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Water conflicts
Dec 04, 2015

Water is being called the resource most likely to be fought over as the century progresses, populations increase and fears about climate change are realized.

“Fierce competition for fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in the future,” former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned as far back as 2001.

This week world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, gathered in Paris for a climate change summit, knowing that water crises initiated by climate change are a major threat to human security and well-being.

Shawn McCarthy, wrote a November 30 article in the Globe and Mail about global warming being a “clear and present danger.”

“In the years before Syria erupted in civil war, a searing drought withered 75 per cent of the crop in northern regions of the country and forced an estimated 50,000 farm families to flee to the cities, where they found little relief,” wrote McCarthy.

The displaced farmers were among the disgruntled Syrians who demanded democratic reform in 2011, which resulted in the crack-down by President Bashar al-Assad that escalated the conflict and eventually gave rise to the very anti-democratic faction known as the Islamic State.

Drought didn’t cause the civil war, but it was a contributing factor.

And climate conditions in many areas of the world, where water is in scant supply, are often the trigger for migrations, which is the case of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East fleeing to Europe and beyond.

McCarthy was told by Michael Werz, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, that “the number of displaced people is expected to soar in the coming decades due to conflicts fuelled by water scarcity, natural disaster related to climate change and the loss of livelihood from drought-stricken crops.”

A comprehensive online database of water-related conflicts, called the Water Conflict Chronology, has been developed by the Pacific Institute. This database lists violence over water going back nearly 5,000 years.

Mark Twain once remarked that “whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.”

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Environmental Outlook to 2030 report, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water. And by 2030, 47 per cent of the world’s population will be living in areas of high water stress.

While there have been conflicts on the high seas, such as the Cod War between Iceland and Britain, most conflicts occur over freshwater; a life-giving resources which is unevenly distributed across the globe. Freshwater disputes arise out of the need for potable water, irrigation and economic development (Alberta’s oil sands could not be developed without readily available water). Saltwater makes up 97 per cent of the water on Earth, while freshwater makes up the remaining three per cent, but only one per cent is drinkable.

The English word rival even comes from the Latin rivalis, meaning “someone sharing a river,” according to the article. To take the Latin meaning of the word, Manitoba and North Dakota are actually rivals, since they share the Red River. In North Dakota, two Devils Lake outlets drain the bloated landlocked lake into the Sheyenne River, a river that eventually joins with the Red. In the process, the unrelated waters of Devils Lake mix into the Red which drains into Lake Winnipeg. There is no chance that Manitoba will declare war on North Dakota — invasive biota contamination seems to be minimal, although sulphates are a problem — but that doesn’t necessarily imply that some form of conflict is not forthcoming to protect Manitoba’s freshwater resources.

Achim Steiner, the executive director of the UN Environmental Programme, said conflicts, but not necessarily all-out wars, may be inevitable in regions where countries share rivers.

A 2005 Scientific American article outlined the historic nature of conflicts over water, citing the first recorded war over water being between the two ancient Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma around 2,500 BC, in what is now Iraq, another of those modern nations plagued by water scarcity and conflict, which is the birthplace of ISIS radicalism.

The war between the two rival Sumerian city-states, which were just 30 kilometres apart, is recorded in the so-called Stele of Vultures — vultures are shown carrying off human heads — in which carvings and text proclaim the victory of King Eannatum of Lagash over King Urlumma of Umma. The text is historically interesting because it outlines how something that starts out as a minor dispute can escalate and eventually get out of hand.

Eannatum had a canal built near the border of Umma, creating a new royal field to be cultivated. At the end of the canal, he set up steles (boundary stones), indicating his ownership and then built sanctuaries to the gods with accompanying grain storage facilities.

Apparently, the men of Umma couldn’t believe their luck in having such bounty nearby and proceeded to loot the granaries. Lagash protested, a penalty was subsequently paid by Umma — then under King Enakalli — and the promise was made not to do it again.

The promise was broken when Urlumma drained the boundary canal, threw the boundary steles into a fire and destroyed the sanctuaries. According to the Stele of Vultures, the Umma ruler was “puffed up as the mountains” and crossed into Lagash territory to challenge Eannatum, who “completely overthrew him” and restored the canal which was from the Tigris River to the Euphrates “Great” River.

To consolidate his control over all water resources in the region, Eannatum eventually conquered every major city-state of ancient Sumer.

The ancient story shows just how important water can become. Ancient Sumer had a dry climate and as the only way to successfully feed the tens of thousands of people in the region, intensive irrigation was practiced. In fact, it is felt that the very building of irrigation systems led to the creation of kings, who gained control of city-states by their ability to organize the workforces needed to build the canals and the armies needed to protect the canals.

Although there seems to be a will to do something about climate change in Paris, it’s far from a done deal. Regional and national objectives tend to diverge, preventing an overall strategy to limit greenhouse gases — including carbon emissions — entering the atmosphere, from emerging. Still, promises don’t necessarily result in binding agreements.

Meanwhile, water scarcity remains an ongoing problem and future conflicts become inevitable unless there is a universal desire to initiate changes to save the precious life-giving resources.