Water as an “urgent security issue” tops the agenda this year for a council of 37 former heads of state and government convening in Canada with a preliminary meeting of international experts on the prospect of future water conflicts.
The InterAction Council (IAC), co-chaired by the Rt. Hon. Jean Chretien, former Prime Minister of Canada, and H.E. Dr. Franz Vranitzky, former Chancellor of Austria, makes recommendations related to long-term issues facing humankind and holds its annual plenary this year in Quebec City May 29-31.
Mr. Chretien and Dr. Vranitzky and General Olusegun Obasanjo (former President of Nigeria) also co-chair the experts’ meeting, hosted by the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto March 21-23.
Organized in partnership also with the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNU-INWEH), the experts meeting coincides with World Water Day March 22, during which hundreds of communities worldwide will mark their interest in water issues.
According to three successive UN Secretaries General:
“The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics,” Boutros Boutros-Ghali, 1985;
“Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” Kofi Annan, 2001; and
“The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict,” Ban Ki Moon, 2007.
Experts arriving for the meeting in Toronto believe war is unlikely to break out over water anytime soon, noting that access to water has prompted many heated disputes, and that history records just one armed conflict over the resource – in 2500 BC, when the city-states of Lagash and Umma fought it out in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.
Beyond that, “water has never been the principal cause of two states going to war,” says Dr. Fabrice Renaud, head of the Environmental Vulnerability and Energy Security Section of the United Nations University’s Bonn-based Institute on the Environment and Human Security.
“Given that 145 states and 40 percent of global population falls within 263 international river basins that account for 60 percent of global river flow, this is a significant finding. The opportunities for violent conflict are abundant, yet such instances are extremely rare.”
He and other experts at the high-level meeting concur, however, that the tradition of co-operation could be tested as tensions increase due to growing populations, urbanization, rising industrial, agricultural and household demands, the “threat multiplier” of higher temperatures due to climate change, and as supplies of “fossil water” in underground aquifers, on which many countries rely, are exhausted.
As well, according to expert Bob Sandford, upstream land-use decisions like wetland destruction and deforestation that exacerbate downstream flood risks present potent new causes for inter-jurisdictional friction.
“The consequences of undermining the protective ecosystem services provided by wetlands and forests are magnified in a world facing more frequent severe weather events,” says Mr. Sandford, Director of the Western Watersheds Climate Research Collaborative.
He and Dr. Renaud will be joined on a “water wars” panel March 22 by Dr. Moneef Moneef R. Zou’bi, Director General of the Islamic World Academy of Science, Jordan, and Prof. Patricia Wouters of Dundee University, Scotland.
“It is interesting that the InterAction Council has taken up the water issue,” says Dr. Zou’bi. “At the end of the day, water is all about politics.”
He says many Middle Eastern nations have, for at least 20 years, drawn far more water from aquifers than is naturally replenished.
And he foresees a regional initiative on a grand scale to find and transport water from new aquifers deep in the desert and / or to deploy the region’s rich energy resources to desalinate water, an energy-intense process that today provides a minute fraction of the world’s freshwater.
The world’s top-ranked potential water conflict hotspot is the Arab region, comprised of the Middle East and North Africa.
In 1955 just three countries in the region – Bahrain, Jordan and Kuwait – were among the seven worldwide deemed “water scarce” (1,000 or fewer cubic meters of water per capita).
By 1990, 13 countries were added to the list, including eight from the Arab region: Algeria, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. By 2025, the UN predicts 10 more countries will be water scarce, seven of them in the Middle East: Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman and Syria.
According to these predictions, 18 of the world’s water-scarce countries will be in the rab region 14 years from now.
Another potential conflict hotspot is the East African region where, for example, agreements on sharing water from the Nile have yet to be agreed with the newly-independent southern Sudan.
So too is the Mekong, governed by the Mekong River Commission, the membership of which excludes thirsty China.
Says Dr. Wouters: “It is now clear that military threats are not the only security challenges we face, with poverty, climate change and the recent global financial crisis having provided potential tipping points around the world.”
“The world’s water problems will only compound – and more quickly than we think. The discourse must capture not only governments but real people – the so-called ‘local water leaders’ who must act together as a community, who aspire to achieve the higher level objectives set forth in the UN Charter – to promote regional peace and security and the fundamental freedoms of all. This legacy of the law of nations – the peaceful management of the world’s shared water resources – must be our collective aim.”