Maheen Ahmed works at a policy-based thinktank in Islamabad and contributes articles to The Express Tribune. Maheen Ahmed works at a policy-based thinktank in Islamabad and contributes articles to The Express Tribune.
The more worrying point of contention is not whether water will be used as a weapon of choice, but rather, how much water will there be for us, to begin with.
One of the most widely cited assertions in the contemporary era comes from Ismail Serageldin, the former Vice President of the World Bank when he predicted in the mid-1990s that all the wars of the new millennium would be fought over water.
Perhaps it would not be a disservice to history to suggest that nations, while surely having prospered because of water, also bore ineluctable conflict because of it all the same. This most precious resource on the planet has undoubtedly been the bane for many of these civilizations, by no means as fleeting as their time in existence. The example of two Mesopotamian city-states is the case in point wherein the King of Lagash diverted water towards his boundary canals and successfully deprived Umma,
the neighbouring region in the North West of Babylonia, from its water supply. Such a tale is marked in history as one of oldest recorded examples of a water conflict and has gone on to serve as a woeful precedent, of conflict borne out of dire need of water for survival. During the course of the succeeding centuries, industry-led growth, agricultural demands, and exponential population growth only increased man’s dependence on water. Water became scarce and with it, conflict ensued. In fact, since the Babylonian conflict, the world has witnessed over two hundred similar recorded instances. Given that 286 water basins cross international boundaries, accounting for nearly half of the Earth’s land area, it is no wonder that nations throughout history have come at odds with one another whilst sharing their water resources.
Perhaps then, it was not completely unconventional for Ismail Serageldin to suggest the notion of water wars. As such, a considerable amount of international attention, a plethora of academic disquisitions and several bilateral as well as multilateral diplomatic initiatives have belaboured the risk and danger of a water conflict. Just recently, the Water, Peace and Security Partnership (WPS) launched a ground-breaking tool to predict the risk of violent conflicts. The mechanism, using farmer protests as a measure
for the onset of a period of water scarcity, predicted the inevitability of a water conflict between Pakistan and India.
Concern over water wars has gained renewed traction as the world inches closer to a population totalling ten billion persons. Analysts caution
that owing to climate change and increasingly polluted waterways, the world will witness a more acute water crisis, triggering social unrest and mass migration. Water risks, inclusive of, but not exclusive to droughts and floods, which as of late have been exacerbated by climate change, have been posed as threat multipliers, contributing to famine and displacement, while also serving as catalysts for conflict.
However, even confronted with the gravity of the threat faced, a closer look will reveal that water- borne geopolitical disputes are as likely to be resolved as they are to escalate, if not more so. In fact, water-sharing agreements have traditionally been diplomatic successes, around the positive- sum criteria that ensures development and human prosperity. Studies reveal that nations have been more inclined towards cooperation over freshwater resources than towards conflict, which is demonstrable through an excess of 3,600 cross-border treaties between countries that share international waters.
Focusing solely on the risks of transboundary water conflicts undermines a more omnipotent threat. The more worrying point of contention is not whether water will be used as a weapon of choice, but rather, how much water will there be for us, to begin with. As per a global risks report, water scarcity is one of the world’s ten gravest risks. As it is, a quarter of the world’s population lives in extremely water-stressed areas, which means the lives of nearly one billion people stand to be impacted due to water scarcity by 2025.
This does not paint a rosy picture for a water-scarce country like Pakistan, which sits with a water availability level falling below 1,000 cubic metres per person. One would consider this ironic because Pakistan has been naturally endowed with one of the largest irrigation systems in
the world, the Indus River system. It is blessed with waters that flow from the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea and a climate that brings monsoon rains seasonally. However, the Indus Water Basin has already been marked as one of the most stressed basins of the world. With exponential population growth and increased demand for agricultural, commercial, and domestic use, there is an additional burden on Pakistan, like other countries, to provide an adequate supply of water. Subsequently, Pakistan has been unable to prudently manage its water resources.
Add declining storage capacity, falling water tables, ageing infrastructure, uneconomic cropping patterns, rapid urbanization, growing industrial demand, inadequate laws for water usage and reuse, and water contamination to Pakistan’s water woes. Ranked as the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, Pakistan has experienced a number of floods and long spells of droughts in recent years, which will only further complicate its water troubles. While the rain pattern in Pakistan is of high magnitude, it is of low frequency, which means rain may be insufficient to raise the groundwater level and increased temperatures will increase glacier melt and evaporation rates. The water quantity will not only decline but will also become erratic.
It is important to note and to drive home the narrative that water scarcity is not merely borne out of geopolitical conflict, but is aggravated
by various issues including climate change and mismanagement of water resources. Changing the narrative on water security is important, because only then can one move away from thinking of water as a source of conflict, and recognize it as a tool for cooperation instead.
Despite the post-apocalyptic and sensational headlines of water wars, the future of water wars still remains unclear. Thankfully, predictions have not come true yet. Looking to the future, attention ought to be redrawn to address
the world’s more urgent water challenges. Investment and expertise could be better harnessed to focus on water management, such as effectively providing clean water to areas where it is unavailable and ensuring more sustainable water use.
Perhaps it is time to finally focus on water management as a potential solution to the problem.