Water Wars: Myth or Reality?

Via, another look at water wars by Peter Gleick of The Pacific Institute.  As the article notes, while he does note agree with the term ‘water wars’, he certainly can identify strong and clear connections between water and conflict:

“…There has been a lot of discussion about “water wars,” a term that sounds great, but to which I do not subscribe: wars start and are fought for many reasons and while water has often been a target, tool, or objective of violence, it is certainly hard to ascribe the primary reason for any war to water alone.

That being said, there are very strong and clear connections between water and conflict…

Water Number: 190 plus. This is the number of entries in the Water Conflict Chronology–a list maintained by the Pacific Institute of water-related conflicts going back a remarkable 5,000 years.

Students of history may find this Chronology interesting. It includes the date, conflicting parties, location, background, and full bibliographic references for those interested in more information.

A few examples:

In 539 BC, according to Herodotus, Cyrus invaded Babylon by diverting the Euphrates above the city and marching troops along the dry riverbed. This popular account describes a midnight attack that coincided with a Babylonian feast.

In 1938, Chiang Kai-shek reportedly ordered the destruction of flood-control dikes along the Huang He (Yellow) river to flood areas threatened by the Japanese army. The subsequent flood destroyed part of the invading army and its heavy equipment was mired in thick mud, but the waters also killed Chinese estimated in numbers between “tens of thousands” and “one million.”

Portending the risks of cyberterrorism, police arrested a man in Queensland, Australia in 2000 for using a computer and radio transmitter to take control of the Maroochy Shire wastewater system and release sewage into parks, rivers, and property.

And hinting at the growing risks of conflicts over water allocation and use, at least 40 people died in Kenya and Ethiopia in 2006 in clashes over water, livestock, and grazing land.

Arizona Historical Society-Yuma
According to Remi Nadeau’s “The Water Seekers,” two auto ferry boats–the Nellie T. (pictured) and the Julia B.–were used to carry two militiamen up the river.
And one of my favorite historical examples shows conflicts over water in the U.S. as well. In 1934, Arizona called out the state National Guard and militia units to their border with California to protest the construction of Parker Dam and California’s diversions from the Colorado River. For a few days, the “Arizona Navy” patrolled the river in commandeered ferry boats — the Nellie T and Julia B. Fortunately, this dispute was ultimately settled in court.

We must be aware of the vulnerability of our water systems to not only conflict, but even terrorism. In 2003, Al-Qaida issued a threat to US water systems in a call to a Saudi Arabian magazine. According to Associated Press reports, Al-Qaida does not “rule out…the poisoning of drinking water in American and Western cities.” And domestic threats remain too. In 2003, four incendiary devices were found in the pumping station of a Michigan water-bottling plant. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF) claimed responsibility, accusing Ice Mountain Water Company (a subsidiary of Nestle Waters) of turning public water into private profit.

We must not be complacent about the political and military risks of water disputes. The past examples from the Chronology can help inform our current diplomacy and strengthen tools for reducing violence over water. Some of the recommended principles to govern water diplomacy from early work at the Institute (see Peter Gleick in the journal “International Security”) include: prevention of significant harm to others; equitable utilization of water; open sharing of data and information on water availability and use; and cooperative management of shared waters. There are more, and the international community has taken steps to codify these principles. But as tensions and conflicts over water grow, far more care and attention must be given by the diplomatic and military communities to water.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 26th, 2009 at 6:54 am 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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