Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The future of water wars

By Peter H. Brooks Best Defense South Asian natural resources bureau chief “Water security for us is a matter of economic security, human security, and national security, because we see potential for increasing unrest, conflicts, and instability over water.“ —Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 22 2011, World Water Day. “The national ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

By Peter H. Brooks
Best Defense South Asian natural resources bureau chief

Water security for us is a matter of economic security, human security, and national security, because we see potential for increasing unrest, conflicts, and instability over water.
Statement by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 22 2011, World Water Day.

The national security implications of this looming water shortage…will be felt all over the world.”
–US Senate Foreign Relations Committee report, Feb. 22, 2011.

…fresh water scarcity at local levels will have wide-ranging implications for U.S. national security.”
Testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Feb. 10, 2011.

With a bombing campaign in Libya, counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an ongoing recovery in Japan why are the leaders of the U.S. foreign policy establishment talking about water? Well, when you consider that by 2030 global demand for fresh water will outstrip supply by forty percent you can begin to understand their concern.

But does more scarcity mean more conflict? Are we really in for a future full of water wars? The answer is not quite so clear.

The Fallacy of Water Wars
Mark Twain once said, “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fightin over.” The history of water conflict is extensive and well-documented (pardon the pun). But by and large water conflicts are local, intra-state affairs.

In the last fifty years, of the 1800 or so interstate, water-related disputes the vast majority ended in peaceful agreements on water usage. But many of these agreements were low-hanging, diplomatic fruit, unlikely to be so easily negotiated or resolved again, particularly as demand for fresh water continues to rise. The peaceful relations in three river basins in particular are beginning to show signs of strain.

Indus River Basin
In South Asia tensions are mounting between India and Pakistan over the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), an agreement governing the flow of the vital Indus River.

When the Senate report quoted above was released in late February, the Pakistani media jumped on it as proof of India’s violations of the IWT. Some opinion-makers have even said that a water war is already underway or at least a “water war of words“. Op/Eds in Pakistan argued that India exercises “water hegemony” by continuing to violate the IWT or at the very least by benefiting from its flaws. Some outspoken, fringe voices even suggested the use of nuclear weapons to solve the problem. And all of this in the last month!

Given India’s overwhelming military strength, Pakistan’s counterinsurgency campaigns in its North West Frontier, and America’s vested interests on both sides, the dispute seems likely to remain a water war of the words, but there is certainly no guarantee of peace between the countries.

Tigris/Euphrates River Basin
In 1990 Turkey deliberately cut off water supplies to its southern neighbors, Syria and Iraq, over concerns of their support for Kurdish separatists in Turkey. In February 1992, then Prime Minister of Turkey, Suleyman Demiral said, “We do not say we share their oil resources. They cannot say they share our water resources. This is a matter of sovereignty. We have the right to do anything we like.”

In 2009, responding to severe water shortages, Iraqi parliament demanded an increase in the share of Turkish river waters. Despite this and continued droughts, Turkey has continued building dams. As broader regional instability permeates into Syria and Iraq, expect water to play an increasingly important role in future local and international disputes between these three countries.

The Nile Basin
Three prominent Egyptian leaders in the last half century predicted water wars in Egypt. In 1979, Anwar el-Sadat said that water was “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again.” In 1995 Egyptian World Bank official, Ismail Serageldin said “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but those of the next century will be over water.” In 1988 Egyptian diplomat Boutros Boutros-Ghali said, “The next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.”

Fearful that upstream neighbors Sudan, Ethiopia (where 85 percent of the river originates), Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo would turn off the tap, Egypt has fought any attempt by neighbors to divert the Nile. The wars these men predicted have been avoided because of diplomatic agreements like the Nile Basin Initiative. But, as post-revolution Egypt evolves, these statements are important to remember, particularly in light of Ethiopian plans to build a hydropower dam and the growing uncertainty of who will rule the new Egypt.

The Future of Water Conflict
The future of water conflict — like most other kinds of conflict — will remain, for the most part, local in its scope. But as diplomatic options dwindle and the scarcity increases, expect water conflict to take on a more international flavor than ever seen before particularly in these three volatile river basins.

In any event, it’s safe to say water deserves the attention that it is getting in our political, diplomatic, and intelligence establishments.

So before you dismiss water as some sort of fringe consideration to the future of international security consider Secretary Clinton’s words from last year’s World Water Day, “It’s not every day you find an issue where effective diplomacy and development will allow you to save millions of lives [and] advance our national security interests. Water is that issue.”

A former Marine infantry officer, Peter H. Brooks is now a Fulbright-Nehru Scholar in Rajasthan, India, studying drinking water and public governance. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the US State Department.

Dried up river outside of Quetta, Pakistan. (Lynsey Addario/Corbis)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1