Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Are Water Wars a Fantasy, or a Future Reality?

Are Water Wars a Fantasy, or a Future Reality?
Thalif Deen

STOCKHOLM, Aug 29 (IPS) - The Middle East, one of the world's perennial war zones, has traditionally been blessed with a surfeit of oil and cursed by a scarcity of water.

The irony, says one Arab diplomat half-jokingly, is that whenever energy-rich Gulf states dig for water, they invariably strike oil.

The longstanding speculation among some political experts is that the world's future wars will be fought over water, not oil.

Asked whether she subscribes to this view, Sunita Narain, the winner of the 2005 Stockholm Water Prize, said: "Water wars are not invevitable. It lies in our hands -- and in our minds."

The award, including 150,000 dollars in cash and a crystal sculpture, was presented by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden at a formal ceremony in Stockholm last week.

Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi and publisher of the widely-acclaimed environmental magazine Down to Earth, said water is very different from oil.

"Water is a replenishable commodity. The question is society's relationship to live with water. The management of water is critical. Water wars or water peace is in our hands," Narain told IPS.

She admits that "water stress" leads to tension and conflicts -- as evidenced by a recent police shooting of farmers in Rajasthan, India. The farmers were protesting the release of water from their lands to neighbouring cities.

"It was a very violent agitation," said Narain, recounting two other incidents of violence over water that resulted in the deaths of Indian farmers. Narain believes that water "is one thing that is crippling India's growth".

"I am not here as a pessimist saying that India is doomed and that water wars are going to happen, and we are going to destroy ourselves. I am saying very clearly that if India continues to go in this route, yes there will be water wars and there will be water conflicts. And we will be more and more crippled in our growth," she warned.

Narain noted that India has political leaders who are listening to this message. "They are recognising the need for a new paradigm. But this new paradigm unfortunately demands good politics, because it demands decentralisation of power, and it demands the involvement of people."

The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), which bestows the water prize every year, points out that most parts of the Middle East are already facing severe water scarcities and stress, making future prospects for food security bleak.

"The availability of water resources to secure sufficient food production for growing populations is one of the biggest challenges faced by water and agricultural managers," SIWI said.

In a newly-released publication titled "Liquid Assets: An Economic Approach for Water Management and Conflict Resolution in the Middle East and Beyond", Franklin Fisher and Annette Huber-Lee argue that the common view of water as an inevitable cause of future wars is neither rational nor necessary.

"Typically, two or more parties with claim to the same water sources are thought to play a zero-sum game, with each side placing a high emotional and political value on the ownership of the water," they point out.

However, say the authors, when disputes in ownership are expressed as disputes about money values, in most cases, the benefits of ownership will be surprisingly small.

"By assigning an economic value to water and treating it as a tradable source, parties see that the gains from cooperation exceed the costs, resulting from the change in ownership. A zero-sum game becomes a win-win situation," they add.

In a paper about the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which flow through Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait and even northern Saudi Arabia, Prof. Olcay Unver of the Ohio-based Kent State University says that despite the political volatility of the issue, shared water resource management between Turkey, Syria and Iraq may promote international cooperation, as opposed to interstate conflict, in the coming decade.

In a recent presentation to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Unver said that during a time of great upheaval and transformation in the Middle East, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins "could bring about a unique rebuttal to worries over 'water wars' in one of the most conflicted regions on earth".

With the change of regime in Iraq -- and the potential opening of Syria -- now may be an appropriate time to focus on cross-border water issues as a catalyst for regional cooperation and economic development, he argues.

The sharing of water is also an ongoing dispute between Israel and Palestinians living in occupied territories. At least two factors may help alleviate the current tension: construction of major desalination plants and establishment of waste water treatment plants in occupied territories.

Gourisankar Ghosh, executive director of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), is equally positive.

"I am not that pessimistic that there will be wars over water. But there will definitely be tension when water is not properly managed," he added.

"I believe there will be tension between urban and rural areas. We have seen riots over water. But I don't think there will be wars over water. I look at it in a very positive way," Ghosh told IPS.

On the other hand, he believes that water can be a major instrument that can help bring people and governments together, cutting across political boundaries.

"I think this brings up a basic issue -- that of nation states and political boundaries," he said. In the future, however, there will be more partnerships according to economic zones rather than geographical zones.

In his own home country, Ghosh said, the whole eastern Indian subcontinent (which includes parts of Burma, Nepal, and Bangladesh) now constitutes an economic zone.

And as a result, he said, there will be a need for the concept of shared water as part of the planning for a subregional economic zone rather than separate planning for different countries.

This is the positive side of globalisaton, because it is breaking down geographical boundaries, Ghosh said. (END/2005)


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