“Water is Life” was the slogan behind one of the most important mobilizations involving water in 2016 where Native American tribes, calling themselves "water protectors," fought against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in fear of it contaminating their main water source, as well as it destroying their sacred lands.
As the world marks the World Water Day, one cannot help but recall that the United Nations has already warned that water shortages will hit a record high in 2030, while some experts caution that water — arguably human beings' most valuable resource after air — could become the next commodity over which communities and nations will wage bitter fights, and even start wars.
“Water is wasted and poorly used by all sectors in all countries. That means all sectors in all countries must cooperate for sustainable solutions. We must use what we have more equitably and wisely,” former U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in 2015. “By 2030 nearly half the global population could be facing water scarcity. Demand could outstrip supply by 40 percent.”
While climate change and global warming are some of the main causes behind deepening water problems, other less discussed factors are also playing a major part in the crisis, with the main issue being mismanagement and extraction of underground water sources.
“Many people blame water shortages on climate change and for sure that is an important factor,” Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chair of the board of Food and Water Watch, told teleSUR. “But so is our mismanagement, pollution and over-extraction of watersheds. We are doubling our takings of groundwater globally every 20 years and water supplies are suffering.”
The rate at which humans are draining rivers and precious groundwater is a few times faster than nature can recharge, which is leaving many parts of the world without enough water, Barlow warned.
“Global food trade is also a culprit as is the way we grow food," she added. "Industrial farming, mining and extreme energy production all pollute and stress local water sources.”
Such practices are worsening problems in water-stressed areas and have already fueled several conflicts, as warring parties are also using water as a weapon.
“There is little doubt that water shortages have played a part in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” said Barlow, author of "Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever" and over a dozen other books. “When you already have drought, inequality and social unrest, the lack of clean water and the food it grows can be the spark.”
Water as a catalyst and weapon for crisis
In a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, scientists made a strong argument linking climate change over the past century to droughts in Syria, Egypt and Yemen that, they speculated, acted as a catalyst to the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, which later escalated into full-blown conflicts.
In Syria, for example, an extreme drought parched the country between 2006 and 2009, which the researchers argue was caused by climate change and hotter temperatures.
Meanwhile, Yemen has been one of the most impoverished countries in the world for years, even before the 2011 uprising against former longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2009 the country was rocked by months-long water riots, and experts then warned that Yemen's Sanaa could be the first waterless capital in the world. The country mostly depends on groundwater due to a highly dry climate.
The country’s humanitarian crisis, and in particular its chronic lack of clean water, was significantly worsened after Saudi Arabia and its regional allies launched a military campaign against the Ansarullah Houthi rebels in March 2015.
Aid groups, including the U.N. and Oxfam, have estimated that at least 50 percent of Yemen’s 28 million population does not have access to clean water. “Water affects the whole picture” in Yemen, Collin Douglas, a research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, wrote in an article in August last year.
“Climate change-exacerbated drought, inefficient management techniques, overpopulation, dependence on a water-intensive plant used as a narcotic, poor governance and the persistence of tribal grievances are all coming together to drive the current crisis,” he explained.
In conflicts, water is also being used as a weapon as the case in Syria by both the government and the rebel groups.
In December the Syrian army and anti-government groups traded blame when a historic water source in the valley of Wadi Barada, which supplies some 5 million residents in the Syrian capital Damascus, was cut by the city’s water authority.
The government said that rebels had contaminated it with diesel, while the insurgents denied the allegation, saying bombing by the government had damaged the infrastructure.
In that way water is in fact yet another victim of those conflicts, Mara Tignino, a coordinator of the Platform for International Water Law at the Geneva Water Hub, told teleSUR.
“Water infrastructures are often targets of military attacks and deprive the population of access to a vital resource," she said. "These attacks put the life of the population at risk.”
As the world’s largest underground water reserves in Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas — which are mainly used for agriculture and drinking — come under stress, nearly 2 billion people who rely on that threatened water are now set to be exposed to shortages within 15 years.
If this trend persists, water could move from being a trigger for conflict to becoming the main reason behind a war. Shortages will on one hand result in shrinking economies and increasing poverty, while on the other hand climate change will deplete whatever is left, spurring states to begin to fight over resources.
Developed countries have already expressed alarm over the potential of water wars. The United States government back in 2012 ordered the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to prepare a report to address “how will water problems (shortages, poor water quality, or floods) impact U.S. national security interests over the next 30 years?”
The report found that “depleted and degraded groundwater can threaten food security and thereby risk social disruption” and that such a crisis would take place within the next 10 years from the publication of the report.
Rising water unrest frustrates hope for peace
This social unrest is already underway and nonprofit organizations and environmentalists are already working with affected communities. Blue Planet Project, an initiative founded by Barlow 15 years ago, has been on the frontlines tackling global water justice around the world and in Latin America.
Meera Karunananthan, director of the Blue Planet Project, argues that the global water crisis is rooted in the privatization of water resources in countries in both the global north and south, leading to mismanagement by putting profits before people and the environment.
“Chile is the country with the highest rate of water privatization in the world,” Karunananthan told teleSUR, as she touched on current conflicts over water.
“Water and sanitation services are run primarily by large, privately funded corporations," she explained. "In addition, freshwater supplies are managed through a market-based allocation system, which forces corporations and other users to purchase rights to access water.”
Karunananthan further argued that such a situation has put big industries into conflict with small farmers and communities who are running out of drinking water during periods of drought.
“I have just returned from Chile where large monoculture avocado and citrus plantations are tapping freshwater from rivers upstream while communities downstream lack sufficient supplies to meet their basic needs,” she continued.
Karunananthan's organization is also working with local communities in El Salvador, where metal mining companies are contaminating freshwater resources that thousands of people depend on and community leaders have been fighting for years for national legislation to protect the human right to water in the face of chronic corporate exploitation.
While Tignino agrees that water “can be one of the factors triggering conflicts and tensions between states,” she makes the interesting observation that the precious resource could also serve as a tool for peace.
“Water may be a factor of peace between countries even in times of armed conflict,” she argued, adding that she believes “water wars” are unlikely. She pointed to “the continued cooperation between India and Pakistan on the Indus River or the cooperation on the Mekong River during the Vietnam war” as precedents for the theory that water has more power to foster peace than war.
Whether or not the next war will be over water, there is no doubt that without a drastic and relatively quick change to the way we use and handle this valuable resource, as well as a serious and committed policy to tackle climate change, water crises are poised to inflict suffering and possibly even death to millions in just a few decades.