TOPICS: Are water wars a fantasy?

The Middle East has been blessed with a surfeit of oil and cursed by a scarcity of water. The irony 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 inevitable. It lies in our hands and in our minds.” Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi and publisher of ‘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 said. She admits that “water stress” leads to tension 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. “I am not saying that water wars are going to happen, and we are going to destroy ourselves. I am saying that if India continues to go in this route, yes there will be water wars. And we will be more crippled,” she warned. The Stockholm International Water Institute points out that most parts of the Middle East are already facing severe water scarcities and stress, making future prospects for food security bleak. 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. 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.

Gourisankar Ghosh, executive director of the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, 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 said. He believes that water can be a major instrument that can help bring people and governments together.

Ghosh said the whole eastern South Asian subcontinent (including parts of Burma, Nepal, and Bangladesh) now constitutes an economic zone. And as a result 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 added. — IPS