Why are there no water wars?

Posted: April 25, 2012 by Hannah Tankard in Adaptation, Economics/Trade, Water
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

You’ve probably never asked yourself this question; to be honest, I hadn’t even considered it until I took a module about water as part of my disasters Master’s. As my kind blog reviewer pointed out, people may think the term “water wars” refers to people playing with “water bombs and super soakers in the back garden”. Alas, no: my definition of water wars is probably better phrased as “water conflicts,” which occur due to limited or unfair access to trans-boundary water. Water is a vital resource: it sustains life by quenching our thirst and growing our food.  Perhaps now you are pondering – really, why are there no water wars?

Namibia - where the mean rainfall is 285 mm/year, making it one of the driest countries worldwide! They overcome lack of water by trading mainly with South Africa.

Today this question is of increasing importance for multiple reasons. You may have heard of droughts in East Africa, or seen articles about the looming drought crisis in the Sahel. Indeed, you may live in the southeast of England and realise that even the UK can suffer from drought. Yet a lack of water has not led to any military conflict. Conflicts today seem to be about oil or corrupt leaders, but never about water.

How do water scarce countries, such as Israel or Egypt, have enough food to feed their populations? How have they not resorted to conflict when water is such a vital resource to grow food?

The answer is that countries participate in trade to relieve their scarce water supplies. If they don’t trade, then they rely on food aid. Even if they do not know it, the reason why countries like Israel or Egypt have not experienced a water war is that they make up for the lack of water by actively trading food. This water-trade nexus has been termed ‘Virtual Water’, a phrase coined by the profound work of Professor Tony Allan.

Professor Allan became has become increasingly aware of the importance of water in agriculture through his research based in Egypt. Although everyone requires freshwater water for drinking and sanitation, this, along with industry as a percentage of global total water consumption is about 30%. This means a whopping 70% of all freshwater is used in agriculture. Pastoral farming uses the most water: not only do the animals themselves require it to drink, but also the fodder they eat requires water to grow; this means that meat is a water-heavy food product. Crops such as wheat are also water-intensive, whereas legumes tend to be less so.

So, what is the solution for water-scarce countries? The classic example is to export food with a high market value that require less water to produce or grow, such as peppers and mange-tout, and to import crops that require more water to produce. The water tower house of the world, Brazil, should capitalise on its advantage by trading water-intensive products, like meat, to the rest of the world. They are yet to maximise the positive links between high water-endowment and the global economy.

How does this solution prevent water wars? It means that the scarce water that places like Namibia, Spain, Israel and Kenya have can be used for vital domestic purposes. By growing crops that require less water, there is more chance that there will be a reduction in water lost due to evaporation. Through reducing reliance on irrigation, countries are less likely to resort to water extraction from trans-boundary sources, such as the River Nile. The Nile has several countries competing for its resources; conflict could easily ensue if one country extracted more than its fair share. However, countries can still participate in the global economy by exporting less water-intense crops and non-food products. Non-food products could include trading electricity from harnessing wind and solar energy. This solution is better suited for dry climates, and is better for the environment too!

A weir: part of an irrigation system in Western Kenya, an area prone to drought. Could trade relieve water-scarcity?

A weir: Part of an irrigation system in Western Kenya, an area prone to drought. Could trade relieve water-scarcity?

As long as countries are open to trade, then water wars will continue to be prevented. Self-sufficiency is certainly not the answer for water-poor areas. Trade, and increased water efficiency in agriculture, should mean that that there will be enough water for all, regardless of where you are in the world.

  1. majorbobbins says:

    How about they only steal water supplies from weak neighbours, or as part of ongoing conflicts, for example Isreal and Palestine, leaving water conflict hidden.

  2. Cait says:

    Hmm, I don’t think you’ve considered Sudan in this post. An integral portion of the conflict in Darfur was the fact that those from the more arid north wanted the land of the more water-rich south. Of course this is one of many factors, but a very important one.

    • Cait says:

      As well, though this was a conflict (genocide) that occurred within a single country, the instability caused by it led to Chad being affected both through refugees seeking safety there as well as through altercations across the border.

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