Potential for Water Wars in the 21st Century

Presentation to College for Seniors Lecture Series, "The World Turned Upside Down," April 3, 2003
Erwin E. Klaas, Professor Emeritus of Animal Ecology, Iowa State University

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I will begin by reading a quote from Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union. It is from the Oct/Nov. 2000 issue of Civilization Magazine.

"Water, not unlike religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to water. People move when there is too little of it; people move when there is too much of it. People move on it. People write and sing and dance and dream about it. People fight over it. And everybody, everywhere and every day, needs it. We need water for drinking, for cooking, for washing, for food, for industry, for energy, for transport, for rituals, for fun, for life. And it is not only we humans who need it; all life is dependent upon water for its very survival."

I was fortunate to be able to attend the World Food Prize International Symposium, "Global Water Insecurity" on October 24-25, 2002 in Des Moines, Iowa. This symposium featured many prominent people from around the world who offered their perspectives on what is considered by many as the coming water crisis. This talk draws heavily on books and papers written by several of these speakers and other authorities. You can read most of the papers presented at this symposium on the World Food Prize web site, <WorldFoodPrize.org>.

Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security was a keynote speaker at the symposium. Gleick authors a biennial report (e.g. "The World's Water 2000-2001." Island Press, Washington, D.C.) on freshwater resources and provides in-depth analysis and statistics on the current global status of water.

Another keynoter was Sandra Postel, formerly Vice-President of WorldWatch Institute and now Director of the Global Water Policy Project. She has published two books that are widely cited in the water literature. The "Last Oasis-Facing Water Scarcity" (W.W. Norton, Co. New York and London, 1997) was featured in a PBS documentary on water a few years ago. Another of her books is "Pillar of Sand--Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?" (Ibid, 1999).

Marq de Villiers is a South African who has traveled extensively throughout the world to research his books on water. I used his book, "Water, the Fate of Our Most Precious Resource" (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston and New York, 2000) as a text for my course on water last fall in the College for Seniors. This book was published a year earlier in Canada under the title "Water Wars". His books are fascinating reads because he can relate first-hand personal experiences about the places he has visited and researched.

I've also used several internet web sites as sources of information.

Global River BasinsSlide 1. Global map of river basins at risk. I borrowed this and the next 2 slides from Sandra Postel's talk at last fall's symposium; the map was prepared by Greg Fisk, Oregon State University, Department of Geosciences. It shows the world's major river basins. There are four that are shown in red and they represent river basins that are currently in dispute and negotiations. I'll discuss three of these in more detail later in the talk. Basins in yellow are considered to be at risk of disputes between nations. Other basins that have international boundaries are in blue.

Intensity of IrrigationSlide 2. Map of Asia and Europe where the land is most intensely irrigated. The dark blue areas represent the most intensively irrigated areas. India's response to the green revolution was to put more than 115 million acres into irrigation. There are two serious negative consequences of irrigation. 1. Depletion of underground aquifers, and 2. The build up of salt in the soil, a process called salination. A key lesson from history is that most irrigation-based civilizations eventually fail. While countries are bringing new land into agricultural production with irrigation, millions of acres of cropland are being abandoned in other parts of the world because of unsustainable irrigation and other practices.

China is in a real dilemma. China uses irrigation to produce 70% of its food. De Villiers (2000) says that China is not running out of water, except in places where water is needed most. Three-quarters of the water is in the south, while three-quarters of the farming is in the north and northeast. In the south, they are building the world's largest dam, called the Three Gorges Dam, on the Yangtze and over a million people are being displaced. One of the reasons for building this dam is for flood control. In the north, water tables of underground aquifers dropped more than 12 feet in three years. The Yellow River went dry for the first time in history in 1972. Since 1985, it has gone dry every year. In 1996, it was dry for 133 days. In 1997, it failed to reach the sea for 226 days (De Villiers, 2000).

Global River Basins With International BoundariesSlide 3. Global map of river basins that have international boundaries (1998). Basins in red are considered to be in severe water stress because of the combination of low water availability and high human populations. The red areas have less than 500 cu meters of available water per person per year. The areas in blue are the least stressed areas on earth. For example, the Amazon Basin receives high rainfall and has relatively low numbers of human inhabitants. Blue areas across the northern hemisphere have abundant freshwater but much of it is frozen at least for most of the year.

Available Fresh WaterSlide 4. The amount of available fresh water on each continent of the world. These are the only two graphs of data I will show you but I want to emphasize the point that the amount of available freshwater on a continent is very different from the amount of water available per capita. The first graph shows the amount of water available in cubic kilometers on the left axis of the graph, for each of the major continents. Note that Asia has the most followed by South America. Australia has the least available.





Available Fresh Water Per CapitaSlide 5. The amount of available fresh water per capita on each continent. Now look at the graph using the same data but expressing it as cubic meters per person per year. Note that Asia has the least available per capita and Australia the most.


Now, let's look at the three river basins with the most potential for conflict. All are in the Middle East, one of the most arid regions of the world with an extremely high population density that is growing rapidly.




The Nile

Nile ValleySlide 6. Map of the Nile River Valley (from De Villiers, 2000).

With Egypt adding another million people every nine months, demand is already in critical conflict with supply. Egypt claims they already reuse every drop of water at least twice. Only 2 percent of the land area of Egypt is arable, all of it along the Nile River. Current tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are essentially a continuation of a 2000-year-old struggle over who will control the water of the Nile.

The Nile is the longest river on earth, wandering for more than 4000 miles through 38 degrees of latitude. The Nile Valley is one of the cradles of human civilization and the ages of the cities along its route are measured in millennia. The Nile begins as two rivers. The Blue Nile begins in the highlands of Ethiopia at Lake Tana. It was the annual drenching of the Ethiopian highlands that spills over into the Nile and deposited vast quantities of silt that made the Egyptian civilization possible. The Blue Nile still supplies most of the water to the main Nile.

The White Nile originates in Lake Victoria on the border between Kenya and Uganda and its tributaries reach as far south as Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The White Nile flows northward into the Sudd Marshes in southern Sudan where it slows, evaporates and infiltrates into the ground. The two Niles join together at Khartoum in northern Sudan. In 1970, Egypt, backed with Russian financing, finished construction on the Aswan Dam and created Lake Nasser-360 miles long and 30 miles wide in some places. In that same year, Sudan and Egypt began joint construction of the Jonglei Canal.

The Jonglei Canal was first proposed in 1958 by the British in a report called the "Report on the Nile Valley Plan." The British, who controlled Egypt and Sudan for most of the 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century tried several times to dredge navigation channels without success through the Sudd Marshes. The purpose of the Jonglei Canal was not intended for navigation, but rather to by-pass the marshes. The canal would eliminate the enormous evaporation in the tropical sun during the water's sluggish passage through the marshes, freeing up what the report suggested would be an increase of 4 billion cubic meters a year for downstream users. No regard was mentioned for the fate of the local inhabitants or the natural wetland ecosystems that would be destroyed. Of course, in the 1950s, the word ecosystem was unknown to most people.

Construction of the canal was pushing steadily south until 1983 when rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army drove out construction crews. They have never returned. While the civil war in Sudan continues today, border clashes have flared up between Sudan and Egypt; the latest was in 1998. Tensions remain high and the chances of completing the Jonglei Canal are essentially nil.

In 1956, Ethiopia declared that they reserved the right to utilize the waters of the Nile for the benefit of its peoples, regardless of claims by other states. In the 1960s, Emperor Haile Selassie hired the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to develop a master plan for the Ethiopian Blue Nile and its tributaries. By this time, the engineers in the Bureau of Reclamation had succeeded in damming everything they could find in the U.S., and the idea of all those pristine dam-free rivers flowing uselessly through to the sea must have been irresistible. The bureau plan called for 29 irrigation and hydro-electric projects varying in size from modest to enormous. If completed, annual flooding of the Blue Nile would have been eliminated and the total flow of the Blue Nile would have been reduced by some 8.5 percent. Only one project in this plan was ever started and never finished. So far, nothing has been done in Ethiopia to damage Egypt's interests.

In 1993, a general agreement was reached between the new Ethiopian government and Egypt. The agreement was vague, but it did contain a clause in which each country agreed not to do anything to the Nile that might harm the other and that "future water resource cooperation would be grounded in international law" without specifying what law, exactly.

The potential for war over the waters of the Nile remains very real. Egypt has said more than once that it is willing to go to war to prevent anyone upstream from tampering with its water flow. Many hydrologists from outside the region have said that the best way for Egypt to "store" Nile water would be in massive reservoirs in the Ethiopian highlands. Evaporation rates would be much less than they are at Lake Nasser, which loses 6 feet of water every year to the sun. Some studies have shown that enough water could be saved in this way to quadruple Ethiopia's irrigated areas without affecting the downstream countries. However, this solution would require a level of trust that none of the countries have hitherto shown.

The Jordan River

Jordan ValleySlide 7. Map of the Jordan River Valley (from De Villiers, 2000).

The water resources of this region are simple to describe, but the political problems of its water are complex and there is not enough time here to go into much depth on these issues. The Jordan River begins in three headwater streams. The Hasbani River originates in Syria and part of it flows through Lebanon. The Dan and the Banyias Rivers originate in the Golan Heights, a critical area that Israel took by force during the 1967 war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It is now widely accepted that the Arab-Israeli war had its roots in water politics as much as it did in national territorialism. In fact, Israel blew up a large dam in Syria, 4 months before the war. Israel controls the Golan Heights as much for its water as for national security.

The lower Jordan is fed from springs and runoff from the West Bank and Syrian and Jordanian water, and by the Yarmuk River. The Yarmuk starts in Syria, borders Jordan, Syria and the Golan Heights, closely parallels the Jordan for a few hundred miles before emptying into the Jordan at Adam Bridge about half way between Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Dead Sea.

The Jordan River supplies Israel and Jordan with the vast majority of their water. Some hydrologists have identified 1000 cubic meters per person per year as a minimum water requirement for an efficient moderately industrialized nation. Inside Israel's border, the availability of water per-capita in 1990 was 470 cubic meters. It is estimated that by the year 2025 this availability will be reduced to 310 cubic meters. As such, over 50 percent of Israel's water sources rely on rain that falls outside of Israel's borders. Thus, Israel depends on water supply that either comes from rivers that originate outside the border, or from disputed lands.

Israel has constructed an elaborate system of pipes and canals, called the National Water Carrier, that carry water to the communities along the coast including Tel Aviv and to the arid south where it is used for irrigation of crops. Only a few people know how much water the National Water Carrier is capable of transporting because Israel considers such information a matter of national security. A popular assumption is that it can carry the full capacity of the Jordan River. To its credit, Israel has developed a very efficient system for reusing water and has advanced the technology of drip irrigation for agriculture that uses one-fourth the water of conventional irrigation.

Only 30 percent of the water in the region comes from rivers; groundwater accounts for the rest. The most important groundwater aquifers are the Mountain, Eastern, and Coastal. The Mountain aquifer is the largest and provides Israel with almost a fourth of its total water supply. Most of the Mountain and Eastern aquifers are located under the West Bank.

Part of the Coastal Aquifer is located under the Gaza Strip and has been over-pumped for many years, not only by the Palestinian refugees who live there but by Israeli settlers tapping into it from outside the Gaza itself. Gaza has one of the highest growth rates in the world despite a high rate of infant mortality. Over pumping has resulted in seawater incursions into the wells so that the water is mostly undrinkable. In 1995, Gaza Palestinians paid $1.20 per cubic meter for water, while Israeli settlers paid 10 cents.

The government of Israel tightly controls the extraction of water from the aquifers with permits. Palestinians receive fewer permits than Israeli citizens receive and they are allowed to draw water only from shallow wells that often go dry during dry periods. Inequity in water distribution is high on the list of Palestinian grievances.

The Jordan diversions have had far-reaching and unintended ecological effects. In 1953, the Jordan River had an average flow of 1.25 billion cubic meters at the Allenby Bridge near the Dead Sea. In 1998, the flows fluctuated between 160 and 200 million cubic meters, an eighth of what it once was. The Dead Sea, already the lowest surface area on earth at 900 feet below sea level, has dropped more than 30 feet since the early 1900s, and the drop is accelerating.

Jordan gets most of its water from the Jordan River, the country's only source of running surface water. Most houses have cisterns and other catchment devices for harvesting rainwater. In 1989, the kingdom began pumping water from a few rain-charged ground water aquifers. Jordan's total renewable water resources account for 650 million cubic meters each year. They are currently using 990 million cubic meters. During the drought in 1998, private water sellers were charging $30 for 5000 liters of water in a country where the average per capita annual income is $1,100. Citizens could get 85 liters a day from public sources but the taps were open only 2 days a week. Meanwhile in the wealthy districts, there were private swimming pools and lawns were kept alive year around with sprinklers. It was estimated that 50 percent of pumped water is lost, either to outright theft or to leaky pipes.

In 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace accord. Water issues took up a substantial part of the text of the treaty. Among other things, the two parties approved financing for a Unity Dam on the Yarmuk, and Israel agreed to divert water from the upper Jordan during the dry summer months. The countries also agreed to repair the Dead Sea by importing seawater from the Red Sea via the Red-Dead Canal, or from the Mediterranean via the Med-Dead Canal. Either would cost about $5 billion, and the ecological effects are unknown. But, theoretically, the elevational drop to the Dead Sea could be used to generate huge amounts of electricity, which could be used to desalinate water. The desalinated water would flow from Israel to Jordan--peace water.

Water problems cannot be solved unilaterally but only by cooperation, and with the present political violence that is occurring, cooperation seems highly improbable.

The Tigris-Euphrates System

Tigris-Euphrates Valley -- MesopotamiaSlide 8. Map of the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys (from De Villiers, 2000).

The region served by the Tigris and Euphrates has a recorded history even older than the Nile. The Fertile Crescent in Iraq is where agriculture, and with it Western civilization, began. The biblical Garden of Eden is believed to have been in this region. Jared Diamond, in his book "Guns, Germs and Steel" documents the origin in this region of many of the domesticated grains that are now used globally for cash crops.

The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers rise in the moisture-rich and lush valleys of eastern Turkey known as Anatolia. The Tigris flows southeast through low mountain valleys and the Turkish plains. For a short distance it forms the border between Syria and Turkey. Then it heads southeast, passing Baghdad and the Central Marshes before joining the Euphrates to become the Shatt-al-Arab that flows into the Persian Gulf.

The Euphrates starts near the Black Sea, makes a sweeping curve west and south and then meanders through a series of Turkish lakes and reservoirs before crossing into Syria and Lake Assad, the reservoir formed by the Euphrates Dam. From there it crosses into Iraq, and traverses the dry desert south of Baghdad before flowing through what was once known as the Hammar Marshes before joining the Tigris not far from the city of Basra.

The Euphrates and its tributaries are Syria's major water source. Iraq, downstream from both Turkey and Syria, is dependent on both rivers. Nearly 85 percent of Iraq's population fills all of their water needs from these two rivers.

Turkey claims that it has absolute sovereignty over any water originating in its territory. Iraq argues that the rivers pass through their country by natural course and they have "historical rights" to waters used by the people of southern Mesopotamia since the dawn of civilization 6000 years ago. This is often referred to as the "prior-use" doctrine that has been central to attempts to develop international water law. Midstream Syria argues both ways. It uses the prior-use doctrine in arguing with Turkey, and sovereignty in its disputes with Iraq. This 3-nation rivalry is complicated by the presence of the Kurds, an ancient culture whose homeland straddles the two rivers in both Turkey and Iraq.

By Middle East standards, Turkey is water rich but in reality it doesn't have much water to spare. Consumption is rising rapidly. First, the government is pursuing a set of irrigation programs that will increase demands on the country's water resources. Second, the population is growing. Third, the country is urbanizing rapidly. Fourth, the rapidly expanding industrial base will require new and additional water.

To meet these demands for water consumption, Turkey has a grandiose plan for the southeastern Anatolia region of the Euphrates. They are spending $32 billion on a collection of 22 dams, some of them huge, and a network of irrigation canals and weirs that will irrigate 3.7 million acres of currently non-irrigated land. The largest of these dams, the Atatürk Dam, was completed on the Euphrates in 1990. Water from its reservoir is carried through the mountains to southern Turkey through a tunnel that is 23 feet in diameter and 16 miles long. Along with 19 hydroelectric generating plants the project may produce a 12 percent jump in national income.

Best estimates are that Syria will lose up to 40 percent of Euphrates water to the project. Iraq would lose somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of its Euphrates allotment. In 1987, Turkey agreed to supply Syria with a steady 500 cubic meters a second at the border, an amount it knew would be impossible to do with the completion of the Southeast Anatolia Project, known by its Turkish language acronym GAP. When the Atatürk Dam began to fill in 1990, Turkey actually stopped the river's flow completely for a month, saying that it was impossible to fill a reservoir if you let the water pass through it. When Syria and Iraq complained, Turkey said it was committed to supplying only an average flow of 500 cubic meters, not a steady flow.

The water quality of the Euphrates flowing through Syria is highly contaminated with agricultural pesticide runoff, chemical pollutants, and heavy doses of salts. Syria often has to curtail drinking water and hydro generation for the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Damascus is frequently without water at night. Its water pipes are old and an estimated 35 percent of the water simply disappears somewhere along the cracked and leaking network.

Syria and Iraq are not much more cordial with each other than they are with Turkey, but after Turkey and Israel agreed to a military alliance a few years ago, Iraq and Syria agreed to cooperate, at least on water issues. They signed an agreement in 1990 to share the Euphrates, 52 percent for Iraq and 48 percent for Syria, but they almost went to war on several occasions. Iraq has threatened several times to blow up the Assad Dam in Syria. Turkey also blames Syria for sheltering Marxist Kurdish guerrillas who have promised to blow up the Atatürk Dam and who have killed more than 29,000 Turkish civilians over 15 years.

The Marsh Arabs in southern Iraq have been severely persecuted by Saddam Hussein and his government. Iraq has built a 330-mile artificial canal called the Saddam River that starts near Baghdad and ends near Basra. This project resulted in large areas of the southern plains being drained and the Marsh Arabs have been either killed or pushed aside.

Mesopotamian Marshlands Map

Slide 9. Map of the Marshes of southern Iraq (from the United Nations Environmental Programme, Vital Water Graphics at http://www.unep.org/vitalwater/26.htm.)

This pair of maps, based on satellite imagery, shows the extent of drainage that has occurred in the Mesopotamian Marshlands. An estimated 250,000 Marsh Arabs have fled to southern Iran where they now live in refugee camps. It was against the Marsh Arabs that Saddam Hussein first tested the chemical weapons that he later used on the Kurds in the north. The Marsh Arabs are descendants of a culture that is at least several thousand years old. These people lived at the edge of the marsh or on floating islands.

Mesopotamian MarshesSlide 10. Picture of reed houses built by Ma'dan peoples or Marsh Arabs. (from Partow, Hassan. 2001. The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem. United Nations Environmental Programme, Early Warning and Assessment Technical Report, Nairobi, Kenya.)

The Marsh Arabs are Shi'ite Muslims, and their way of life is largely based on the traditions of the Arab Bedouin. They built their houses out of the abundant reeds that are native to the area. The Marsh Arabs have evolved a unique subsistence lifestyle that is firmly rooted in their aquatic environment.











Mudhif and Marsh ArabsSlide 11. Picture of a mudhif or "guest house." (Partow, 2001, ibid.)

Marsh men gather under the cathedral-like arches of the mudhif, a guest house made completely of reeds, that is a 5000-year-old cultural legacy of Sumer.

What is the world to do? Most of the experts who spoke at the World Food Prize symposium were optimistic that technology and know-how are available to solve many of the problems. What is lacking is the political will. Experience the potential for conflict, experience suggests that cooperation, rather than conflict, is likely in shared basins. According to the first World Water Development Report (United Nations, 2000), titled "Water for People, Water for Life", 1,200 cooperative interactions have occurred in shared basins, versus 500 conflictual ones, and there were no "formal" wars. Recent thinking has focused on sharing the benefits of the water, rather than the water itself.

For more information on the Marsh Arabs see: http://usinfo.state.gov/regional/nea/iraq/text/0424mrsh.htm.

I'll end with another quote; this one is from the World Water Development Report cited above.

"The Earth, with its diverse and abundant life forms, including over six billion humans, is facing a serious water crisis. All the signs suggest that it is getting worse and will continue to do so, unless corrective action is taken. The crisis is one of governance, essentially caused by the ways in which humans have mismanaged water.

"The real tragedy is the effect it has on the everyday lives of poor people, who are blighted by the burden of water-related disease, living in degraded and often dangerous environments, struggling to get an education for their children, to earn a living, and to get enough to eat. The crisis is experienced also by the natural environment, which is groaning under the mountain of wastes dumped onto it daily, and from overuse and misuse, with seemingly little care for the future consequences and future generations. In truth it is attitude and behavior problems that lie at the heart of the crisis. We know most (but not all) of what the problems are and a good deal about where they are. We have developed excellent concepts, such as equity and sustainability. Yet inertia at leadership levels, and a world population not fully aware of the scale of the problem (and in many cases not sufficiently empowered to do much about it) means we fail to take the needed timely corrective actions and put the concepts to work. … Of all the social and natural resource crises we humans face, the water crisis is the one that lies at the heart of our survival and that of our planet."

This page was created on April 6, 2003.