Water Resources for the Powerful?

Via Daral Hyat, a review of developments between the seven upstream Nile countries who recently announced that they will sign a framework agreement that will overlook the two downstream countries Egypt and Sudan, and reduce their shares of the water.  As this article notes, Cairo threatened that it will respond firmly to any move that affects its ‘historical rights’ and the author wonders what effect this will have on future water sharing arrangements around the world:

“…Egypt heralded a new phase of dispute over water between upstream and downstream countries, as well as transit countries. This dispute may well leave its mark on the entire twenty-first century, unless UN member states agree to binding international standards for sharing cross-border shared water and water basins.

Disputes among the countries of the Nile Basin ‘over sharing the longest river in the world’ turned into confrontations, following the failure of third round of talks among these countries held in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Last week, the seven upstream countries announced that they will sign a framework agreement that will overlook the two downstream countries Egypt and Sudan, and reduce their shares of the water; however, Cairo threatened that it will respond firmly to any move that affects its ‘historical rights’.

In truth, the upstream countries are firm on reducing Egypt’s share in the new agreement, after the expiry of the agreement signed between Britain and Egypt on behalf of these countries in 1929, and which guarantees 55.5 billion square meters of water to Egypt, i.e. more than half of the Nile’s water volume, in addition to the right to veto any water-related projects in upstream countries.

Egypt, supported by Sudan, is thus currently insisting on retaining its share and on rendering agreements on water projects only possible if done unanimously.

Egypt’s case is not unique in the world. In the context of the scarcity of water that keeps expanding and growing due to the dual impact of population growth and climate change, it is feared that this will fuel conflicts motivated by water, up until water resources are seized, or water sharing is imposed, by force.

The issue of shared water resource management among countries has now become a pressing matter, as evident from the fact that the latest World Water Forum held in Istanbul in March 2009, considered common water resource management to be one of the main disputed issues. Also, recognizing the ‘right to water’ was discussed by the countries participating in the forum at Istanbul, as the first step towards a commitment to disadvantaged countries.

Shared water resources sharing is in fact the biggest challenge facing concerned countries, as there are 260 water basins in the world shared by two countries or more, and 40 percent of the world’s population live in these areas. There are also hundreds of shared groundwater aquifers. Glaring examples include the fact that 14 countries share the European Danube River, while 11 countries share the Nile River and the Niger, 9 countries share the Amazon, and three countries share the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and also the Jordan River.

Circumstantial or structural scarcity dominate many regions, most importantly, the Mediterranean Basin countries, the Middle East, North China, South Asia and the Southwestern United States, where competition among consumers is most dramatic. So far, unequal sharing of water resources has resulted in political pressures only, as is the case between Turkey and Iraq, Israel and the occupied territories, and Egypt and Sudan on one hand and the Nile Upstream countries on the other.

According to the French periodical Le Monde’s 2010 special issue on ‘Geostrategic Balance’, the U.S Pacific Institute research group has identified tens of conflicts motivated by water since 2500 BC. In fact, these conflicts are expected to increase in tandem with the growing need to supply cities, industries, hydroelectric power production and the expansion of agricultural irrigation.

On the other hand, other experts believe that water was, and continues to be, a contributing factor to further cooperation among countries. According to the University of Oregon in the United States, there are 145 treaties in this regard, excluding navigation agreements; the university concluded that ‘the need for water has never caused a war’, as ‘the head of the World Water Council Loïc Fauchon, said, despite the fact that force is sometimes used against upstream countries (Israel) or downstream countries (Turkey).’

As experts at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences confirm, water was never a sole motivation for armed conflicts; instead, water related policies are always defined according to more extensive parameters.

According to these experts, pressures among countries are often characterized by latent adversity, or conflict-ridden relations and a lack of situational cooperation.

Furthermore, unequal water distribution governs water sharing relative to the respective strength of the consuming parties. In most of the times, according to Tony Allen, professor at Kings College in London, there is a lack of harmony among countries that share water resources or there is an imbalance in their powers, as some of them are strong and others are weak. In fact, it is the weak parties that end up suffering from ‘water bleeding’. The most famous example in this regard is Israel, which holds back water and exploits it at the expense of the Palestinians, the legitimate owners of the land. The water consumption rate per capita for Palestinians is 75 litres daily, compared to 300 litres for Israelis, while 100 litres is the worldwide average rate according to the World Health Organization.

Water conflicts are not limited to one type; in truth, the water expert Jean Margat lists dam construction among the causes behind water conflicts, because dams disrupt river systems flowing downstream, thereby reducing the volume of water flow. Meanwhile, exploiting groundwater aquifers is now raising many problems, in particular given the fact that they are invisible water resources that can be consumed by thousands of investors without being detected by others. Also, pumping water on one side of the border affects water levels on the other side. For instance, the excessive exploitation of groundwater in Turkey resulted in the depletion of Syrian water resources.

Given these problems, especially among countries that were not involved in conflicts before – but which water shortage may push to conflict-, everything emphasizes the need to enhance cooperation to avoid conflict, and to exert international efforts to curb drought and to control pollution. This is especially valid given that competition often leads to excessive exploitation of water and the destruction of aquatic ecosystems.

Out of the 260 shared water basins, 157 do not have any cooperative framework. And even where there is one, it resembles empty shells.

In the end, regulations must be put in place to avoid deadly conflicts over water; however, this doesn’t seem to be taking place. In 1997, an international treaty for water sharing was ratified; however, it was never implemented since the signatory parties were few.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 19th, 2010 at 12:58 pm and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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