The myth of water wars
By Wendy Barnaby
Water wars are a myth. Governments do not go to war over water.
So said water management expert Dr Undala Alam from Queens’ University, Belfast, at the British Science Festival yesterday.
Dr Alam is only too aware that the water wars argument seems persuasive. “It makes intuitive sense if you have increasing demand for water, decreasing supply and more physical scarcity along with the vagaries exacerbated by climate change,” she said. “More than 60 per cent of our water comes from shared rivers: two countries plus are relying on the same supply, so as demand is increasing it would make sense that use would become more competitive. It makes sense.
“This is an argument that has been in play for more than 20 years. It has currency because it’s a myth. We simply don’t have the evidence for it. The evidence for cooperation is very strong.”
According to Alam, the classic case is tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile. There’s been a formal dialogue there since 1997 that’s encompassed all the states which share the river, even as Southern Sudan or Eritrea were formed. “I’m not suggesting that everything’s hunky-dory,” she said, “but if Egypt and Ethiopia can share data and you get intra-basin investment, the incentive to go to war changes. It’s not there.”
When India and Pakistan were created in 1947, the border line was drawn through the infrastructure of probably the most valuable irrigation system in the Punjab. The taps were in India and the canals were in Pakistan. The chief engineers kept the supply going at first, and when cooperation broke down the two sides negotiated a treaty arrived at in 1960. “It has survived two wars, skirmishes, Kashmir and India becoming a nuclear power,” said Dr Alam. “They’re fighting over everything else, and the one thing they’re not disrupting is the treaty – as yet. So where’s the argument for a water war?”
Senegal, Guinea, Mali and Mauritania have also cooperated over the Manantali Dam on the Senegal River, in spite of their political differences and the intervening conflicts these have spawned.
Agriculture accounts for between 60 and 90 per cent of the water we use. It is used very inefficiently: typically, about half is wasted. The real problem is not scarcity, said Alam, but the way water is managed: “If the supply is scarce you should fix the pipes, not go to war.”