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War, Weapons and Water

‘Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over.’ (Mark Twain)

The BBC in November 1999 reported on a UN Development Programme which argued that potential ‘water wars are likely in areas where rivers and lakes are shared by more than one country’. Speaking in New Delhi in March 2001 the then Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, predicted that: ‘if we are not careful, future wars are going to be about water and not about oil.’ John Reid, Minister for Defence warned in 2006 that: ‘climate change may spark conflict between nations – and … British armed forces must be ready to tackle the violence,’ Independent (28/02/06).  And in March of this year in the Guardian Energy Secretary, Ed Davies stated that: ‘I have a fear for the world that climate instability drives political instability,’ and continued by saying: ‘The pressure of that makes conflict more likely.’ Mark Twain may have got it right then.

The Pacific Institute (worldwater.org) underline Twain’s words through their chronology of 225 entries from 3000 BC to 2010 of violent conflicts relating to water. Water and air are the two necessities of human life. Fortunately, only water has evolved into private property and only recently as a commodity for sale on the market. Fortune magazine extols its virtues as a commodity: ‘One of the world's great business opportunities. It promises to be to the 21st century what oil was to the 20th’ (CBC News, 02/03). Which might give Kofi Annan something to brood over.

The origins of conflicts over water developed with the ownership of domestic livestock and the growth of agriculture several thousand years ago. Water had gradually taken on an economic character. Thus, when grazing pasture and natural watering holes dry up, and farmers seem to be flourishing, then peaceful cooperation inevitably stops working. Latterly, under capitalism, the procuring, extracting, treating, storing and delivery of water has a cost and, as Fortune magazine points out, a profit is expected in return. If supplies of any commodity become short, it can be expected that the price will rise.

Growth is as important to capitalism as water is to a human being. And water is a crucial element in any future growth of capitalism. Global capitalists compete to harness and control water because it is an indispensable component for commercial fisheries, agriculture, manufacturing and tourism, and most importantly it is a source of energy through hydroelectric power, which at present supplies around 6 per cent of the world’s commercial energy. But this commodity is becoming scarce. A CIA report in 2000 predicted that ‘By 2015 nearly half the world's population –more than 3 billion people –will live in countries that are 'water-stressed' –- have less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year –mostly in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and northern China’ (sourcewatch.org).

In Africa, The Okavango Basin is a source of tension between Botswana and Namibia. Both countries are victims of drought and Namibia has already built a water canal and has proposed building a pipeline to divert water from the river back into Namibia. At stake for Botswana is its only source of water and an expanding income from tourism. Namibia argues that it is entitled to any water that flows through its country. Egypt’s economy is highly dependent on agriculture and thus the distribution of the waters of the Nile. Egypt claims to have a historical right to the Nile, but upstream, Ethiopia and Sudan see matters differently. The former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak threatened in 1989 to send demolition squads to destroy a projected dam in Ethiopia, and ‘The Egyptian army still has jungle warfare brigades, even though they have no jungle’ (aljazeera.com/).

In the Middle East just one per cent of the world’s water is competed for by five per cent of its population. Thus, the former Israeli Prime Minister, General Ariel Sharon, could state that, ‘People generally regard 5 June 1967 as the day the six-day war began. That is the official date. But, in reality, it started two- and-a-half years earlier, on the day Israel decided to act against the diversion of the Jordan.’ And in 1979 following the signing of the peace treaty with Israel, President Anwar Sadat said that ‘Egypt will never go to war again, except to protect its water resources’. Likewise King Hussein of Jordan stated that ‘he will never go to war with Israel again except over water’ (mideastnews.com). Israel maintains control over the River Jordan and has restricted supplies during times of scarcity as the people of the Palestinian Territories will validate.

The Euphrates River has been a regional flashpoint for a number of years. Minor skirmishes had been fought between Syria and Iraq over water rights. In May 1975 tensions were ratcheted up when both sides massed troops on their borders following Syria’s claim that Iraq had reduced the flow of water by 50%. In January 1990 Turkey shut off the flow of the Euphrates for 30 days by closing the gates of the Ataturk Dam. And in 1998 distrust, which some observers believed could lead to hostilities, arose because of Turkish plans to build dams that could be used to control supplies to downstream Syria. The escalating scarcity of water in the region has done nothing to improve this situation.

China and India’s economic growth is jealously eyed by other capitalist states. With the predicted consequences of climate change and faster glacial melt factored into the thinking of state planners, alternative methods for power, such as hydroelectricity, have been a strategic dynamic in their efforts to maintain future levels of growth. Power shortages are acting as a constraint on India’s factory output. Outages are frequent and for an economy that is already slowing a serious handicap. And, of course, the damming of rivers brings with it control: a useful adjunct to cheap power.

China and India boast two of the world’s mightiest armies who fought a brief border war in 1962. Both stand poised over tensions concerning upstream Chinese proposals to divert water from the Brahmaputra River. The Brahmaputra flows from its source in the Himalayas into Eastern India where it unites with the Ganges. To the east The Kishanganga River thunders down through Northern Kashmir to The Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant, which was constructed to divert water from the river to a power plant in the Jhelum River basin. The Kishanganga flows on down past one of the world’s most heavily defended borders into Pakistan. The Pakistan state is concerned that the dam will have a detrimental effect on the flow of the river. Water has long been a source of strain between India and Pakistan.

Meanwhile China is also busy in Southeast Asia, along with Laos, in constructing dams over the Mekong River to the alarm of downstream states. Moreover China has built almost 20 dams, and around 40 more are planned, on the eight Tibetan rivers. It is believed that hydropower alone is not the only motive for China’s increasing control over the sources of rivers.

In a society that is awash with weapons that come in various guises, water might appear to be less menacing than many. However, water is now talked of as a ‘Political Weapon’, which is synonymous with the deceptive language conjured up by the school of wordsmiths who gave birth to the snappy idiom, ‘The Nuclear Deterrent’. Brahma Chellaney, the author of the book ‘Water: Asia's New Battlefield’ has asserted, ‘Whether China intends to use water as a political weapon or not, it is acquiring the capability to turn off the tap if it wants to – a leverage it can use to keep any riparian neighbours on good behaviour.’

Problems globally will be exacerbated with the expected rise in grain and oilseed prices as US crops suffer from the country's worst drought since 1936 and the farming regions of South America and Russia suffer similar water shortages (Daily Telegraph, 5 September). According to Rabobanks’ commodities analysts, ‘By June 2013, the basket of food prices tracked by the United Nations could climb 15pc from current levels.’ Rising food prices are always a source of social discontent and thus political instability.

A growing number of environmental writers and strategic analysts view water as a potential trigger for future wars. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2007 stated that: ‘The consequences for humanity are grave. Water scarcity threatens economic and social gains and is a potent fuel for wars and conflict.’

Socialists view war as the last resort for states. Scarcity of any resource that is vital for the production of profits could be, and has been, seen by states as a reason to go to war.