HERE’S the scenario: Terrorists have hatched a devious plan to extort money from a South American government by cutting off the country’s access to fresh water.
Sounds familiar? It should do, at least if you are a James Bond fan. That is the main plot of the 2008 film Quantum of Solace, starring Daniel Craig.
Fiction or fact? It may be both.
According to extensive research by US intelligence agencies, the next bout of regional wars is more likely to be about water than about oil. Drought, floods, and a lack of fresh water are set to cause significant global instability and conflict in the coming decades, as developing countries with growing populations struggle to meet demand while dealing with the effects of climate change.
A joint assessment by US federal intelligence agencies says that while the risk of water wars in the next 10 years is minimal, tensions within and between states threaten to disrupt national and global food markets.
Beyond 2022, the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism will become more likely, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Asia.
The report is based on a national intelligence estimate on water security, ordered by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. It says floods and scarce or poor quality water, combined with poverty, social tension, and weak governments, will contribute to global instability.
As nations respond to growing populations with an increased focus on water-related projects, vulnerable dams, irrigation projects, and reservoirs could become targets for terrorists or military strikes.
“We judge that, as water shortages become more acute beyond the next 10 years, water in shared basins will increasingly be used as leverage; the use of water as a weapon or to further terrorist objectives also will become more likely beyond 10 years,” says the report.
“These threats are real and they do raise serious national security concerns,” said Clinton of the findings.
The UN estimates that almost 800m people worldwide already lack access to safe drinking water. UN studies project that 30 nations will be water-scarce by 2025, up from 20 in 1990. Eighteen of them are in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Israel, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen.
By 2030, 47% of the world’s population will be living in areas with scarce water resources, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report.
Traditional wisdom has it that the only documented “water war” happened 4,500 years ago, when the city states of Lagash and Umma went to war in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.
But Adel Darwish, a journalist and co-author of Water Wars: Coming Conflicts in the Middle East, says modern history has already seen at least two water wars.
Senegal and Mauritania fought a war starting in 1989 over grazing rights on the River Senegal, while Syria and Iraq have fought over the Euphrates River.
The Middle East is particularly vulnerable. According to Alexander Bell, author of Peak Water, the water factor is sometimes ignored in considering the source of the ongoing dispute between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
“There are familiar reasons why Tel Aviv took the Golan Heights in 1967 and occupied Gaza and the West Bank,” he says, “but the water factor is often overlooked. The promise of citrus groves and running water in Tel Aviv taps was explicit from the beginning of the Zionist state.”
Writing in the New Statesman, Bell says: “To provide enough water so that Israelis could enjoy a comfortable modern lifestyle was beyond the capacity of the aquifers and rainfall within its original borders. The underground aquifer in the West Bank and the headwaters of the River Jordan in the Golan ensured that life in Jerusalem could be sufficiently resourced. Now the Israeli leadership can never give up this access to, and control of, water — which means it will never give up the land.”
In other words, it’s not about oil; it’s not even about land. It’s about water.
Darwish agrees with that view. “I have [former Israeli prime minister] Ariel Sharon speaking on record saying the reason for going to war [against Arab armies] in 1967 was for water,” he told the Arab news organisation Al-Jazeera.
Both men’s reflections are suppo-rted, at least in part, by studies conducted by Tony Allan, finance professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and a leading expert on global water politics. He estimates that there are 17m people living in the Jordan Basin — which has sustainable water supplies for barely 1m.
The UN thinks that Yemen will become the first nation to run out of water, possibly as soon as 2015. Annual global water requirement will be 40% more than current sustainable supplies by 2030, according to a 2009 report by the 2030 Water Resources Group, a government and commercial collaboration sponsored by the World Bank. In northern India, overuse of groundwater may limit access to food and water for millions, while China will also face strains because of its rapid development, population growth, and over-reliance on the Himalayas for fresh water.
SUPPLYING and controlling water has been central to civilisation since its beginnings in southern Iraq in the fourth millennium BC, say Bell.
“Irrigation transformed farming into a less risky, more productive pursuit which, in turn, fed a population boom and the growth of cities. The very first legal codes, including those of the early Hindu tradition, were based on the assumption that a king would protect water supplies and, in return, the people would obey him. This promise is also set out in Roman law. From the pharaohs and the Nile to Joseph Stalin and the Aral Sea, nations and their leaders have been entranced by the notion that water could deliver some kind of paradise.”
That makes the pithy comment attributed to Mark Twain all the more prophetic. “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over” attested to the fact that the future of the American West lay not in California’s gold but in so-called blue gold — water.