Monday, September 18, 2006

Fighting over Water

Reuter's has good news, of sorts. Its been 4600 years since anyone went to war over water. Since two city states in what was is now Iraq fought over irrigation rights, water-driven conflicts have had more bark then bite, in that they are frequently threatened, but never carried out.

But then, the future, it is generally agreed, tends to be different from the past. Climate change, desertification, and increased population in the developing world threaten increased motivation to fight over an increasingly scarce resource that is less essential to human life only than oxygen.

Hydrocarbon rich Central Asia seems more likely to fight over water than oil, of which there is plenty. Arguably such a conflict is already under way in Israel/Palestine. Meanwhile, possession of large water reserves seems to have become grounds for jarringly nationalistic rhetoric. In Canada, it has become a commonplace of public opinion that fresh water reserves (claimed to be the largest in the world) are the national patrimony, and must not be sold internationally. Surely this will become a harder position to justify, if continents golbal warming leads to more frequent drouts elsewhere.

Arguments to the contrary include claims that collaboration is almost always more valuable--water can almost always be reused, for hydroelectric power, irrigation, or municipal supplies. Additionally, fighting over waterways requires fighting over the land that surrounds them. A state conquering these must provide for the occupying populations--including drinking water. Seizing and holding a freshwater supply is a tricky and difficult business.

The question, then, is just how desperate people and their leaders will become.
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