Inside Story

Water under pressure

We ask why the source of life has become a source of tension and whether water diplomacy will offer a solution.

Water is under pressure, and disputes over the precious resource are fuelling tensions in regions across the world.

“We never know the worth of water until the well is dry,” a 17th century scholar once said. Those words strike a chord in the modern world, raising concerns about the risks and challenges of potential conflicts.

An international conference is taking place at The Hague in the Netherlands to discuss issues around water security and peace.

Half of the world lacks access to proper sanitation. Somewhere between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people die every year simply because of a lack of access to a safe, stable water supply. So in terms of crises, this is as big as anything. This is as big as HIV/AIDS or malaria, and it's bigger than just about anything else in terms of destruction. It's bigger than tsunamis, earthquakes, all the wars in any given year put together.

by Aaron Wolf, Oregon State University

The two-day event, which began on Thursday, sees analysts, negotiators and scientists gathered to discuss ways to avoid future conflicts over water.

Delegates there are promoting a new catchphrase: water diplomacy.

They are emphasising the need for cooperation, negotiation and arbitration to address recurring conflicts, and to head off the risks of potential wars over water.

The United Nations estimates that 783 million people, or 11 percent of the world’s population, do not have access to clean water.

And what fresh water there is, is coming under increasing pressure from population growth, pollution and global warming.

Conflicts over water generally fall into two categories.

The first is simply a fight between two groups over water itself for consumption, sanitation and commerce.

The second conflict is that which arises from the way we deal with water scarcity, for instance, the impact a new dam might have on a community downstream, or the privatisation of water – a trend that has taken root in some South American countries – where it is being sold as a commodity, like oil.

Disputes over water are common around the world.

Already, the construction of the Belo Monte Dam in Brazil, expected to be the world’s third-largest, has angered indigenous people in the Amazon Basin.

And a series of dams have reduced water flow from the Tigris and the Euphrates, causing tension between Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Syria and Iraq have previously fought minor skirmishes over the Euphrates River.

Five regions in central Asia are also competing for water from two sources, the Syr Daria and Amu Daria Rivers.

Some 95 percent of Egypt’s population depends on the Nile River for its water supply, but the Nile runs through 10 countries, and those in the Nile basin want a greater share of the river’s water supply.

Ethiopia is also building a dam on the Blue Nile, one of the main sources of the Nile River, and the biggest dam construction project in Africa, which has become a cause for concern.

Water rights are a major part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as the only water resource for the Palestinians is completely controlled by Israel.

So, why has water, the source of life, become a source of tension?

And as populations grow and supplies decline, what can be done to safeguard the world’s most precious resource?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Sue Turton, is joined by: Patrick Huntjens, the head of Water Diplomacy at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, which organised this week’s conference; Hakan Tropp, the managing director of the Knowledge Services department at the Stockholm International Water Institute; and Aaron Wolf, the director of the Water Conflict Management Programme at Oregon State University.

“Water security is a major issue on the international agenda. But in practice we can see that cooperation over water is very difficult. So in this conference we are trying to question how we can improve existing tools and methods for solving water conflicts and water prevention, and what diplomatic tools are needed to address recurring conflicts.”

Patrick Huntjens, The Hague Institute for Global Justice