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Water politics

People waiting in line to gather water during the Siege of Sarajevo

Water politics, sometimes called hydropolitics, is politics affected by the availability of water and water resources, a necessity for all life forms and human development. The first use of the term, hydropolitics, came in the book Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley.[1] Arun P. Elhance's definition of hydropolitics is "the systematic study of conflict and cooperation between states over water resources that transcend international borders".[2] The availability of drinking water per capita is inadequate and shrinking worldwide.[3] The causes, related to both quantity and quality, are many and varied; they include local scarcity, limited availability and population pressures, but also human activities of mass consumption, misuse, environmental degradation and water pollution, as well as climate change.

Water's essential nature makes it a strategic natural resource globally, and in its absence, an important element of political conflicts in many areas, historically. With decreasing availability and increasing demand for water, some have predicted that clean water will become the "next oil"; making countries like Canada, Chile, Norway, Colombia and Peru, with this resource in abundance, the water-rich countries in the world.[4][5][6] The UN World Water Development Report (WWDR, 2003) from the World Water Assessment Program indicates that, in the next 20 years, the quantity of water available to everyone is predicted to decrease by 30%. Currently, 40% of the world's inhabitants have insufficient fresh water for minimal hygiene. More than 2.2 million people died in 2000 from diseases related to the consumption of contaminated water or drought. In 2004, the UK charity WaterAid reported that a child dies every 15 seconds from easily preventable water-related diseases; often this means lack of sewage disposal; see toilet. The United Nations Development Programme sums up world water distribution in the 2006 development report: "One part of the world sustains a designer bottled water market that generates no tangible health benefits, another part suffers acute public health risks because people have to drink water from drains or from lakes and rivers."[7] Fresh water — now more precious than ever in our history for its extensive use in agriculture, high-tech manufacturing, and energy production — is increasingly receiving attention as a resource requiring better management and sustainable use.

Riparian water rights have become issues of international diplomacy, in addition to domestic and regional water rights and politics ([8]). World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin predicted, "Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water unless we change the way we manage water." (,[9] p. 163).[10] This is debated by some, however, who argue that disputes over water usually are resolved by diplomacy and do not turn into wars.[11] Another new school of thought argues that "perceived fears of losing control over shared water might contribute towards a constant preparedness to go to war among riparian nations, just in case there is one." ([12]).

Water as a critical resource

Most importantly, fresh water is a fundamental requirement of all living organisms, crops, livestock and humanity included. The UNDP considers access to it a basic human right and a prerequisite for peace. The Ex-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in 2001, "Access to safe water is a fundamental human need and, therefore, a basic human right. Contaminated water jeopardizes both the physical and social health of all people. It is an affront to human dignity." With increased development, many industries, including forestry, agriculture, mining, manufacturing and recreation require sizable additional amounts of freshwater to operate. This, however, has led to increases in air and water pollution, which in turn have reduced the quality of water supply. More sustainable development practices are advantageous and necessary.

According to the WHO, each human being requires a bare minimum of 20 litres of fresh water per day for basic hygiene;[13] this equals 7.3 cubic metres (about 255 ft3) per person, per year. Based on the availability, access and development of water supplies, the specific usage figures vary widely from country to country, with developed nations having existing systems to treat water for human consumption, and deliver it to every home. At the same time however, some nations across Latin America, parts of Asia, South East Asia, Africa and the Middle East either do not have sufficient water resources or have not developed these or the infrastructure to the levels required. This occurs for many varied reasons. It has resulted in conflict and often results in a reduced level or quantity of fresh water per capita consumption; this situation leads toward disease, and at times, to starvation and death.

The source of virtually all freshwater is precipitation from the atmosphere, in the form of mist, rain and snow, as part of the water cycle over eons, millennia and in the present day. Freshwater constitutes only 3% of all water on Earth, and of that, slightly over two thirds is stored frozen in glaciers and polar ice caps.[14] The remaining unfrozen freshwater is mainly found as groundwater, with only a small fraction present in the air, or on the ground surface.[15] Surface water is stored in wetlands or lakes or flows in a stream or river, and is the most commonly utilized resource for water. In places, surface water can be stored in a reservoir behind a dam, and then used for municipal and industrial water supply, for irrigation and to generate power in the form of hydroelectricity. Sub-surface groundwater, although stored in the pore space of soil and rock; it is utilized most as water flowing within aquifers below the water table. Groundwater can exist both as a renewable water system closely associated with surface water and as a separate, deep sub-surface water system in an aquifer. This latter case is sometimes called "fossil water", and is realistically non-renewable. Normally, groundwater is utilized where surface sources are unavailable or when surface supply distribution is limited.

Rivers sometimes flow through several countries and often serve as the boundary or demarcation between them. With these rivers, water supply, allocation, control, and use are of great consequence to survival, quality of life, and economic success. The control of a nation's water resources is considered vital to the survival of a state.[16] Similar cross-border groundwater flow also occurs. Competition for these resources, particularly where limited, have caused or been additive to conflicts in the past.

Water politics by country

OECD countries

With nearly 2,000 cubic metres (70,000 ft3) of water used per person per year , the United States leads the world in water consumption per capita. Among the developed OECD countries, the U.S. is highest in water consumption, then Canada with 1,600 cubic meters (56,000 ft3) of water per person per year, which is about twice the amount of water used by the average person from France, three times as much as the average German, and almost eight times as much as the average Dane. A 2001 University of Victoria report says that since 1980, overall water use in Canada has increased by 25.7%. This is five times faster than the overall OECD increase of 4.5%. In contrast, nine OECD nations were able to decrease their overall water use since 1980 (Sweden, the Netherlands, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Poland, Finland and Denmark).[17][18]


India - Bangladesh

The Ganges is disputed between India and Bangladesh. The water reserves are being quickly depleted and polluted, while the Gangotri glacier that feeds the river is retreating hundreds of feet each year[19] (experts blame climate change[20]) and deforestation in the Himalayas, which is causing subsoil streams flowing into the Ganges river to dry up. Downstream, India controls the flow to Bangladesh with the Farakka Barrage, 10 kilometers (6 mi) on the Indian side of the border. Until the late 1990s, India used the barrage to divert the river to Calcutta, to keep the city's port from drying up during the dry season. This denied Bangladeshi farmers water and silt, and it left the Sundarban wetlands and mangrove forests at the river's delta seriously threatened. The two countries have now signed an agreement to share the water more equally. Water quality, however, remains a problem, with high levels of arsenic and untreated sewage in the river water.[20]

India - Pakistan

Cauvery dispute


In Mexico City, an estimated 40% of the city's water is lost through leaky pipes built at the turn of the 20th century.[21]

Middle East

In the Middle East, water is an important strategic resource and political issue. By 2025, it is predicted that the countries of the Arabian peninsula will be using more than double the amount of water naturally available to them.[22] According to a report by the Arab League, two-thirds of Arab countries have less than 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 ft3) of water per person per year available, which is considered the limit.[23]

Water politics is not an emerging field within international relations discourse, nor is it a force insignificant in comparison to other political pressures, such as those of critical infrastructure (for example, petroleum for the United States), or that of strategic geopolitical control (for example, control of the Suez canal or the Persian Gulf). In the context of the Middle East, with a multitude of existing national, subnational, ideological, ethnic, religious and pan-national tensions, conflicts and associations, water politics has already been considered to have played a major role in tensions between Iraq, Syria and Turkey in 1990, when Turkey commenced the Southeastern Anatolia Project (also known as GAP) to dam sections of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers north of the Syrian/Turkey border. Finding themselves without control of their waterways, Syria and Iraq formed an alliance, ignoring the previous disputes which had divided them, to confront the issue of water control. Iraq and Syria watched with apprehension the construction of the Atatürk Dam in Turkey and a projected system of 22 dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.[24]

Within the Middle East, all major rivers cross at least one international border, with rivers like the Tigris and Euphrates crossing through three major Middle Eastern nations. This means that the nations, cities and towns downstream from the next are hugely effected by the actions and decisions of other groups they have little practical control over. In particular this is evident with the cutting of water supply from one nation to the next, just as issues of air pollution affect the states surrounding that which is producing the pollution initially. It is believed that up to 50% of water required for any specific state within the Middle East finds its source in another state.

According to the BBC, the list of 'water-scarce' countries in the region grew steadily from three in 1955 to eight in 1990 with another seven expected to be added within 20 years, including three Nile nations (the Nile is shared by nine countries). According to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the only conceivable flashpoint Egypt may encounter in the 21st century is the control of fresh water resources. With substantial, but falling rates of fertility, the issue of water distribution in the Middle East will not be easily dismissed.

A recent report "Water Cooperation for a Secure World" published by Strategic Foresight Group shows that active water cooperation between countries sharing trans-boundary water resources is directly correlated with security and peace of nations involved. Conversely, absence of active water cooperation is directly correlated with risk of war between countries sharing trans-boundary water resources. This conclusion is reached after examining trans-boundary water relations in over 200 shared river basins in 148 countries.Countries in the Middle East face the risk of war as they have avoided regional cooperation for too long. The report provides examples of successful cooperation, which can be used by countries in the Middle East.[25]

The River Jordan

Jordan has little water, and dams in Syria have reduced its available water sources over the years.[26] Confronted by this lack of water, Jordan is preparing new techniques to use non-conventional water resources, such as second-hand use of irrigation water and desalinization techniques, which are very costly and are not yet used. A desalinization project will soon be started in Hisban, south of Amman. The Disi groundwater project, in the south of Jordan, will cost at least $250 million to bring out water. Along with the Al-Wehda Dam on the Yarmouk River, it is one of Jordan's largest strategic projects. The dam was first proposed in 1953 as part of the Johnston mission's Unified Plan; however, political differences between Israel and Jordan prevented construction from beginning until 2004. The dam is currently listed as a "Work in Progress" on the website of the Turkish contractor Ozaltin.[27]

Under the 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace Israel has agreed to provide 50 million cubic meters of water (1.7 billion ft3) to Jordan annually. According to the treaty the two countries would cooperate in order to allow Jordan better access to water resources, notably through dams on the Yarmouk River.[28]

The Golan Heights provide 770 million cubic meters (27 billion ft3) of water per annum to Israel, which represents a third of its annual consumption.[citation needed] The Golan's water flows into the Sea of Galilee—Israel's largest reserve—which is then redistributed throughout the country by the National Water Carrier.

Water is an important issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict—indeed, according to former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, it was one of the causes of the 1967 Six-Day War.[29] In practice the access to water has been a casus belli for Israel.[citation needed] Article 40 of the appendix B of the September 28, 1995 Oslo accords stated that "Israel recognizes Palestinians' rights on water in the West Bank".[30]

Israel obtains water from four sources: rainwater that flows naturally into the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River (~36%), the mountain aquifers (~28%), the coastal aquifer (~14%), and water recycling (~23%). Almost all the water used in the Palestinian areas other than rainwater is drawn from the underground aquifers (mountain aquifer ~52%, coastal aquifer ~48%). The Palestinian Authority has not developed any significant wastewater treatment facilities. The mountain aquifers lie mostly under the West Bank and the coastal aquifer mostly under the Israeli coastal plain. Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, including the recharge areas for aquifers that flow west and northwest into Israel and limits were placed on the amount withdrawn from each existing well. Currently, a total of 150 million cubic meters per year is consumed by its residents—115 million cubic meters per year by Palestinians and 35 million cubic meters per year by Israelis.[31] Water usage issues have been part of a number of agreements reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. For these reasons, the question of water supply for both Israel and a potential future state of Palestine is a very serious issue in a comprehensive agreement.

South America

The Guaraní Aquifer, located between the Mercosur countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, with a volume of about 40,000 km³, is an important source of fresh potable water for all four countries. It is replenished by water from rains and small rivers and streams, mainly on its margins. As populational growth in its area is still relatively high (the feeder areas of the aquifer, especially the wettest ones, may locate even important and big metropolitan areas such as São Paulo and Curitiba), monitoring is required to avoid deplenishing, and pollution, that would be associated with the still very weak environmental legislation concerning farming and with the still low performance of the coverage of sanitation (mainly in the form of discharge of untreated sewage and exposed untreated garbage, including urban, what potentializes problems associated with flooding), in the countries affected.

United States

For general information, see:

For specific disputes and concerns, see:

Case studies: Africa

Obuasi, Ghana is the home of one of the world’s top gold mining sites. It was in 1897 when the first machinery was used to mine the gold from the region.[32] As the years went by, new strategies were needed to establish out ways to "treat the ores".[32] By 1908, A leading chemist was brought in to help with the strategies and brought his Australian method of "dry crushing and roasting preparatory to treatment with cyanide".[32] Many rivers, fishing areas, and irrigation systems have been either slightly or permanently damaged.[33] The mining industry has tried to compensate by building standpipes but for many, they have been to no use. The average amount of contamination in the water system of Obuasi was over 10–38 times the maximum amount that is allowable by law.[34] The two main sources of the contamination is the arsenic powder that flows out from the mills [35] and the extensive amount of run-off water that is disposed of through dams.[36] "Thus in the processing of the ore for gold, the dust may contain particles of the ore, ferric oxide, oxides of arsenic and sulphur".[37] The dust will then get carried into the atmosphere and settle on the soil, humans, and rivers.[38] In Obuasi, they receive a high annual rainfall due to the tropical rainforest that surrounds it (Smedley,1996,464). During precipitation or rainfall, the dust "may be oxidized to the trioxide by the air and be converted to the sulphate in dew and rainwater".[38] The soil is the main target of contamination because the soil is contaminated and whatever vegetation grows and decays goes right back in the soil which results in the contamination of the groundwater.[38] However, the groundwater is not as polluted as the streams or rivers mainly due to the high dissolving process of the arsenic and due to the basement rocks that lie between the groundwater and the soil. "The only disadvantage is that whatever is deposited on the surface soil may be carried to greater depths with time by rainwater (Gish et al,2010, 1973)".[37] The most extensively damaged areas are the ones closest to the mines, but with the wind carrying the dust, areas hundreds of miles away are getting contaminated by the chemicals.[39] Due to the extensive output of the chemicals from the mining mills and un resolved toxic spills, many rivers, streams, lakes and irrigation systems have been damaged or obsolete.[40] The local residents have been affected greatly by this phenomenon. Residents have seen the environmental changes especially in the water. Sludge floats down on streams that were once main sources of drinking water according to local residents.[41] All the marine life in the rivers and streams has died due to the high amounts of chemicals in the water.[42] According to Action Aid, residents have seen pipes that run straight into local streams and rivers that were depositing the waste directly sometimes causing flooding of the streams and rivers (2006,11). Many local farmers suffered the hardest with the contamination of the water. Due to the irrigation systems using the contaminated water to irrigate all of the soil were then contaminated as well.[33] The soil was no longer usable, causing the killing off their crops that were used for their business as well as for their own families.[33] Children have also been targeted and affected by the pollution. According to Action Aid, many schools have been flooded with the over flow of the local streams, causing the children to leave school, sometimes permanently. AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) has put up standpipes to compensate for the contaminated water supplies, but these have also been useless to the locals. Standpipes were installed in the 1940s and 50’s that have now been contaminated with arsenic from the mills.[43] AGA staff claim it is because of them being made of iron, but studies have shown large amounts of arsenic in the water.[43] Many standpipes have been either broken or obsolete.[33] This leads to the residents to walk at least 1.5 miles to go get clean water.[44] All the work the local people have to go through to get clean water is uncalled for. No compensation has been giving to the local residents for the damage they have done to their water and environment.


Privatization of water companies has been contested on several occasions because of poor water quality, increasing prices, and ethical concerns. In Bolivia for example, the proposed privatization of water companies by the International Monetary Fund was met by popular protests in Cochabamba in 2000, which ousted Bechtel, a US engineering firm based in San Francisco. Suez has started retreating from South America because of similar protests in Buenos Aires, Santa Fe, and Córdoba, Argentina.[45] Consumers took to the streets to protest water rate hikes of as much as 500% mandated by Suez. In South and Central America, Suez has water concessions in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Mexico. "Bolivian officials fault Suez for not connecting enough households to water lines as mandated by its contract and for charging as much as $455 a connection, or about three times the average monthly salary of an office clerk", according to the Mercury News.[46]

South Africa also made moves to privatize water, provoking an outbreak of cholera that killed 200.[47]

In 1997, World Bank consultants assisted the Philippine government in the privatization of the city of Manila's Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage Systems (MWSS). By 2003, water price increases registered at 81% in the east zone of the Philippines and 36% in the west region. As services became more expensive and inefficient under privatization, there was reduced access to water for poor households. In October 2003, the Freedom from Debt Coalition reported that the diminished access to clean water resulted in an outbreak of cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases.[48]

See also



  1. ^ John Waterbury (1979). Hydropolitics of the Nile Valley. Syracuse University Press. ISBN 0-8156-2192-2. 
  2. ^ Arun P. Elhance (1999). Hydropolitics in the 3rd World: Conflict and cooperation in International River Basins. US Institute of Peace Press. p. 3. 
  3. ^ "World's supply of fresh water shrinking dramatically: report". CBC News. March 5, 2003. 
  4. ^ Total Renewable Fresh Water Supply By Country
  5. ^ Peter Lawrence et al. "The Water Poverty Index : an International Comparison", Keele Economics Research Papers, 2002
  6. ^ A Chronology of Water-Related Conflicts
  7. ^ UNDP Human Development Report 2006 United Nations Development Programme, 2006.
  8. ^ Rahaman, M. M. (Ed.) (2012) Special Issue: Water Wars in 21st Century along International Rivers Basins: Speculation or Reality?, International Journal of Sustainable Society, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2, 193 pages.
  9. ^ Serageldin, I. (2009) ‘Water: conflicts set to arise within as well as between states’, Nature, Vol. 459, p.163.
  10. ^ Where Oil and Water Do Mix: Environmental Scarcity and Future Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa
  11. ^ Barnaby, W., 2009. Do nations go to war over water? Nature, Vol. 458, 282-283
  12. ^ Rahaman, M.M. (2012) Water Wars in 21st Century: Speculation or Reality?, International Journal of Sustainable Society, Vol. 4, Nos. 1/2, pp. 3-10. DOI:10.1504/IJSSOC.2012.044658
  13. ^ Water: A Human Right
  14. ^ "Earth's water distribution". United States Geological Survey. Retrieved 2009-05-13. 
  15. ^ "Scientific Facts on Water: State of the Resource". GreenFacts Website. Retrieved 2008-01-31. 
  16. ^ Daclon Corrado Maria, Geopolitics of Environment, A Wider Approach to the Global Challenges, Comunità Internazionale, Italy, 2007
  17. ^ Water consumption indicator in the OECD countries
  18. ^ Sutherland, Ben (March 17, 2003). "Golf 'is water hazard'". BBC News. 
  19. ^ "Decline in the retreat of Gangotri glacier: Study". The Times Of India. February 10, 2008. 
  20. ^ a b "Ganges river - water hot spots". BBC News. n.d. 
  21. ^ "Mexico City - Water hot spots". BBC Newsnight. 2008-08-18. 
  22. ^ Sutherland, Ben (March 18, 2003). "Water shortages 'foster terrorism'". BBC News. 
  23. ^ "Major aspects of scarce water resources management with reference to the Arab countries", Arab League report published for the International Conference on water gestion and water politics in arid zones, in Amman, Jordan, December 1–3, 1999. Quoted by French journalist Christian Chesnot in "Drought in the Middle East". Monde diplomatique. February 2000.  - French original version freely available here.
  24. ^ "Turkey - water hot spots". BBC News. n.d. 
  25. ^ Water Cooperation for a Secure World, Strategic Foresight Group
  26. ^ Bromberg, Gidon (18 September 2008). "Will the Jordan River Keep on Flowing?". Yale Environment 360. Yale University. Retrieved 2010-05-25. 
  27. ^
  28. ^ See 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace, annex II, article II, first paragraph
  29. ^ "Analysis: Middle East water wars, by Abel Darwish". BBC News. May 30, 2003. 
  30. ^ See Christian Chesnot in "Drought in the Middle East". Le Monde diplomatique. February 2000.  - French original version freely available here.
  31. ^ 08
  32. ^ a b c "Ashanti Company History" (PDF). AngloGold Ashanti. 2005. 
  33. ^ a b c d Action Aid,2006,3
  34. ^ Action Aid,2006, 9
  35. ^ Golow et al., 703
  36. ^ Action Aid,2006,9
  37. ^ a b Golow et al.,2010, 703
  38. ^ a b c Golow et al.,2010,703
  39. ^ Golow et al.,2010,706
  40. ^ Action Aid,2006, 5
  41. ^ Action Aid,2006, 3
  42. ^ ActionAid,2006, 3
  43. ^ a b Action Aid,2006,15
  44. ^ Action Aid,2006,16
  45. ^ WATER-LATIN AMERICA: Suez Packs Its Bags and Won't Be Back
  46. ^ "Bolivia's water wars coming to end under Morales". Mercury News. February 26, 2006. 
  47. ^ "Water privatisation: ask the experts". BBC News. December 10, 2004. 
  48. ^ "Rights Education Empowers People in the Philippines". Aurora Parong. 1995. 

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