an entire month. The GAP is made up of 13 sub-projects, which aim to construct 22 dams including the massive Ataturk Dam. Seven of these sub-projects are being undertaken on the Euphrates River, while the Tigris provides the sites for the other six. Turkey is now building other dams as part of this huge project. This GAP project has not only strained relations between Turkey and Syria but also Syria’s relations with Iraq.
The April 1990 Agreement between Syria and Iraq at Tunis, regulating allocation of water at the point where the Euphrates leaves Syria, allots 58% to Iraq and 42% to Syria. With the decreasing runoff from the Turkish side, Syria may be forced to reduce the water supply to Iraq. Iraq asks for 700 m3/s of water from the Euphrates River on the basis of its historical claim. Thus, GAP has become a source of common concern for Syria and Iraq, and also a serious future threat to the bilateral water sharing agreements between Turkey and Syria and also between Syria and Iraq.
The hope for further exploitation has not only brought the agreements on the Indus, Nile or Euphrates–Tigris in the past; it has also facilitated agreements in recent years over some other shared river basins. The 1995 Agreement signed among the lower Mekong basin countries became a possibility as the slow flowing Mekong River provides a lot of potential for further exploitation (only one dam has been built in one of the tributaries of the Mekong River in Laos). The Mekong River consists of six riparian states China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. However, under the cold war politics, especially under the influence of the United States, a combined effort to exploit the river has been promoted since the 1950s for the four lower basin countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Among them, geographical location puts Thailand in an advantageous position compared to the other three lower riparian states of Mekong.
Thailand has an ambition to exploit the river for hydropower and to supply water for its northeastern part, known as the Korat Plateau water transversion project. These Thai plans were opposed by the downstream countries especially Vietnam. With the mediation of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), a compromise was finally reached satisfying Thailand’s requirements. In April 1995, a new statute was signed by the four lower riparian countries, giving birth to the new Mekong Commission. However, the non-inclusion of upper riparian states—China and Myanmar—may become a spoiler in this cooperative effort to harness the river.
The Zambezi river basin is another example of riparian cooperation due to hope for further exploitation. The Zambezi passes through eight countries in Southern Africa before running into the Indian Ocean. Its riparian countries are: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Within these countries a large number of different peoples and sub-groups build much of their social and economic life around the river. The population of the basin is currently estimated to be 26.8 million. In several cases, development objectives of different riparian countries are based on mutually exclusive claims for water from the Zambezi basin. Countries like Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and even South Africa have some plans for large scale withdrawal from the Zambezi.
Zimbabwe withdraws water from Zambezi River for its coal-fired Huangwe thermal station despite the fact that Zambia has surplus hydropower. There is also tension over the Zambezi River resources due to Zimbabwe’s plan to pipe water from the Zambezi (the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project) to its drought affected second city, Bulawayo. Furthermore, the intensification of irrigated agriculture in Zimbabwe has reduced the water supply to downstream Mozambique. The threat to Mozambique’s water supply is not only limited to Zambia or Zimbabwe’s water diversion from Zambezi. South Africa has a large water diversion plan, the Zambezi Aqueduct, to meet its water scarcity situation. South Africa intends to withdraw water over 1200 km from the Zambezi River at Kazungula through Botswana to Pretoria.
In spite of all these individual water withdrawal plans, there are also signs of increasing cooperation among the basin countries to develop Zambezi on a joint basis. Several projects have recently been undertaken for improved cooperation among the Zambezi basin countries. A major step towards the better management of the regional river has been taken up by the South African Development Community (SADC). In 1995, the SADC (all the Zambezi basin states are the members of this organisation) signed a protocol establishing basic principles for the sharing of the region’s water resources. The 1995 SADC Protocol on Shared Water Course Systems declares respect for the principle of equitable utilisation and aims to promote exchange of information, and to maintain a balance between development and protection of the environment (Art. 2). Articles 3, 4 and 5 of the Protocol prescribe the formation of river basin organisations, and Art. 7 bestows the power of dispute adjudication to the SADC tribunal. In November 1995, a meeting of regional water ministers was convened by SADC at Pretoria to explore opportunities for greater cooperation. The Pretoria meeting led to establishment of a Water Sector within SADC in August 1996, which is based in Lesotho.
Coinciding with the formation of the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), the Zambezi Action Plan (ZACPLAN) was drawn up in 1987 by the Zambezi basin states with UNEP support. It aims to ensure sustainable utilisation of Zambezi water resources within a sound and balanced environment. The involvement of large number of actors in this scheme has posed problems in execution. In spite of the slow progress, two ZACPLAN projects (ZACPRO 2) are presently being considered. ZACPRO 2 develops regional legislation and proposes the establishment of a river basin commission (ZAMCOM). The SADC Protocol of 1995 is the product of ZACPRO 2. ZACPRO 6 is being executed by the ZRA, which works for a joint water resources management proposal for the whole river basin.
The water scarcity in all these river basins has brought the riparian countries to come to the negotiation table rather than waging war against each other. The possibility of further extraction of water resources has been the attraction for the negotiated settlement. However, there are very few international rivers left, which can provide a certain hope for feasible further exploitation. Most of the rivers have been exploited to a large extent. Few other feasible water projects bear massive economic and environmental cost. Local politics and environmentalists have also brought difficulty to the engineering solution to the water scarcity problem. To overcome this, South Asia has recently developed a new ingenuity.
3. Manipulation of river runoff data to reach a settlement
When there is not enough water in the river to meet the demands of the contending riparian states, and almost all the feasible water projects on the river have been already undertaken, then to reach an agreement over the sharing dispute some may take the help of manipulating the river runoff data. The agreement reached between India and Bangladesh in 1996 over the sharing of the Ganges River is one of the examples of this ingenuity. Since 1975 India and Bangladesh were in disagreement over the sharing of the Ganges water. The quintessence of the complications lies in sharing the Ganges water for the five dry season months (January–May). During the rest of the year, there is sufficient water in the river for India and Bangladesh. But, in the dry seasons, the average minimum discharge at Farakka Barrage in 1975 was estimated at only 55,000 ft3/s, whereas India wants to divert 40,000 ft3/s from it for the Calcutta port .
Both countries had devised some working agreements from 1977 to 1988 to share the water at Farakka. The gradual decrease in the upstream flow hindered further agreement for 8 years. In December 1996, the Prime Ministers of India and Bangladesh signed the Ganges River water sharing agreement again. Instead of their usual short-term approach to share the dry season flow at Farakka barrage, they went on this time for 30 years’ arrangement. However, this was basically a political agreement that had disregarded the real hydrological flow of the river. The agreement has been based on the river flow average of 1949 to 1988, but the real flow at Farakka in the 1990s is much less than that.
The Bangladeshi experts were very much aware of the amount of flow at Farakka in the dry seasons. In 1993, when they had complained of receiving only 9000 ft3/s of supply at Hardinge Bridge, they could have easily calculated the flow at Farakka to 49,000 ft3/s as the Farakka diversion canal’s maximum carrying capacity is 40,000 ft3/s. In the following years, Bangladesh gave the figures of water available at Hardinge Bridge (just downstream of the Farakka Barrage) as being close to 10,000 ft3/s. The basic arithmetic was overlooked when the political leaders of both countries decided to sign the agreement on the basis of an ideal minimum figure of 60,000 ft3/s. It was a political compulsion for the Bangladesh Prime Minister to get the agreement with the Indians. The very first year (1997 dry season) of the treaty witnessed a very low run-off in the river Ganges. Fortunately, in 1998 the situation improved thanks to good weather, and the dry season run-off was enough to fulfill the treaty requirement.
This ingenuity has become a South Asian specialty. The manipulation of river run-off data has also brought some agreements among the states within the Indian Federation over their shared rivers (Yamuna, Krishna, Cauvery etc.). Following this method, an agreement on quantity issue can be achieved but it might not last long in a democratic society where it can come under scrutiny from various independent quarters. But, the signing of an agreement has several advantages. It puts pressure on the ruling elites to work for increasing the river flow in order to keep the agreement going. Moreover, the agreement also helps to depoliticise the issue to a certain extent by pushing the river sharing dispute out of the front pages of the newspapers. This can help the political leadership of the riparian countries to take new initiatives in order to augment the river flow.
4. Need for a positive approach
Signing of a sharing agreement might solve the water scarcity problem for a short period of time, but it does not provide a long-term solution. The recent threats to the survival of the Indus River Agreement of 1960, the Nile River Agreement of 1959 and the Euphrates River Agreement of 1987 confirm this apprehension. For a fruitful and long lasting cooperation on international rivers, there is a need for a comprehensive approach to address the water scarcity issue in the river basin.
The efforts to find an internationally acceptable formula for sharing international rivers have not proven to be completely successful yet. However, with some help from the international institutions, the riparian countries of some of the international rivers are coming together to get the maximum benefit of the common water. These cooperative approaches of the riparian states need to be translated into a comprehensive and systematic effort. To find a lasting solution to the quantity question of the sharing of international rivers, the water issue needs to be addressed from both the demand side as well as the supply side. Otherwise, in the face of increasing water scarcity, many of the river water sharing arrangements will face difficulty in holding together for long. And that might pave the way for ‘water wars’.
4.1. Managing the supply side of the water scarcity
The development of rivers occurs most optimally on the basin level. The whole international river basin needs to be regarded as an economic unit irrespective of state boundaries. Under an integrated water development programme, dam and storage are to be located at the best possible places and the benefits are to be used by the riparian states in need of those benefits. Such effort can bring reciprocal advantages, such as right to submerge upstream territories in return for sharing hydropower or provision of water to one state and electricity to another.
Formation of a river basin organisation encourages international collaboration and assistance for river water development. As constraints on the resource grow, the opportunity costs for not cooperating are becoming clearer. The increasing scarcity of available fresh water per capita and lack of financial strength in the developing countries may gradually encourage the basin countries to cooperate in order to achieve optimal benefit from the river. Basin-based development of irrigation, hydropower, water diversion or flood control projects can provide riparian countries greater net benefits than they could have achieved through purely state-centric development. Incentives for riparian cooperation for basin level development can come from international financial institutions and bilateral aid programmes. The lenders and donors can play a facilitator role in encouraging collaborative efforts among the basin states. International financial institutions may even become critical in encouraging and leading new incentives. These actors have resources that can be incentives for cooperation even in the face of available weak legal sanctions .
Flexibility is central to the successful negotiation of basin-based agreement on international rivers. To achieve riparian cooperation at the basin level, the riparian states need to be flexible while negotiating with each other. Without that, they will fail to overcome their vision of narrow state centric development path. Usually, the ordinary bureaucrats in the foreign ministries handle the international river sharing issues. Lack of interest and understanding on their part often leads to relatively long negotiations and unsuccessful resolutions . An understanding of the issue of contention is necessary for the negotiators to find a way for conflict resolution. Water resource management is a complex and also continuously changing process . For the regular foreign ministry officials, it is not easy to grasp the complexity of the issue involved. Thus, there is a need to entrust the water negotiation to those who can cope with such rapid changes as well as understand conceptual, methodological and institutional changes. Besides that, the help of ‘hydro-diplomacy’ may be taken to clear the path for riparian cooperation.
When political leadership takes an active interest in the outcome of the international river water issue, there is a greater probability of arriving at a speedy agreement. Political interest may help to overcome the bureaucratic delays in order to find a common agreement. Without support from the people, it is difficult to implement any elite driven river sharing arrangement. For the effective implementation of the agreement, there is a need to accentuate the use of public involvement and participation in water resources planning.
4.2. Restricting the demand for water
Only through better supply management, can the water scarcity issue be effectively addressed. There is a need to restrict and regularise the demand for the increasingly scarce water resource. The common notion that water is free and that the use of water in a particular economic or social activity could be pursued without concern is no longer acceptable. To reduce the incompatibility on the water sharing issue, the help of economic measures is very much needed. The pricing of water will create quantity restrictions for the competing users. It will force consumers to use water more efficiently than if there was no price tag on it.
In recent years, the construction of water projects has demanded greater investment. This is partly due to fact that the new sites for dams and storages are increasingly available only at greater economic and environmental cost. It is not only the construction of the projects, but also the proper management of the water storage and its distribution that is needed for efficient use of water. The water distribution systems, particularly in the developing countries, are not self-sustaining, because the price charged for the water has been kept very low. This huge cost–benefit difference has reduced the performance of many irrigation and water distribution systems.
Water disappears from city systems, mainly in the developing countries from theft, inadequate metering and inaccurate billing. The illegal ‘spaghetti connections’ in many slum and squatter areas is quite common. Thus, the enactment of pricing the water is not sufficient in itself. There is a need to make effective institutional arrangements to collect a ‘water tax’. In the state of Bihar in India, the government spent three times more money in collecting water revenue in 1996 than the actual tax collected from the farmers. The law must be simple but strong enough to compel the people to pay their tax. Water Courts may be created to facilitate speedy justice on disagreement over water sharing and also disputes over water taxation. By strengthening institutions, a single chain of authority is required to carry out policymaking, planning and management of water issues. Planning needs to be coordinated, making it strategic and holistic .
Pricing of water is not a politically sound act for the leaders of the developing countries. For a politician, political interest is invariably more important than economics or environment. Taxing the water might cost the political leaders their major ‘vote banks’. Farmers constitute the most important voting bloc in the South. Thus, there is a need to distance politics from technical, economic and environmental criteria in decision making. Greater awareness is needed about the water scarcity among the common people, which can help to depoliticise the water pricing to a large extent. Moreover, with the price, people should be offered some tangible benefits. Reliable and timely water supply, universal applicability of the rules and regulations under a democratic and efficient system, and rational allocation of water among various competing sectors are some of the prerequisites for the smooth implementation of water pricing.
There is also an urgent need to minimise water use, particularly in the sector that uses water the most—agriculture. This can be achieved through the intelligent use of ‘virtual water’. ‘Virtual water’ means the agricultural products that have been produced with large amounts of water.1 Stopping the production of water intensive agricultural products for export purposes and importing water intensive agricultural products from water abundant regions would decrease water demands in water scarce countries. Countries in Northern Africa use their scarce water resource for producing agricultural products like pepper and tomato in order to export to water affluent regions in Europe. Israel exports oranges to Europe by using its meagre water supply. Some Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia spend massive resources to produce wheat in the desert, which they can easily import from water abundant regions at a much cheaper price.
For many developing countries, achieving self-sufficiency in food production is the most important national agenda. There is nothing wrong in achieving this. It provides food security as well as strengthens the legitimacy of the state and regime. But self-sufficiency in food production is always an on-going struggle in order to satisfy the increasing demand of the growing population. Moreover, in most cases, temporary and limited self-sufficiency comes with a high unsustainable use of scarce water resource. The belief that a particular country must be responsible for its own food production impedes a rational solution to the problem of real and lasting food security. As Lundqvist and Gleick argue the goal must be “a world that grows sufficient food to meet the world’s needs, somewhere, and the institutions and mechanisms to deliver that food where it is needed.” . With the help of trade and aid, mechanisms need to be developed to shift poor water-short countries away from water-intensive agricultural production.
5. Facing the future
Population growth results in a declining supply of fresh water per person. The Worldwatch Institute estimates that due to population growth alone, the amount per capita water availability from the hydrological cycle will fall by 73% between 1950 and 2050 . Rapid population growth and striving for economic development has severely stressed natural renewable resources, so much so that fresh water is beginning to have a scarcity value and emotional intensity as exists for the fossil fuel. Countries have already started to frame the issue of water scarcity in national security terms. However, framing the issue as a national concern will in most cases make it impossible to resolve the issue . The sheer size and nature of this problem demands solutions that go beyond the purview of a particular state or government. Managing water effectively requires consideration of all the interacting actors.
Multilateral water basins are mostly governed by bilateral arrangements. This has raised the concern of free riding behaviour. Decisions made by one riparian or some of the riparians likely will fail to serve the interests of non-participating riparians due to conflicting priorities of nations . Thus, principles for comprehensive basin based water management and planning must be adopted. In order to face the future, there is an urgent need for water allocation priorities and mechanisms to derive optimum benefit from the available water resources in the world.
Many regions are using virtually all of the river flow to meet their water demand. The Colorado River in America, the Yellow River in China and the Nile River in Africa have very little water left when they reach the sea. Not only surface water, there is also growing pressure on the groundwater as well. Several major agricultural regions are extracting groundwater faster than it is recharged by rainfall. Due to this unsustainable practice, the water source might dry up or become too expensive to pump. It is not the water quantity alone; the poor quality of fresh water resources is also increasingly bringing hazards to a large portion of the world population.
To meet the increased water demands, crucial decisions need to be taken about water and the way it is to be used. Rather than continuing to search for more and more water to meet anticipated demand, it is time to decide what to do with the amounts that can be feasibly and sustainably developed. This perceptual change can help to avoid the ‘water wars’ and instead develop cooperation over the sharing of international rivers.