How water divides us – and unites us

Maggie Black

Water is our planet’s most vital resource, and is under more pressure than ever. But while it can be a source of conflict, water shortage also has the power to spark innovation. Maggie Black, author of The State of the World’s Water, explains how

In today’s crowded world, there is much talk of ‘water wars’ – conflicts waged over dwindling supplies of a substance essential to all life on Earth: fresh water. Fanciful as it may seem, some observers blame the current hostilities in Syria and the exodus of refugees from the Middle East primarily on water shortage.

Turn the metaphor on its head, and what do you have? ‘Water peace’ – a much more important idea. There is also a new branch of international affairs engaged in its pursuit: ‘water diplomacy’. Politicians, ambassadors, even security analysts are learning how to examine underlying causes of enmity and bring water resource contestants to the negotiating table.

When not surrounded by a sea, a river makes a handy territorial boundary. Since time immemorial, waters have marked the divide between lands and peoples. But since those living on one bank of a river share its flow with those on the other, and the water-related behaviour of those living upstream affects those downstream, the equitable management of water has always forced river basin dwellers together.

Water is a great leveller, raining ‘equally upon the just and the unjust fellow’, as Shakespeare put it

On the local scale, water peace can be about the control of ‘nuisances’ – or pollution, as we call it today; or about fishing the same body of water, damming it or altering its course. Often it is about agreeing not to take more from a lake, stream or aquifer than a negotiated fair share. Water peace can also be about navigation – ‘you may land on my side if I can land on yours’ – and flood control: ‘don’t send massive volumes downstream at one time’. There are hundreds of reasons to co-operate over freshwater distribution. Water is a great leveller, raining ‘equally upon the just and the unjust fellow’, as Shakespeare put it.


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At the international level, things can be tricky. Many states rely on major rivers flowing from outside their borders. Ten countries share the Nile, six the Mekong, five the Amazon. Those at the source may have huge power over those at the mouth. Pakistan is dependent on the Indus whose headwaters are in India, a country it hates. Although sabres are often rattled and accusations fly back and forth, India has never threatened to close the sluices, even when the two countries were at war.

Since 1948, some 295 international agreements have been signed over shared waters, and most are respected even at moments of political strain. Just now, though, the Middle East, the most water-short region in the world, could do with some extra ‘water diplomacy’.

Since 1948, some 295 international agreements have been signed over shared waters, and most are respected even at moments of political strain

In the face of population and other pressures on our finite global water pot, the need for freshwater collaboration is growing. People in the UK get through more than 150 litres of expensively treated water each day, including washing machines, toilet flushing, kitchen consumption and showering. In an African village, where water is carried home from the well by women and children, 15 litres is more typical. But everyone wants a cleaner, healthier and more comfortable standard of life.

In fact, a high-water-consumption lifestyle, with a diet that includes meat, the most water-intensive of any food product (one kilo of beef requires 15,000 litres), and uses cars and other items requiring water-guzzling industrial production, is a world-wide aspiration. Since water cannot be manufactured, and underground fossil aquifers are gradually depleting, the only solution is better management of existing rain-fed supplies.

Of course, technological innovation helps. The costs of seawater desalination, which used to be prohibitive, are gradually dropping: Spain, for example, has 900 desalination plants. But the key technological advances are those that make managing water more efficient: ‘intelligent irrigation’ to increase crop yields per drop, frugal use of water in minimum-flush toilets, and the reuse of dirty water by treatment systems that do not cost, or pollute, the earth.

Just as climate change is prompting the growth of sustainable energy industries, water shortage is spawning imaginative new approaches

Just as climate change is prompting the growth of sustainable energy industries, water shortage is spawning imaginative new approaches – especially for agriculture which consumes 70 per cent of the world’s water. New plant varieties taste just as good as familiar vegetables, needing less water to flourish. Ancient methods of water harvesting and conservation are being rediscovered. In India, for example, small check dams across stream beds recharge aquifers and enable dry rivers to flow again. And earthenware filter pots with special membranes remove damaging chemicals such as arsenic from drinking supplies.

The sound management of water is the ultimate litmus test of humanity’s willingness to share our global endowment of natural resources – and thereby live in peace. So far, the omens are positive. With every war-like threat comes a recognition that there is no future on earth without co-operation over water. The urge for ‘water peace’ can enable us to overcome baser instincts and opt for harmony instead.

The State of the World’s Water is out now


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Image: Children of the Mekong – Julia Maudlin

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