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Article, Book Review

Water War Mongering or Untapped Potentials?

Literature on the nexus between Water and Conflict is extensive and the debate on very basic principles of the discussion is very much in process. A number of papers are simply dedicated to give an overview over different publications and viewpoints (1). With increasing stress on the resource around the world, in quantity and quality and to different degrees in different parts of the world, the issue is gaining considerable weight. And with that, hyperbole. Wolf and Jarvis, two names you will stumble over many times when reading on the subject (2), give a good overview over what you can also read in hundreds pages worth of journal publications:

The terms “Water War” and “Water Wars” are media darlings. The famous quote apocryphally attributed to US humorist Mark Twain “[w]hiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over” is so overused that many water professionals are pleading to ban its use. To get a feel as to when the hysteria over water wars began, we explored Google labs tool Books Ngram Viewer which revealed that geographers were using the terms to describe water situations in the US and Middle East as early as the late 1800s with an exponential increase in the use of these terms starting in 1988.

The experts they mention – Gleick, Yoffe, Giordano, Susskind – are the main sources earlier mentioned reviews draw on. They close with a very valid conclusion:

Much of the hype about water wars is good business for conflict beneficiaries and book sales, but in reality conflicts over transboundary waters are normal, and managing that conflict offers constant opportunities for dialogue and cooperation.

I have just reviewed such an attempt to cash in on the ‘water war’ hypothesis for DAWN.

Brahma Chellaney’s Water: Asia’s New Battleground sums up the arguments for why South Asia may go to war over water in the near future (and how that could be averted). It is representative of a number of recent publications along these lines — and serves as a good example of where they may be going lost in the thicket of hyperbole that lushly grows when policy experts muddle in sensitive engineering or natural science topics (or equally when engineers have an urge to develop political arguments on such).

The arguments for and against the threat of near future war over water resources are at loggerheads. For South Asia examples for a dire future situation are ample, and since many countries are extremely dependent on huge water courses originating in a neighbouring country (with which it often has other disputes ongoing), the argument for violent conflict seems close to come by. The counter argument observes that while there is and will be conflict over water resources, countries have not gone to war over it in the past, and because of effects explained with Pareto optimality, both parties would be loosers in an outbreak of such, and are therefore inclided to solve the problems via cooperation.

What makes the topic very interesting on the Subcontinent and in Asia in general, is the fact that the debate is being carried out very actively (3). For the case of the Indus Basin, conflict between India and Pakistan, one should read on the recent history of water resources in the two countries (4), what the current challenges are (5) and what kind of solutions may already be around and need not be introduced by ‘international experts’ – see MS Gopal’s great photographs of the Barefoot Geologists in Kutch.

For Central Asia, the research reaches from Climate Change, via the stand off between the rather poor Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who have all power over the water sources Amu and Syr and are excerting it, and the richer downstream Uzbekistan, to the effects of water overuse on the common property Aral Sea (6).

1 Two good and rather recent overviews can be found here: Thomas Bernauer and Anna Kalbhenn. 2010. The Politics of International Freshwater Resources The International Studies Encyclopedia. Wiley-Blackwell.; Dinar, A., and Dinar, S. (2003) Recent Developments in the Literature on Conflict and Cooperation in International Shared Water. Natural Resources Journal (43) (4), 1217–87 (a revised form of this paper can be downloaded here)
2 Most notably the Databases on the Transboundary Waters Website
3 See for example Briscoe’s comment in EPW India on the Indus and India-Pakistan and Iyer’s response.
4 John Briscoe et. al. on Pakistan (Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry) and India (India’s Water Economy – Bracing for a Turbulent Future)
5 On Pakistan the Wilson Centre’s Report Pani ki Kahani is excellent, for India, the papers from the IWMI’s NSRLP project are a take, as an introduction the first chapter from a series.
6 On Climate change, see Bernauer, T., Siegfried, T. Climate Change and International Water Conflict in Central Asia., on the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by the same authors (2007) Estimating the performance of international regulatory regimes: Methodology and empirical application to international water management in the Naryn/Syr Darya basin.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


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