Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Wars over water can be avoided

As global warming impacts on water resources, steps must be taken now to prevent future tensions

By Mikhail Gorbachev and Jean-Michel Severino

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released alarming data on the consequences of global warming in some of the world's poorest regions. By 2100, 1 billion to 3 billion people worldwide are expected to suffer from water scarcity. Global warming will increase evaporation and severely reduce rainfall -- by up to 20 percent in the Middle East and North Africa -- with the amount of water available per person possibly halved by mid-century in these regions.

This sudden scarcity of an element whose symbolic and spiritual importance matches its centrality to human life will cause stress and exacerbate conflicts worldwide. Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia will be the first to be exposed. The repercussions, however, will be global.

Yet this bleak picture is neither an excuse for apathy nor grounds for pessimism. Conflicts may be inevitable; wars are not. Our ability to prevent "water wars" will depend on our collective capacity to anticipate tensions and to find the technical and institutional solutions to manage emerging conflicts. The good news is that such solutions exist and are proving their efficacy every day.

Dams -- provided they are adequately sized and designed -- can contribute to human development by fighting climate change and regulating water supply. Yet in a new context of scarcity, upstream infrastructure projects on international rivers may impact water quality or availability for neighboring states, thus causing tensions.

River basin organizations such as that established for the Nile, Niger or Senegal rivers help facilitate dialogue between states that share hydraulic resources. By developing a joint vision for the development of international waterways, these regional cooperation initiatives work toward common ownership of the resource, thereby reducing the risk that water-use disputes will escalate into violence.

Most international waterways have such frameworks for dialogue, albeit at different stages of development and levels of achievement. If we are to take climate change predictions seriously, the international community should strengthen these initiatives.

Where they do not exist, they should be created in partnership with all the countries concerned. Official development assistance can create incentives to cooperate by financing data collection, providing technical know-how or, indeed, by conditioning loans on constructive negotiations.

Yet international water conflicts are only one side of the coin. The most violent water wars take place today within -- rather than among -- states. A dearth of water fuels ethnic strife as communities begin to fear for their survival and seek to capture the resource. In Darfur, recurrent drought has poisoned relations between farmers and nomadic herdsmen, and the war we are helplessly witnessing today follows years of escalating conflict. Chad risks falling prey to the same cycle of violence.

Thus it is urgent to satisfy the most basic needs of human populations through local development initiatives. Rural hydraulic projects, which ensure access to water for these populations over large stretches of land, can prove to be efficient tools for the prevention of conflict. Secured grazing corridors are being established with the help of modern satellite imagery to orientate nomads and their herds toward appropriate areas. Such initiatives provide rare opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between rival communities. The key is to anticipate the need for action before tensions escalate to the point of no return.

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