“We need to make a distinction between violent conflict and conflict itself,” Mark Zeitoun, researcher with the London Water Research Group, a part of the Centre for Environmental Policy at King’s College and the London School of Economics told IPS.
“There are no examples of states engaging in violent conflict strictly over water resources. But water is often an element in violent conflicts, and there are conflicts that fall short of war. Absence of war does not mean absence of conflict.”
At the sub-national level there are many instances of violent conflict over water, he said. “In Chad, in Western Darfour, you have different tribes, sometimes members of the same tribe fighting over limited resources of water.”
There is a conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile waters, he said. “Ethiopians in the highlands are unable to irrigate their land and develop hydroelectric projects as they would like to. Israelis and Palestinians are not fighting over water, but Israel controls 90 percent of trans-boundary flows that Palestinians have very little ability to control, and there is deep resentment over this on the Palestinian side.”
Water issues are always subordinate to the larger political context, he said. “Turkey is building dams on the Tigris and Euphrates, to the detriment of the interests of Iraq and Syria. But relations have been improving between Turkey and both Syria and Iraq, and there is more cooperation than there was three years ago, even though Turkey continues to build the dams whether Iraq and Syria want them or not.”
Water issues would by these patterns not erupt if larger political relations improve. But they are an element in several conflict situations, and also a cause of conflict that is not always violent.
But water has a way of flowing into political conflict very easily.
Privatisation of water spilled over into political conflict in Bolivia. “People took to the streets, there were some very difficult moments, and several people died in the violence,” Vicky Cann from the World Development Movement, an independent research and campaigns group told IPS.
“Water has a political dimension in many ways,” she said. “There is enough fresh water to go around, but access to it can be a political issue, and privatization is worsening that situation.”
Conflicts over water are “very definitely an issue, and will only grow when you think in terms of the impact of climate change in the future.”
Water is often at the core of development, and that relates directly to levels of people satisfaction — a deeply political matter for any government in its dealings either domestically or with other countries.
An earlier report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) warned of the potential for conflict that may arise in the Awash Valley in Ethiopia.
The report by Alan Nicol of the School of Oriental and African Studies, with Yacob Arsano of the University of Addis Ababa and Dr Joanne Raisin of the University of Bradford looked at a wide range of risks of violent conflict which the EU may need to address in the Horn of Africa.
The report does not hold out scenarios of water wars, but says that access to natural resources can exacerbate tensions. The caution came in the context of a difficulty with Egypt over sharing of Nile waters.
The report says that local pastoralists “who have insufficient access to land and water resources have already come into conflict with institutions at various levels.”
In the long term, it says “competition and ensuing conflict, whether actual or latent, may exacerbate environmental degradation further, increasing future risk of conflict, particularly during periods of drought.” (END/2007)