Water Security and Peace Discussion

Released from Shiga, Japan

The 21st century will experience the most acute international water conflicts in human history, yet most if not all of these disputes will be settled peacefully, water experts say.

“Some of the most vociferous enemies around the world have negotiated water agreements or are in the process of doing so, and the institutions they have created frequently prove to be resilient over time and during periods of otherwise strained relations,” says Water Security and Peace, a paper prepared for the 3rd World Water Forum.

These agreements over water, sometimes in the midst of bitter warfare, include:

  • The Mekong Committee has functioned since 1957, with countries exchanging data throughout the Vietnam War;
  • Secret “picnic table” talks were held between Israel and Jordan beginning in the early 1980s, a decade prior to the initiation of the Madrid Process that led to the Peace Treaty of 1994 between the two former combatants;
  • The Indus River Commission survived through two wars between India and Pakistan;
  • All ten countries sharing the Nile River are currently involved in negotiations over co-operative development of the basin, despite centuries of conflict and warfare.

“Some global officials have warned that the wars of the 21st century will be over water rather than over oil or colonialism,” says Andras Szollosi-Nagy, Deputy Assistant Director-General Natural Sciences, Co-ordinator of UNESCO and member of the Board of the World Water Council who will preside over the discussion on Water, Security and Peace at the Forum. “Our experience thankfully suggests that nearly all people would rather seek peaceful resolutions of their water conflicts, even if they unfortunately resort to violence over other conflicts.”

A total of 261 international water basins exist around the world, each one a potential source of conflict as the global population rises from the current 6.0 billion toward 8 billion, while the amount of water available stays constant.

Approximately one-third of the 261 international basins are shared by more than two countries, and 19 involve five or more sovereign states, which makes resolution of disputes even more complicated. Of these nineteen, one basin, the Danube, receives runoff from 18 nations. Five basins – the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine and Zambezi – are shared by between nine and 11 countries. The remaining 13 basins – the Amazon, Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna, Lake Chad, Tarim, Aral Sea, Jordan, Kura-Araks, Mekong, Tigris-Euphrates, La Plata, Neman, and Vistula (Wisla) – have between five and eight countries.

A total of 145 nations share at least one of these international basins. A total of 33 countries have greater than 95 percent of their territory within one or more international basins. These nations are not limited to small countries, such as Liechtenstein and Andorra, but also include Hungary, Bangladesh, Belarus, and Zambia.

“Many of these nations are dependent on their neighbors for their water, which is life, which heightens the possible trans-boundary competition for water and therefore, the dangers of conflict,” says William Cosgrove Vice-President of the Council.

“Increasing populations impose increasing demands for water supplies, often leading to unsustainable withdrawals,” says Water Security and Peace, a paper prepared for the 3rd World Water Forum. “Human consumption and activities of humans in industry, and agriculture generate wastes that are usually discharged into water bodies. Finally, the environment and supporting ecosystems require water, and meeting those requirements often conflicts with meeting other demands.”

The paper points out, however, that the past 50 years have seen only 37 acute disputes that erupted into violence, while, during the same period, approximately 200 treaties were negotiated and signed.

“The total number of water-related events between nations of any magnitude are likewise weighted towards co-operation: 507 conflict-related events, versus 1,228 co-operative, implying that violence over water is not strategically rational, effective, or economically viable,” the paper says.

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