Water, the Sine Qua Non of Life
Water is a nonnegotiable requirement for life, never mind economics, and it's not an easily-transferrable resource, either. Either you live where the water is, or you accept constraints on your numbers or your choices as a society.
For some reason, some societies accept neither; others so swiftly outgrow their ecological limits that they have no choice other than sudden, significant downturn in both quality of life, population and power relative to neighboring states with water...or to acquire water from neighbors, by force if necessary.
A lot of rationalizations for war are bandied about, have always been bandied about, always will be bandied about. Being parched is not the exclusive reason for countries falling on one another with bloodthirsty abandon.
Still, it's unsettling to see just how much this one explanation can tell us about where the wars are.
The 2004 Analysis: Where the Water Wars Are
Following is a list of countries projected to experience (a) the largest adverse change in population as a percentage of the number of people the local water supply can support, and (b) where that percentage exceeds a threatening threshold (calculated to be 91.2%, half a standard deviation above the global mean as of 2010).
These were my original projections of danger areas for the rest of the decade. Two years ago, quite a few were already either at war, or right next door to trouble:
Peripheral to Ongoing War
Country Proj. pop/capacity %, 2010
Gaza Strip 114.3%
Burkina Faso 94.2%
El Salvador 99.6%
As a quick perusal will reveal, this is not a comprehensive list of all war-risky locations on the planet; for example, where's China (which has incredible water issues) or North Korea (which is a perennial contender in the Most Likely To Start World War III Contest)? China's population growth is no longer so acute; the scale of water issues is severe, but the perception is that China has the time and resources to mitigate the risk.
As for North Korea, well, no deterministic model (especially one so simple as this one) can capture every idiosyncrasy.
Some Questions Raised
A friend of mine who is a political science professor pitched a sortie of questions my way, when I brought this apparent relationship to his attention. (I've updated some of the answers to reflect the subsequent two years of experience, most of it in Iraq)...
1. Is this a temporaneous finding, unique to right now?
Uh, no. Water is the sine qua non of life. It has a vast array of agronomic and industrial applications, for which there are no inexpensive substitutes, and for many roles it is water, or nothing. People have been fighting over water across time, across country, across culture, for water is not only valuable. It is also power. And there is not shortage of exemplary violent disputes over that latter commodity.
2. What is it about water scarcity that gets people's dander up?
When water is scarce, a host of other goods become more expensive, and water is a commodity that cannot be easily done without. Those who can lay claim to water access at the expense of the weak rarely hesitate to assert their dominance. This is the ultimate form of wealth and power disparity; unequal distribution of life. All forms of inequity generate resentment and potential for spontaneous violence, and increase recourse to violence across other, more conscientiously-maintained societal cleavages such as race, class, ethnicity, lifestyle and religious affinity.
In extremis, all such disputes are set aside by the Hobbesian contest for a day's water ration. When merely scarce, water agitates all other forms of conflict and resentment, reducing the room for negotiation and compromise.
3. Are there sociological and economic variables that raise or lower sensitivity to this 'water-war' relationship?
Scarcity of an indispensible resource provides a challenge for the legitimacy of any regime. It is likely that autocratic and other inequitable social orders face more acute challenge from water scarcity, more social unrest.
On the other hand, scarcity of water and firm control of water resources by a repressive regime would strengthen the its hand, as it would enjoy yet another form of life or death control over its subjects.
Democracy and water scarcity. It is difficult to see how a free and representative polity could persist with inequitable distribution of water. Either a republic would assert fair rationing, or fall to tyranny, or simply fall to pieces.
I imagine free societies can weather moderate long-term or severe short-term drought better than nondemocracies, as there is more say held by those affected by public policy choices in the choices being made. However, past a certain threshold I do not envisage a free society persisting, and either tyranny, anarchy, or civil war as the parts of society set against one another over control over what water resources remain.
4. How does water scarcity translate into increased probability of conflict?
To restate from 2. - When merely scarce, water disputes agitate all forms of conflict and resentment, making the room for negotiation and compromise more constrained in all cases. The precise mechanics of this...need more work. I'll update as I collect my thoughts.
5. What options are there, to make the world less war-prone?
The Romans had a good idea -- bring the water to where it is scarce, from where the water is plentiful. Some aqueducts ran for scores of miles. Modern-era, large-bore pipelines run for thousands of miles. I suspect we can make something happen, to bring water to where it is required, and provide an additional means of revenue for those countries willing to trade in water. Collective water projects would raise mutual tolerance levels, expand the negotiating space by magnitudes, introduce creative solutions to heretofore insoluble disputes over land and sovereignty, and be a win-win gambit. Hey, even Halliburton could make some money doing something constructive for a change. But if they overcharge us, we'll have to slap 'em around. :)
6. While we are on the topic - Is scarcity of water an impairment to both the introduction and the sustenance of democracy?
I see introducing democracy into a region where there is emergent water scarcity to be a dicey proposition. I see introducing democracy into a region where there is existing water scarcity to be a very, poor bet, if such efforts do not focus on improving water infrastructure first. It is no accident that the U.S. army has made getting Iraq's water supply up to specs its top civic reconstruction priority; they know that without fresh water, they can kiss free elections good-bye, no matter what the timetable.
And you can rate the relative success of the Iraq project on where the water is most/least plentiful. Check it out on a map; it is no accident that northern Iraq and extreme southern Iraq (near Basra and the delta marshlands) are relatively well-off, while the heavily-populated (and far drier) central region is not. Areas within the Sunni triangle with good water are relatively passive (Tikrit, never shortchanged under Saddam, is sullen but you don't hear much about it). And areas outside that region with thirst issues (the entirety of Al-Anbar, for example) are quite dangerous places to visit. There is no appropriate analysis of the strategic picture in Iraq without taking water into account.
The 2006 Do-Over: Yep. The Water Scarcity-War Relation's Even Stronger Than I Thought
Okay, let's take a new look at our prediction list from 2004....
Peripheral to Ongoing War
Country Proj. pop/capacity %, 2010
Kuwait 104.6% just coming off a sucession crisis, Breathless concerns about Iranian sleeper cells, Shia minority in Kuwait tolerated, but circumstances may change
Gaza Strip 114.3% Generic Google Search on "Gaza Strip"...pick your poison
Chad 94.0% ACTIVATED VOA: Concerns over violence, UN Aims to curb Darfur spillover, keyword search: Chad Darfur
Uganda 101.8% ACTIVATED Ugandan defense forces have been operating from bases in southern Sudan though that might be changing. This is less in concern over the Darfur genocide than Ugandan rebels operating out of Sudan. Uganda's also noted as donating military aid to Somalia's government-in-internal-exile. Uganda was hip-deep in the Congo War, though officially that contest is over.
Eritrea 107.4% ACTIVATED keyword search Eritrea Ethiopia; a proxy war is emerging in Somalia between these two enemies.
Mauritania 94.9% ACTIVATED US Special Forces have been conducting counterterrorist ops in the Sahara for some time. Then there's the 2005 coup d'etat, hot on the heels of a failed coup in 2003, and, wow! It turns out that Mauritania has oil, which often accompanies an absence of freedom when found in developing societies.. Mauritania also has something else that is statistically bad for freedom and stability: slavery.
Comoros 103.5% EXACERBATED Volcanic eruptions on Grand Comore Island have poisoned much of the existing water supply. The island archipelago nation is known as a coup-prone country, the most recent successful one being the 1999 overthrow; there have been two failed attempts since. An Islamist-minded president was elected in May 2006, the first time a Comoran(?) head of state attained power through peaceful means.
Benin 94.9% MITIGATED Benin is unusually dry, being situated in a leeward location relative to the water-bearing westerlies that cross the Guinea Coast. One sees a similar thing in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean, where you can find cactuses and patches of desert. Still, we have here a Carnacki-esque Happy Story of improved water infrastructure.
Iraq 92.5% EXACERBATED by, you guessed it, the war. Iraq needs $15BN to fix water infrastructure. As for how the war proceedeth... keyword search Iraq, uh, you tell me.
Sudan 93.9% keyword search: Sudan Darfur EXACERBATED, AND HOW. The situation in East Africa is getting worse by the year. Relief organizations warn of displacements on the order of 300,000 persons. And while Sudan and Ethiopia are trying to mend fences after a history of tensions, The Oromo Liberation Front, operating out of Sudan, does not help much.
Then there's the Sudanese perception that the trouble in South Sudan is Uganda's civil war, relocated. And, last but not least, we have the Sudan government insisting that Ethiopia remove its troops from Somalia..
There is speculation that Somalia's powerful Islamist faction, which just threw out a peace deal with the Ethiopian-backed government, will be playing host to a party that some Arab commentators fear will turn into a region-wide religious war.
Involved, directly or directly, are nations on both sides of the Red Sea. The Ugandan government is seeking permission to deploy its army to Somalia from its parliament.
And, just so you don't feel left out, the United States has 1,800 troops in Djibouti and there's one report of US troops sighted on Kenyan-Somalian frontier. No problem, though; No plans for US invasion of Somalia.
Burkina Faso 94.2% EXACERBATED; Ongoing tensions with neighbors, The Ivory Coast in particular, over guest laborers. In the case of Ivory Coast -- try three million of them -- 20% of the country's entire population. The particular trouble, though is Drought and recourse to contaminated water by thirsty people; it is estimated that 60% of the country lacks access to sufficient water. Then there is the matter that Burkina Faso is a favorite hunting ground for slavers, who steal children for the cocoa plantations.
Syria 99.8% ACTIVATED Syria and Jordan in Water War, Turkey in position to cut off water to Syria and Iraq. And if that was not enough, the Shia contingent of the Lebanese government resigned in protest over talks to obtain for Hizbollah and Amal more say in the government ahead of investigations into the assassination of former PM Hariri, which is thought by many to have been a Syrian plot. Tensions between Israel and Syria remain very high, as do between the United States and Syria, currently over Accusations of arms smuggling to Hizbollah. Not to miss an opportunity to insult and alienate everyone in the room, John Bolton accused Lebanon of covering for Syria.
Afghanistan 105.5% EXACERBATED, AND HOW. Afghanistan is currently suffering a drought, as well as an ongoing war that is getting competitive in its deadliness with the gratuitous conflict in Iraq. An estimated 2.5 million are threatened, mostly attributable to two decades of nonstop conflict destroying existing water infrastructure, and preventing the increase in same to accommodate Afghanistan's rapidly growing population.
How bad is bad? An estimated 50-80% of cereal production in northern Afghanistan was lost this year. Drought in subsistence/agrarian economies equals famine.
As for the ongoing war, The Taliban offensive has surprised the Americans. Fighting has been Very intense, as NATO forces have pushed an offensive of their own.
Burundi 102.4% EXACERBATED Burundi has the quadruple-whammy of being the poorest country on the planet, severely overcrowded, almost completely deforested, and one of the most conflict-prone countries in the world. And from my thinking this is no accident. Similar neighbor Rwanda only escapes this list on account Rwanda already experienced the worst of its meltdown (read: holocaust) in the prior decade.
Now, for some good news, a cease-fire was signed between the government and the rebel FLN was signed in September 2006, and African Union peacekeepers (read: South African troops, as likely) are being requested to help implement that agreement.
Perhaps this is an auspicious beginning. However, the structural reasons for violence will have to be addressed right away.
Ethiopia 105.2% (See Sudan...Eritrea...Somalia.) As an additional: Parts of Ethiopia are currently suffering from too much water -- flooding -- and The US Air Force is flying relief to Ethiopia, which has been courted as a new ally as the shifting geopolitics of the War on Running Out of Oil, I mean, the War on Terror look to make the lower Red Sea region more important.
Tanzania 106.9% EXACERBATED...by Privatization An interesting sub-thread to farming out all these links has been the topic of water works privatization, and the failures of same. El Salvador is one glaring case, and Tanzania is the other, in which a debt-forgiveness scheme, so long as Tanzania privatized its water works, fell through as millions of customers in the large capital city of Dar es Salaam experienced a degradation in services.
The project was intended to be a model for subsequent waterworks initiatives elsewhere. Boy, was it -- a bad model. It speaks volumes that few places in the America have private water companies. It makes a person wonder why a massively-validated market failure should fare better in a capital-scarce circumstance.
Elsewhere, on the island of Zanzibar (also part of Tanzania), Unnecessary use of water has been banned indefinitely since January 2006. Zanzibar has been host to persistent
While Tanzania is relatively stable...so far...the country has a tendency to become embroiled in neighboring conflicts, either as a combatant, an opportunist, or a host for other countries' refugees. Among the most prominent conflicts was Tanzania's war with Uganda under Idi Amin, which resulted in the infamous tyrant's ouster. The two countries became allies as a result, the Tanzanians developing a reputation as good invaders to have around, almost akin to the traditional (if currently distressed) reputation of the Americans.
Tanzania happens to have an interest in the developing Somalia conflict due to some ethnic affinities between parts of the Somali people and those of Tanzania, as well as having been invited to participate in the US-led Contact Group on Somalia.
Djibouti 108.6% (See Sudan...Eritrea...Somalia.)
Togo 104.9% ACTIVATED and EXACERBATED Togo's ecological situation is comparable to that of Benin -- dry tropical. Also, an election crisis in 2005 sparked fears of civil war, and the circumstances of distrust have not fully changed, and Togo's transition to democracy is well and truly stalled, with neither government nor opposition trusting the other. Political violence has killed at least hundreds and generated tens of thousands of refugees. Incidents of police brutality and press intimidation are reported; including this very recent instance in which the president's own brothers beat up a journalist. Talk about hands-on government!
Pakistan 101.6% EXACERBATED Civil opposition, even violence, directed against the Musharraf regime is very much on the uptick.
Musharraf, has survived repeated assassination attmpts, but the latest attempt was made by young officers in the Pakistani Air Force, which calls into question Musharraf's hold on his own armed forces.
Also, there are conflicting accounts of the role the Taliban played In a suicide attack that killed 42 Pakistani Army recruits, a reprisal for an October 30 raid that destroyed a madrassa, killing 82.
Still, there is some good news, should the plan to invest $1.1. billion to improve the Pakistani surface irrigation network goes through. Of course, it takes peace to make peace, and if Pakistan falls into civil war, this plan might fall by the wayside.
Yemen 130.6% EXACERBATED. Yemen is contributing aid to the besieged Somalian government. Also, the country maintains a precarious balancing act between support for the Washington-led War on Terror and widespread popular support for Islamist causes.
As if that were not enough, clashes with a Shia sect called the Zaydi only add to the fun. Oh, little tidbit; the Zaydi are purportedly Iranian backed.
And, last but not least...Al Qaida, those people who weren't in Iraq before Bush invaded, made two foiled attacks on oil facilities in Yemen in September per a note received October 13, but reporting this news was dated for November 7...and then only by a few American vendors (CBS, WaPo), and per the Washington post version, released at 6:55PM EST on the night of the election, when I imagine there was significantly more attention being paid to incoming results.
Philippines 93.7% EXACERBATED Oh, it's a lot rougher in the Philippines than the American media know, therefore you do not know. Per the BBC the past two years have choice.
First, there's the resumption of a hot war with
the New People's Army -- Communists, in case the name didn't give it away.
Then you have Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist organization, still going strong.
However, the worst problem is that water rationing has begun in the Philippines, as distribution, ecological degradation, and rapid population growth challenge the ability of the country to take advantage of its natural water wealth.
Other contentions in Philippine society include ongoing displeasure with the Arroyo government, expressed most clearly by the 2003 Oakwood Mutiny, and a subsequent (some maintained contrived) Coup Attempt in February 2006.
Perhaps the most insidious development is the proliferation of private armies, sometimes affiliated closely -- some might say too closely -- with local politicians. The premise is to boost security and supplement regular armed forces against the persistent Communist and Muslim insurgents in the east and south, respectively. Critics (hand raised) decry the danger of warlordism; it is not so far to go from where the Philippines is now to where Somalia is now.
There is concern that the recruitment of civilian militias is cover for something far more dastardly -- Intimidation, even assassination, of critics of the Arroyo regime.
This isn't looking good.
El Salvador 99.6% EXACERBATED El Salvador's problem is contaminated water, both from pollution and tectonic activity, both quakes and vulcanism, that can contaminate or destroy aquifers. Then, of course, there's the poverty, and some good news -- such as this USAID project, to provide direct water connections to the most needful households.
How many need clean water? 90% of El Salvador's water is contamined, 50% of the population drinks contaminated water.. That's considered bad.
Presently, conditions in El Salvador appear stable. But we're going to keep an eye on things, just in case.
Tajikistan 106.1% EXACERBATED Severe water shortage hits Tajikistan; this is part and parcel of the severe drought striking Afghanistan and, in fact, the entirety of Central Asia, which is experiencing disputes already; Tajikistan is choosing to revitalize old Soviet hydroelectric projects to both generate electricity and control over headwaters that flow downstream to larger (and more militarily powerful) states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Tajik relations with the latter have deteriorated somewhat, though that might be overplayed as all the Central Asian republics (save Turkmenistan) are part of the Sino-Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization which lists as one of its purviews joint use of water resources. One imagines the Chinese are mostly concerned with obtaiing access to Russia's unmatched freshwater reserves (unmatched save, perhaps, by Brazil), though any deal that quenches the thirst of the PRC and raises income for the Federation would stand to benefit the smaller members of the alliance, as well.
Oman 131.1% EXACERBATED Oman's water woes have been seen coming for a while. Sue Hutton writes of serious shortfalls and ambitious water works projects by the Sultanate. Gulf News describes the shortage as severe. The chief threat is population growth; never a lush land, Oman's population has doubled since 1987, and this poses severe challenges in a country that, simply put, may well be tapped out, unless a cost-effective means of desalinating seawater is developed.
Kyrgyzstan 97.1% EXACERBATED See Tajikistan, Afghanistan; the countries' troubles are intertwined.
Alternative Measure: The Water Poverty Index
In 2002, The National Environment Research Council produced this gem, explained in the technical notes as:
The Water Poverty Index (WPI) measures, for a given country, the impact of water scarcity and water provision on human populations. WPI is a number between 0 and 100, where a low score indicates water poverty and a high score indicates good water provision. WPI is the culmination of an interdisciplinary approach that combines both the physical quantities relating to water availability and the socio-economic factors relating to poverty to produce an indicator that addresses the diverse factors that affect water resource management.
WPI is comprised of five component indices: Resources, Access, Capacity, Use, and Environment. Each of these component indices is made up of sub-indices.
Curious to see how this stacked up versus my own estimate, here are the most water-impoverished states, per the WPI, a low score being the most at-risk...
Central African Rep...44
There is considerable overlap between this list and my own.
Dissenting Opinion: Water Tensions Will Not Lead To War
In the interests of The Fairness Doctrine....more or less...Arunabha Ghosh of the United Nations Development Program shares this:
...putting to rest the theory of water wars between countries who share rivers and lakes, Ghosh told TOI, "In past 50 years, 37 stray incidents of violence have taken place between countries over water, 30 of which have been in the Middle East. However, none of them were wars. The last war fought over water was 4,000 years ago.
Also in the last 50 years, over 200 treaties on water were negotiated between countries. India and Pakistan, despite two wars and constant geopolitical tension, have for half a century jointly managed shared watersheds through the Permanent Indus Water Commission."
He added: "We do have evidence that there will be increased tension among nations sharing water. However, globally there is enough water for everyone. Managing shared water can be a force for peace or for conflict, but it is politics that will decide the course to be taken."
Sure. No one explicitly says "I'm making war with you over this water." However, warfare congregates where there is a rapid change in population, or sudden depletion in water resources, such that the room for negotiations of the sort that Ghosh speaks of is reduced.
What Ghosh points out is how so many conflicts could be reduced; it is well possible that cooperation between arch-rivals India and Pakistan over the Indus Valley watershed has kept the two growling neighbors at (mostly) peace for over a generation. However, lacking continuing improvement in population control, water infrastructure, water supply and organizational means and political will to cooperate and share water, the recourse is conflict and war, which serves to degrade water resources even further.
The Times of India article cited above underscores a point I've made: Water is difficult to transfer..
The problem is that some countries get a lot more than others. Almost a quarter of the world's supply of fresh water is in Lake Baikal in the sparsely populated Siberia. With 31% of global fresh water resources, Latin America has 12 times more water per person than South Asia.
Ghosh also notes that the Middle East just happens to be the world's most water stressed region.
Funny. That's where a lot of wars happen to be at the moment.
Four major challenges, all of them found in the case of Burundi, contribute to the risk of wars that, if not overtly over water, are conspicuously concentrated in areas of the planet where
- water distribution
- rapid population growth
- ecological devastation, and
- little tradition or incentive to negotiate
conspire to exacerbate the likelihood of violent resolution of conflicts. A nice way to say: Make. Wars. More. Likely.
So, what to do? The conceptual answers are child's play...
- improve water works, across international boundaries if need be
- either slow down the production of l'il punkins, or find somewhere with a surplus water supply willing to take them in.
- protect watershed environment, first and foremost conserve existing woodlands and marshes, and plant more trees.
- set up the machinery of international cooperation first and keep that apparatus well-practiced and well-maintained during good times, so it's in place when you really need it.
As for implementation, well, clearly it is beyond challenging for leaders, elected and appointed, doing the right thing by themselves, their constituents, their countries and their planet.
But I'm sure we can come up with some ideas to help out. :)