The war of the future may well be fought over water, if the growing scarcity of water in many nations is any pointer. Only about 0.08 per cent of all the earth’s water is usable — the rest is either too salty or taken up by the glaciers or the ice-cap. As the human population has increased, so has water consumption. For example, since 1950, the population has gone up from 2.5 billion to about 6 billion, while the supply of freshwater per person has declined by almost 58 per cent.
Water consumption is expected to rise further by almost 40 per cent in the next 20 years, so that by 2020, the average water supply per person will become less than one-third of what it is now. The magnitude of the crisis may be gauged from the fact that at present close to one-third of the world’s population does not have access to running water. Countries such as Algeria, Cambodia and Gambia have already begun rationing their domestic water provisions, apportioning residents with as little as six litres per day.
It is hardly surprising then that water is a potential source of conflict. Historically, there may have been only one actual war over water — fought 4,500 years ago between the city-states of Lagash and Umma — but many disagreements were settled without the disputants actually going to war. Until 1984, an estimated 3,600 treaties over water had been signed. But given the scarcity and mismanagement of water resources, today’s cooperation may soon be a thing of the past.
Take, for instance, the Nile, which flows through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. There have been many disputes among these three nations over using the Nile waters for irrigation and power generation. In 1991, Cairo warned its neighbours that it could resort to force to defend its access to the Nile. Another source of conflict is the river Cuito which runs through Angola and the Caprivi Strip in Namibia before flowing into the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey share the riverine system of the Tigris-Euphrates. But close to 20 per cent of its flow has dried up. Hence, this is a potential source of conflict in the future. In the United States of America, water disputes often take on an intra- or inter-state dimension. Alabama, Florida and Georgia source their water from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basin. Water scarcity has given rise to competition between the states over access to the rivers.
Water scarcity has already become quite a problem in many parts of the world. In February 1999, Thailand experienced a terrible drought which affected as many as 44 provinces. The Metropolitan Waterworks in Bangkok was forced to cut water supply by almost 10 per cent. In August 2000, Santiago de Cuba in eastern Cuba faced a severe water shortage. Some parts of the city went without water for almost 20 days, while elsewhere, water was supplied for two-three hours a day only.
Water continues to be rationed in many parts of Algeria. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Harare, Ethiopia, many families do not have access to running water—they depend on tankers for their daily needs. In India, the Ganges provides water to 350 million people but mismanagement, pollution and a growing population have led to water scarcity in many towns and cities, notably Delhi.
The future lies in paying heed to the warnings of the present. It is time we learnt to conserve water and use it responsibly. Irrigation systems that prevent waste and less water-intensive crops are other options. It is important to protect rivers from pollution and clean already polluted river basins. At present, groundwater is resorted to to reduce dependence on rainfall and surface water. But this may worsen the situation since nothing is being done to replenish the groundwater.
It will take political will on the part of governments and greater awareness among citizens to ensure enough water supply in the future.