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Fighting over water
Sep 22, 2006

The Manitoba government has not given up on its battle to stop the modification of the operating permit for the Devils Lake outlet. In fact, the government has redrawn its order of attack and joined other environmental allies in combatting a project that has the potential to do irreparable damage to Lake Winnipeg.

The province recently joined with several North Dakota and American organizations to appeal a decision by the North Dakota Department of Health to allow the outlet to be modified.

“The decision by North Dakota to allow these permit modifications lowers the environmental safeguards governing the operation of the Devils Lake outlet,” said Manitoba Water Stewardship Minister Steve Ashton.

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,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001.

A recent Scientific American article outlined the historic nature of conflicts over water, citing the first war ever fought over this precious resource happening 4,500 years ago.

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. The Devils Lake outlet is designed to drain the bloated body of the landlocked lake into the Sheyenne River, a river that eventually joins with the Red. In the process, the unrelated waters of Devils Lake will be mixed into the Red which drains into Lake Winnipeg.

There is no chance that Manitoba will declare war on North Dakota to protect the integrity of Lake Winnipeg, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that some form of conflict is not forthcoming. The fact that a court battle is ensuing demonstrates how protective the Manitoba government has become with the province’s freshwater resources.

“I don’t expect wars over water because ... the benefits of collaboration are so great,” Frank Rijsberman, head of the International Water Management Institute, told Alister Doyle, the environment correspondent for Scientific American.

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

The last real war over water was between the two ancient Sumerian city-states of Lagash and Umma around 2,500 BC, in what is now modern-day Iraq. The war between the two rival 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.

No one is suggesting that a war with North Dakota is imminent because of a conflict over water as in ancient Sumer, but it does bring to mind a comment made to me in the 1980s about the controversial Garrison Diversion project in North Dakota — water problems between Manitoba and North Dakota are nothing new.

At the height of the controversy, former Gimli mayor, the late Ted Arnason, was so enraged that North Dakota would even contemplate mixing the unrelated Missouri River and Hudson Bay drainage basins, and thus threaten the livelihood of his community, that he angrily declared, “Tanks would soon be rolling across the border.”

He didn’t mean it in the literal sense, but metaphorically, implying that those against the Garrison Diversion would  not give up the fight until they were victorious and the project was scrapped. Faced with such bitter opposition, the North Dakota government relented and modified the Garrison Diversion so that the Missouri and Hudson Bay waters would not meet.

The changes now permitted for Devils Lake would allow higher levels of sulphates to enter the Sheyenne River during an extended operating period. It is increased doses of sulphates entering the watershed from north and south of the border that are now being blamed for the persistent and massive algae blooms in Lake Winnipeg. More sulphates are simply not wanted; nor are alien and invasive species that could further impact the $30-million annual commercial fishery of Lake Winnipeg and its multi-million-dollar recreational and tourism value to Manitoba.

Manitobans and North Dakotans are essentially good neighbours with a decidedly friendly attitude toward each other, but when it comes to mixing water, “Them’s fightin’ words.”