If World War III broke out today, we think it would be over water. Not only do many scientists and hydrologists agree, they think such a conflict could break out as soon as 2025.
Terrible wars are already being fought over scarce commodities like oil. Considering one in 9 people on earth go without safe drinking water, and that our use of water is growing twice as fast as the world population, it’s time for this realisation about water to make a difference before it’s too late.
The signs of such a conflict already exist. The revolution against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the start of Yemen Civil War in Taiz (the country’s most water-stressed city), the Turkey-Iraq conflict over the river Tigris, the Israel-Palestine tussle over the river Jordan – all these conflicts have their roots in water disputes.
Why are we fighting over water?
With the overuse and degradation of water resources in a country, there can be genuine water shortages. Water is required for practically every aspect of our lives. So whoever has the power to control its flow, has unrestricted access to it.
For example, the Indus, that passes through 3 countries – China, India and Pakistan – has become quite a point of contention. Although the Indus Water Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in 1960 settled many disagreements over the years, the disputes haven’t stopped since the treaty doesn’t provide a definitive solution for water-sharing. Time and again, both countries have defied the treaty by building dams in the others’ territory. Considering that the India-Pakistan relationship is volatile as it is, water is acting as oil in the fire.
Indus is not the only river India is fighting over; there’s also the dispute over the Ganges between Bangladesh and us. The domestic consumption of water in West Bengal (especially Kolkata) is only increasing, making the water in the Gnages indispensable.
Let’s take a look at an international example. The Jordan river basin includes parts of Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. With the arid climate in these poor regions, water is the most valuable resource. Without any legitimate water-sharing agreement, Syria and Israel have taken over water supplies, leading to discontentment among the other nations involved. Once again, in an already conflict-sensitive region, water scarcity spells more trouble.
When a country has control over a water body, they directly have control over the water-related industries, and therefore, a big chunk of the economy. River and sea trade-routes boost imports and exports, fisheries is an economically-important industry for countries with water bodies in or around them. Power generated through hydroelectric power plants can also be extremely lucrative, especially with the push towards renewable energy.
China and India’s fight over the Brahmaputra is due to this. This river originates in Tibet, flows through India’s Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and drains into the Bay of Bengal. China needs these waters for hydroelectricity, and it’s valuable to India because it’s one of its key agricultural lines. There is no comprehensive bilateral treaty in place to manage the distribution of the Brahmaputra water, which is why it is always a point of contention at diplomatic talks. While the Modi and Xi Jinping governments are taking steps towards a sharing agreement, full cooperation is still to be established.
Just like occupying land is one way for a country to assert its power in a region, occupying water resources has the same effect. Land occupied like this is often used as a remote military base to show strategic dominance. When these lands are islands in conflicted water bodies, the dispute becomes a water dispute.
By occupying the offshore islands of Paracel, Spratlys and Senkaku in the South and East China Seas, China can claim jurisdiction over the neighbouring waters. Controlling them would mean China can create more outposts for projecting power and influence in the region, even acting as a defence in case of an attack from Taiwan. These outposts can also help augment China’s submarine forces. However, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have also claimed islands in these parts, creating tension in the region.
Even if water is not the thing that is being fought over, it can be used as a weapon during wars. During the 1991 Gulf War, when the water-treatment facilities in Iraq were bombed by the US, Iraq faced acute water shortages. The water-treatment plants that were targeted resulted in a mass contamination of the river Tigris. This weakened the Iraqis thereby allowing the US to advance in the war.
The South China Sea conflict, besides the above-mentioned military reasons, was mainly caused because of the presence of significant natural resources like oil and gas under the seabed. Due to its high population, it’s pretty obvious that China requires more gas and oil. Therefore, in the past decades, hostilities, even wars, have taken place over this issue, and the dispute of who can claim this territory continues even today.
The Arctic region is said to have 22% of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas resources. This has kick-started an international race to claim the region’s non-renewable resources. Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark and Norway have time and again tried to prove that they own Arctic territory.
Considering how dear these resources have become, this fight for control has become even more intense. Since conflict in this region will have not only violent repercussions but also environmental ones, tougher international rules are required.