Threat to water a threat to life and peace

March 25, 2017
The global water crisis is rooted in the privatisation of water resources in countries in both the global North and South.

“Water is Life” was the slogan behind one of the most important mobilisations involving water last year where Native American tribes, calling themselves “water protectors”, fought against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline for fear of it contaminating their main water source, as well as it destroying their sacred lands.

As the world marked World Water Day on March 22, I could not help but recall that the United Nations has already warned that water shortages will hit a record high in 2030. Some warn that water — arguably human beings’ most valuable resource after air — could become the next commodity over which communities and nations will wage bitter fights. 

“By 2030 nearly half the global population could be facing water scarcity,” former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in 2015. “Demand could outstrip supply by 40%.”


Climate change and global warming are some of the main causes behind deepening water problems. However, other less discussed factors are also a major part in the crisis, such as mismanagement and extraction of underground water sources.

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.

“Global food trade is also a culprit, as is the way we grow food,” said Maude Barlow, national chairperson of the Council of Canadians and chair of the board of Food and Water Watch. “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 fuelled several conflicts, as warring parties use water as a weapon.

“There is little doubt that water shortages have played a part in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen,” said Barlow. “When you already have drought, inequality and social unrest, the lack of clean water and the food it grows can be the spark.”

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 long-time 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 UN and Oxfam, have estimated that at least 50% of Yemen’s 28 million people do not have access to clean water.

In conflicts, water is also being used as a weapon as is the case in Syria by both the government and 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 rebels had contaminated it with diesel, while the insurgents said bombing by the government had damaged the infrastructure.

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.

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 US 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.

Corporate exploitation

This social unrest is already underway and non-profit groups and environmentalists are already working with affected communities. Blue Planet Project has been on the frontlines tackling global water justice around the world and in Latin America.

Meera Karunananthan, director of the Blue Planet Project, said the global water crisis is rooted in the privatisation of water resources in countries in both the global North and South. This has led to mismanagement by putting profits before people and the environment.

“Chile is the country with the highest rate of water privatisation in the world,” Karunananthan said. “Water and sanitation services are run primarily by large, privately funded corporations.

“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 said this has brought 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 explained.

Karunananthan’s group is also working with local communities in El Salvador, where metal mining companies are contaminating freshwater resources that thousands of people depend on. Community leaders have been fighting for years for legislation to protect the human right to water in the face of chronic corporate exploitation. 

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 to millions in the coming decades.

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]

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